Aline Helg: Beyond the image of the “male slave rebel”

Slave No More by Aline HelgToday 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.

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Beyond the image of the “male slave rebel”

Slave insurrections have long been the privileged focus of historians of slavery in the Americas. The reasons for that choice are multiple. Revolts powerfully demonstrate that far from being submissive, enslaved peoples fought, risked—and often lost—their lives to gain freedom. Revolts are spectacular and bloody, they have their heroes and victims, and they can be forcefully narrated. Revolts are “visible” because they produced abundant documents on which historians can draw. And slave revolts seemed a natural focus of research to historians seeking to explain contemporary social movements: it is no accident that the first studies of slave revolts emerged in the 1930s and multiplied after 1960, when the Americas were shaken by Marxist revolutions, the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, and a new wave of independence.

C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins (1938) was a wake-up call in this process, as it brought to the forefront the longest, largest and exceptionally successful Haitian Revolution (1791-1804). After 1960, scholars of slavery attempted to classify and hierarchize slaves’ resistance to their condition, beginning with accommodation (considered to be passive and nonheroic) and culminating with armed revolt. They distinguished violent from nonviolent resistance (often contradictorily referring to the latter as “passive resistance”). For most historians, violent forms of resistance consisted in marronage, suicide, murder, conspiracy, and revolt. In contrast, recourse to legal rights and the courts, self-purchase, cultural practices, and religion were categorized as nonviolent resistance. From this hierarchization, the triumphant image of the male rebel slave emerged and became the reigning model. Some historians, focalized on that image, conflated conspiracy or even the suspicion of a plot with revolt, and hypothesized that if certain rebellions had not been rapidly contained and other plots denounced just before they were carried out, they could have become revolts as widespread as the Haitian Revolution.

Whereas historians’ idealization of the rebellious, even revolutionary slave tended to favor the masculine struggle, the inclusion of less visible and more mundane liberation strategies reveals how countless slaves, including many women, designed individual or family plans to gain freedom

In my book, I decided to consider revolt together with other slave liberation strategies—flight and marronage, manumission and self-purchase, as well as military service—throughout the history of slavery in the Americas. As I organized over time and space the data on each specific strategy provided by the existing historiography, I noticed that violent revolts were fewer than conspiracies. I also observed that marronage was widespread until the late eighteenth century and during all the wars, allowing countless slaves to free themselves, while each year, from conquest to abolition, especially in Spanish America and Brazil, numerous slaves, mostly in the cities and mostly women, were able to purchase their freedom from their owners.

The predominance of slave conspiracies over slave insurrections, or the confusion between the two in some studies greatly puzzled me. Eventually I realized that up to the end of slavery, it was not necessary for a slave to physically rebel to be accused of rebellion: plotting was as serious a crime as revolting, and thinking about killing equated to killing. As a result, depending on the context, criticizing an unjust master with friends, discussing a possible protest, knowing a suspect could lead to accusations of conspiracy and rebellion. The law could detain, interrogate, and torture suspects at will, and required neither material evidence nor a confession from the accused to condemn him or her to hanging, burning, or the wheel, without a defense lawyer present. Moreover, since the first alleged slave plot, in Mexico in 1537, rumors of slave conspiracies aiming at the massacre of the whites to establish a black kingdom circulated across time and space, equipping judges with interrogation questions and slaves with responses to give under torture. In turbulent times, such as the 1730s, the 1760s, or the Haitian Revolution, these rumors became viral among terrified slaveowning elites and hopeful slaves, leading to particularly brutal crackdowns.

I became aware that slaves only revolted en masse on rare occasions, when several equally rare conditions were met: of course, in Haiti in 1791; in the Virgin island of St. John in 1733; in Jamaica and Berbice in the early 1760s; in Barbados, Demerara, and Jamaica, between 1816 and 1831. Far from challenging slaves’ capacity to shape their own destinies, that discovery reveals that, on the contrary, they had an acute understanding of their environment, waiting for cracks in the system of domination to grow before exploiting them, rather than improvising a rebellion whose outcome was inevitably cruel death.

Whereas historians’ idealization of the rebellious, even revolutionary slave tended to favor the masculine struggle, the inclusion of less visible and more mundane liberation strategies reveals how countless slaves, including many women, designed individual or family plans to gain freedom.

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Aline Helg is professor of history at the University of Geneva.