Throughout history, any time a populace is oppressed and placed into forced labour, groups often form and rebel. They are often fought for the right of self-determination, freedom, and liberty. These came with varying levels of success, with some being defeated before they even began, to others freeing an entire country. So let’s get down to some of the major Slave Rebellions throughout history.
Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1831)
One of the most famous Slave Rebellions in US History, Nat Turner, driven by prophetic visions and a sense of purpose, led a rebellion. This rebellion was one of the only sustained Slave Rebellions in the United States. The final sign that Nat Turner needed for the start of his rebellion was an eclipse of the sun. On August 21, 1931, Nat and 6 other slaves murdered the Travis family (who owned them), seized their weapons, and their horses. They bolstered their forces with an additional 60-75 slaves and freed blacks (it’s debated the exact number). This small army organized and attacked, and killed, upwards of 50-60 white people from neighbouring houses (all of which presumably had slaves as well). This lead to white militias confronting Nat Turner’s forces, which quickly lead to a rout of Nat Turner’s forces. Nat himself managed to hide in the surrounding area for around 6 weeks before being caught. He was executed in Jerusalem, Virginia, and an angry mob tore his dead body down, and skinned him. His head was located at Wooster College, Ohio for a while, and supposedly there is a purse made of his skin. His rebellion also caused the already strict slavery laws, to become even stricter (which was a heavy part of the cause of the Civil War). Amongst the aftermath, Virginia and a few other states went really restrictive, forbidding all slaves, free blacks, and mulattoes to read or write, and from holding religious gatherings without an appointed white minister being present (because they feared that intelligent black people would lead to more rebellions as they sought freedom and equality).
The Third Servile War (73-71 BC)
The Third Servile War was the third major slave rebellion in the Roman Empire, and it was also the most successful (and well-known). Why was this one so well-known? Well, let’s start with the leader of this rebellion. This was none other than Spartacus (you know, the one that has been heavily romanticized with several movies and TV series). Initially started by Spartacus and a few other gladiators with nothing but kitchen utensils, it quickly spread to a massive army that defeated a siege and 2 legions (each legion being roughly 5000 soldiers). The rebellion swelled to roughly 120,000 former slaves and even poor Romans. Unfortunately that massive swelling was also a big part of why it failed, without a defined line of command, and several factions (often splitting based on ethnic grounds, remember that the Romans imported Slaves from pretty much everywhere they came in contact with) arising. Spartacus himself died in battle, but by the end, roughly 6000 rebels were crucified (yeah, the Romans definitely had a thing for crucifixion). Part of the legacy of the Third Servile War was that Spartacus had inspired many others throughout history. Karl Marx claimed Spartacus as a personal hero, and representative of the ancient proletariat. And Toussaint Louverture (leader of the Haitian revolution, freeing Haiti from French rule) was also known as the “Black Spartacus”.
Spartacus (as portrayed in the TV series Spartacus)
Gaspar Yanga’s Rebellion (1570)
Gaspar Yanga was an African slave from where modern-day Gabon (rumored to be a member of the royal family of the Brann people) who was captured and sold into slavery where he ended up in Mexico. New Spain also had the largest amount of African slaves in the Americas after Brazil. But, Mexico also had the largest amount of free-Blacks in the New World. In 1570 he lead a band of slaves to an isolated area near Veracruz, where they formed their own free colony. For around 30 years they remained undisturbed. By 1609, the Spanish colonial forces attacked the settlement with roughly 550 soldiers. Yanga was quite old at the time, so his role in his free colonies defense was mostly a strategic one, while the forces were led by Francisco de la Matosa (a former Angolan slave). The original settlement got burned down, but with their familiarity of the surrounding region (more so than the Spanish forces), it resulted in a stalemate, with large amounts of losses on both sides. Eventually, by 1618 the Spanish government negotiated a peace, granting Yanga (by this point into his 70’s), and was considered a part of the Spanish Empire on condition that runaway slaves, if their owners came for them, were returned, and that the Franciscan priests were to be the regions priests and doctors. By 1630, his people founded the city San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo (named after one of the early priests, and the freed slaves). By 1932 it was renamed the Yanga Municipality, and is located in the modern Veracruz province of Mexico. Yanga’s legacy includes being named a national hero of Mexico (in 1871), and was given the title “El Primer Libertador de las Americas” or “The First Liberator of the Americas”. The Spanish Inquisitors were known to have kept extensive records on him because of his tenacity and desire for freedom.
Statue of Gaspar Yanga
The Zanj Revolt (869-883 AD)
The Zanj Revolt (or Zanj Rebellion) is named after the Bantu speaking Zanj people of East Africa, who spearheaded a rather large rebellion against the Abbasid Caliphate in the Middle East. Started by ‘Ali ibn Muhammed in the Basra region of modern-day Iraq. Several notable Muslim historians have pointed out that this rebellion is one of the most violent and brutal rebellions the region had ever seen. The slaves brought to the region were tasked with making the nearby marshlands arable again, which required intensive physical labour. As such, the work conditions were quite awful, as were the living conditions. ‘Ali adopted many of the egalitarian doctrines of the Kharijites (the followers of a sect of Islam), including the slogan “The most qualified man should reign, even if he was an Abyssinian (Ethiopian) slave”. As he was building his rebellion he focused on gathering primarily Zanj slaves, but other slaves, free peasants, small merchants, and even Bedouin tribes joined him as well. The combat started in Iraq and South-West Iran, and quickly spread. The Zanj rebels became quite adept at surviving through raiding and hit-and-run tactics that are still employed by guerrilla fighters today. A favourite tactic was to hit a village or town in the night, seize any weapons, food, and supplies they could. They would then free the slaves, and then burn the rest of the village/town down. After a couple of years, the rebel territory was taxed by ‘Ali, they minted their own coins, and constructed fortresses and cities. Around 879 the Abbasid Caliphate sent a massive force to put down this rebellion, headed by the Caliph’s son (and future Caliph), Abu al-‘Abbas. The rebels were pushed to their final stronghold (Al-Mukhtara) by 881, and after 2 years of being besieged, were finally defeated in 883. During al-Mukhtara’s fall, ‘Ali and most his commanders were killed, and the Caliph offered the remaining soldiers to surrender or be killed. The total cost of life from this rebellion is tough to determine, as every source gives some huge variables. It is estimated to be around 1.5 million though (The battle of Basra itself had 300,000 casualties), though some estimates have them as high as 2.5 million. The amount of forces, weapons, lives, and money used by the Abbasids meant that other countries and empires were taking advantage of the weakened and lessened forces in other parts of the Caliphate. Egypt freed itself for roughly 3 decades, while the Byzantines took much of Turkey during this period (and funded a semi-successful revolution in the area that is modern-day Bahrain).
The Haitian Revolution (1791)
This one is a big one. It is the first and only slave rebellion to result in a lasting state. Starting in 1791, and lasting until 1804, this conflict killed as many as 200,000 blacks, thousands of mulattoes, and around 100,000 French and British soldiers. Because, while the rebellion started in 1791 against France. Of course, France and Britain went to war with eachother, and the French Revolution (1789-1799) also occurred during this period. One of the things Robespierre did during his “Reign of Terror” was outlaw slavery. The 1793 constitution banning it was not ratified, but the 1795 constitution did ban it. This caused a lot of the slave owners in Saint-Domingue (the name of Haiti under French imperialism), to work with the English against the rebels as well. All in all, the free slaves, and freemen, mulattoes and even some Europeans fought England, France, and Spain to maintain their freedom. The early slave rebellions of 1791 were spearheaded by Georges Biassou, and the later fights were often fought by future first president of the Haitian Republic, Toussaint Louverture, and second president/first emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines. To be fair, a breakdown of the revolutions combatants should be listed. In 1791-1793, it was Ex-Slaves, some French Royalists, and Spain vs Slave Owners, the French Kingdom, and French Republicans. From 1793-1798 it was French Royalists, England, and Spain vs the French Republicans and Ex-Slaves (this was the period where slavery was banned by the French Republicans, and they were giving black people in the colonies civil and political rights, so they fought on the same side here). Then in 1799-1801 you had a bit of infighting amongst the Revolutionaries, with Toussaint Louverture and his armies in Northern Haiti fighting Andre Rigaud and the armies of Southern Haiti (while Rigaud did want Haiti to be free, he supported the plantation style caste system where Whites were superior, Mulattoes were in the middle, and Blacks were still at the bottom of the pole). From 1802-1804 you had free Haiti with some help from England fighting Napoleonic France and Spain. Ultimately, Haiti did win it’s freedom, having fought against and with, the French, English, and Spanish in order to maintain it. And that alone, makes this the most successful slave rebellion in history.
For More Information/Further Reading on these conflicts:
Nat Turner: “Literacy and Liberation” by Kim Warren, “American Negro Slave Revolts” and “Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion” by Herbert Aptheker, and “The Land Shall be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt” by Patrick H. Breen
The Third Servile War: “The Spartacus War” by Barry Strauss, “This History of Rome” by Titus Livius (Livy), “Spartacus and the Slave Wars: a brief history with documents” by Brent Shaw, “The Enemies of Rome” by Philip Matyszak
Gaspar Yanga: “Slaves, Subjects, and Subversives: Blacks in Colonial Latin America” by Jane Lander and Barry Robinson
The Zanj Rebellion: A large amount of what we know about this rebellion comes from the text “History of Prophets and Kings” by Tarikh al-Tabari
The Haitian Revolution: “Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution” by Laurent Dubois, “A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution” by Jeremy D. Popkin, “Lecture on Haiti” by Frederick Douglass
Further Reading for Other Slave Revolts
“Cry Liberty: The Great Stono River Slave Rebellion of 1739” by Peter Charles Hoffer
“Rethinking Slave Rebellion in Cuba: La Escalera and the Insurgencies of 1841-1844” by Aisha K. Finch
“In Resistance: Studies in African, Caribbean, and Afro-American History” by Gary Y. Okihiro
” Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802″ by Douglas R. Egerton