Teach our children African resistances to enslavement, and liberate their minds
OUR CHILDREN MUST LEARN THAT AFRICANS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN DEFIANT; THEY HAVE ALWAYS RESISTED SLAVERY FROM DAY ONE UNTIL TO THIS DAY. A white man would always tell his story that he woke up early one morning and voluntarily decided to end slavery out of his good will. Nonsense! He wants our children to learn that his forefathers, ancestors, were useless bunch because a white man can enslave them and then decides to end enslavement of Africans without any difficulty, if he decides so.
African resistance to enslavement and captives’ rebellion against the conditions of slavery were natural reactions to the transatlantic slave trade. It has always been hell of a battle to capture and enslave Africans; a task which without military interventions the whole process was totally impossible. The white
Resistance to slavery had a long history, beginning in Africa itself. Rebellion would reach its peak in 1791, when the enslaved people of the French colony of St Domingue defeated three European powers to establish the first Black republic: Haiti.
According to the slave owners, ‘slaves were notoriously lazy and ill disposed to labour’, which illustrates that daily resistance, was permeating. The enslaved also engaged in acts of non-cooperation, petty theft and sabotage, as well as countless acts of insubordination.
Sometimes enslaved Africans would resort to more open or violent means of resistance, including the poisoning of animals and owners, and sometimes turned it against themselves by committing infanticide, self-mutilation and suicide. It was not unusual for slaves to absent themselves from enslavement for a few hours or a few days, regardless of the punishment they might receive on their return. It is estimated that about 10% of all the enslaved took such action.
In African societies, there are many examples of opposition to the transatlantic slave trade. One of the earliest documented is the correspondence of the Kongo ruler Nzinga Mbemba, also known as Afonso I, who wrote to the king of Portugal, João III, in 1526 to demand an end to the illegal depopulation of his kingdom. The Kongolese king’s successor Garcia II made similar unsuccessful protests. He wrote many letters and even sent few of his lieutenants to negotiate with the Portugal King, but they where captured and enslaved as well.
Other African rulers took a stand. For instance, in the early 17th century Nzinga Mbandi (1583–1663), queen of Ndongo (modern-day Angola), fought against the Portuguese – part of a century-long campaign of resistance waged by the kingdom against the slave trade. Anti-slavery motives can also be found in the activities of the Christian leader Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita in 1706 in Kongo.
Several major African states took measures to limit and suppress the slave trade, including the kingdoms of Benin and Dahomey. Agaja Trudo, the king of Dahomey, in 1733, banned the slave trade and even went as far as attacking the European forts on the coast. Unfortunately, Agaja Trudo’s successor did not share his view and profited from engaging in the trade.
Several Muslim states in West Africa, including Futa Toro in the Senegal River basin in the late 18th century and, in the early 19th, Futa Jallon in what is now Guinea, were opposed to the trafficking of humans. In Futa Jallon, the religious leader Abd al-Qadir wrote a letter to British slave traders threatening death to anyone who tried to procure slaves in his country.
Many ordinary Africans also took measures to protect themselves from enslavement. Flight was the most obvious method, but there is also evidence that many Africans moved their villages to more inaccessible areas or took other measures to protect them. In his Narrative, Olaudah Equiano mentions some of the defensive measures that were taken in his own village.
It is reported that, when the English slave trader John Hawkins attempted to kidnap people to enslave them in the late 16th century, he was resisted. It is also said that communities of Africans who had fled from and escaped enslavement settled on the Cape Verde, and Cape Town, and other islands off the west coast of Africa. Other reports tell of coastal residents who refused to load slave ships with supplies and of many escapes from the forts that held enslaved Africans prior to transport across the Atlantic.
We have learned about the Anglo-Pedi wars, between 17th and 19th century, where the King of Bapedi; from King Thulare to King Sekhukhune I, have fought brave battles with the white man to resist conquest and slavery.
By the time the first white traders arrived at Port Natal in 1824, Shaka was in control of a centralized monarchy of the Zulu Kingdom, which spanned the entire eastern coastal belt from the Pongola River in the north to the lands beyond the Tugela in the south. That year, Henry Francis Fynn and Francis Farewell visited Shaka. But Shaka, besides welcoming the white man in the beginning, he did not succumb to slavery and the capture of this own people into slavery. He fought with them and won in numerous occasions.
It is now estimated that, during 1 in 10 of all Atlantic crossings – the so-called ‘Middle Passage’ – there was some kind of rebellion, Africans continuing on board the resistance that had failed ashore. Alexander Falconbridge, a slave-ship surgeon who became an abolitionist, certainly believed that rebellions on ship were common and expected, and the Middle Passage became increasingly dangerous for crews. As a result, slave traders demanded more shackles and arms to hold their captives securely, increasing production in England.
In many of these rebellions, it appears that women played an important role, as they were sometimes permitted more freedom of movement on board ship. On numerous occasions, however, maritime rebellion might simply consist of jumping overboard and committing suicide rather than continuing to endure slavery. It seems that the idea that, in death, there was also a return home to Africa was widespread among the enslaved both on the slave ships and in the Americas.
In the Caribbean and in many slave societies in the Americas, one of the most important aspects of resistance to slavery was the retention of African culture. The importance of African culture – names, craftsmanship, languages, scientific knowledge, beliefs, philosophy, music and dance, was that it provided the psychological support to help the captives resist the process of enslavement. The act of enslavement involved attempts to break the will and ignore the humanity of slaves in what was known as ‘seasoning’. Obvious examples would be the use of Vodun (Voodoo) religious beliefs in the Haitian Revolution and the employment of Obeah to strengthen the Jamaican Maroons in the struggles against the British. Rebel leaders such as Nanny in Jamaica and Boukman and Mackandal in St Domingue (Haiti) were also religious or spiritual leaders. Religious beliefs should perhaps be seen as also providing the enslaved Africans a way of understanding the world and giving them simultaneously a whole belief system, a coping mechanism and a means of resistance.
They sometimes developed different strategies of resistance to those of men. Female slaves, for example, seem to have been particularly adept at developing forms of economic independence by growing their own provisions and through trading. This helped the enslaved women to maintain some level of independence. But like the men, some ran away, and women were also leaders of several rebellions: one, known as Cubah, the ‘Queen of Kingston’, was prominent during Tacky’s Rebellion in Jamaica in 1760, while Nanny Grigg was one of the leaders of the 1816 rebellion in Barbados.
The word ‘maroon’ is thought to derive from the Spanish word cimarrón – literally meaning ‘living on mountain tops’ – which was first applied to runaway animals that has returned to their wild state. The term has come to mean communities of fugitive or escaped slaves.
The first African maroon communities were established in the early 16th century when enslaved Africans were brought to the Caribbean by the Spanish. Some of these built on earlier traditions of Amerindian runaways or even joined in creating settlements with them.
In Hispaniola, it is estimated that, by 1546, there were over 7,000 maroons among a slave population of 30,000. Following the division of the island into French St Domingue (later Haiti) in the west and Spanish Santo Domingo (later the Dominican Republic) in the east in 1697, maroons took advantage of the hostility between France and Spain to maintain settlements along the border throughout the period of slavery. In addition, there were maroons in Cuba, Puerto Rico (including fugitives from other islands including the Danish Virgin Islands) and Jamaica, followed in the 17th century by communities in St Kitts, Antigua, Barbados and the French colonies of Martinique and Guadeloupe.
As European cultivation of the islands increased, it became more difficult to establish maroon settlements on the smaller ones except those with a strong Amerindian presence such as St Vincent and Dominica. The former became the home of the Garifuna, a mixture of indigenous and Africans inhabitants, who preserved their independence against both the French and the British. Mountainous and heavily wooded islands were also favoured – Jamaica, Cuba, Guadeloupe and Hispaniola. In addition, there were important communities on the South American mainland, especially in Belize, French and British Guiana, Suriname and Brazil.
In Brazil, the most famous maroon community, or quilombo, was Palmares, which existed from 1605 to 1694. It resisted invasion by both the Dutch and the Portuguese, and is reported to have had a population of at least 10,000 organised and governed by a king using political traditions drawn from central Africa. Significant maroon communities also existed in the United States, including the so-called Black Seminoles of Florida.
The most important of all the slave rebellions was the revolution that occurred in the French colony of St Domingue in 1791. It was highly organised and took advantage of the turmoil in the colony caused by the revolution in France that had broken out two years before. Led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, 500,000 enslaved Africans and free people in St Dominque defeated the armies of three major European powers: France, Spain and Britain. They established their own independent republic – Haiti – in 1804.
Now, the white man would tell you that it was always easy to capture and enslave an African, it was never easy. There were battles of resistances, rebellions and sabotages everywhere – from 15th century until this day, Africans are fighting back enslavement of one by another – either blacks on blacks or whites on blacks. Africans have always been fighting back the system that was inhumane for them. They have resisted, for many ages, the white man’s domination.