Today we welcome a guest post from Aline Helg, author of Slave No More: Self-Liberation before Abolitionism in the Americas, just published this month by UNC Press.
Commanding a vast historiography of slavery and emancipation, Helg reveals as never before how significant numbers of enslaved Africans across the entire Western Hemisphere managed to free themselves hundreds of years before the formation of white-run abolitionist movements. Her sweeping view of resistance and struggle covers more than three centuries, from early colonization to the American and Haitian revolutions, Spanish American independence, and abolition in the British Caribbean. Helg not only underscores the agency of those who managed to become “free people of color” before abolitionism took hold but also assesses in detail the specific strategies they created and utilized.
Slave No More is available in both print and ebook editions.
Slave runaway communities: the ongoing struggle
Today, descendants of slave runaway communities all over the Americas struggle for survival on land that their ancestors worked on for generations after their successful flight to freedom. In the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, the Pacific lowlands of Colombia and Ecuador, the forests of Suriname, and throughout Brazil, they realize that their subsistence is once more under tremendous threats. The legal gains they made in the 1990s and 2000s, when new national constitutions and international court rulings recognized their cultural and territorial ownership rights, are under the attack of the very States supposed to protect them. In the name of national development, States allow, discretely or explicitly, national and multinational companies to invade their lands and launch mining, logging, and other extractive activities. These invasions jeopardize the livelihood of the descendants of slave runaway communities and generate violence, including the murder of their leaders and forced displacement. They also present global environmental threats, as they contribute to the destruction of forests and lowlands today considered ecological sanctuaries.
Slave runaway communities originated in the transatlantic slave trade that disembarked a total of over ten million enslaved Africans alive, to work in plantations, mines and all kinds of production and services. In fact, until the early nineteenth century, forcibly deported Africans were almost four times more numerous to arrive in the Americas than European colonists. As a result, whites were a minority in a population mostly comprised of Amerindians, Africans and their descendants. Moreover, colonization went along with slavery, and in the process large numbers of enslaved Africans managed to escape their harsh conditions and headed for the interior, into uninhabited or Amerindian territories. Throughout the continent and the Caribbean islands, runaway slaves, sometimes with indigenous peoples and other fugitives, fashioned settlements known as maroon communities in English, palenques in Spanish, and quilombos in Portuguese.