• Email
  • Print

Why Didn’t Slaves Rebel?

In the wake of the bloody Nat Turner slave rebellion in 1831, a Virginia legislator reassured himself and his colleagues by announcing, “Our slave population is not only a happy one, but it is a contented, peaceful and harmless one.” That assertion would have startled American slaveholders a generation earlier. The myth of slave docility got started remarkably late in the institution’s two centuries of existence in North America. But it flourished for more than a hundred years, dominating both popular and scholarly white views of blacks in bondage. Then, about 1940, the myth came under severe attack by Herbert Aptheker and other scholars. Since then many historians have labored against the myth, chiefly with the aim of proving a negative proposition: that slaves were not contented. Now Eugene Genovese raises the level of discussion to a point where we can talk about slave revolts without being hemmed in by the old ideology of proslavery apologists.

Genovese’s book has a two-fold purpose. One is to deal with what has been a classic problem for dozens of recent historians: Why were there far fewer and smaller slave revolts in the United States than in the Caribbean islands and in Latin America? Many United States historians have answered that question in apologetic tones, as if seeking to explain why “our” slaves didn’t rebel as much as they should have. Genovese’s response to that attitude is very clear: What right, he asks, have we to expect oppressed peoples in the past to spill their blood on the barricades when they were fully aware of the hopelessness of victory and of the terrible consequences of defeat? He quotes a rebel slave recruit in Missouri as explaining, “I’ve seen Marse Newton and Marse John Ramsay shoot too often to believe they can’t kill a nigger.”

With appropriate caution and flexibility Genovese offers a tentative list of eight factors which conduced to slave revolt “without regard for the presumed importance of one relative to another”: (1) blacks heavily outnumbered whites; (2) relatively large slaveholding units; (3) suitable geographical terrain; (4) African-born slaves more numerous than New World-born (“creole”) slaves; (5) owner absenteeism; (6) conflict within the ruling class; (7) economic distress and famine; and (8) “the social structure of the slaveholding regime permitted the emergence of an autonomous black leadership.” Clearly this last factor is a catchall for complicated social developments, and it also overlaps with some of the others. Most historians would not quarrel with this list, or with Genovese’s elaborations, though some might add another factor—a relatively high status accorded to mulattoes. As he himself points out, “The list may be extended, refined, and subdivided.”

If the United States is considered as a single region in light of these factors, that part of the New World was far less likely to experience large slave revolts than Guiana, Brazil, Jamaica, or Saint Domingue (Haiti). In Jamaica, for example, blacks outnumbered whites ten to one, while in the American South whites were a majority in every state except South Carolina and Mississippi. Even in those two states, blacks comprised less than 60 percent of the population. In addition, plantation units in the South were far smaller than those in the West Indies and Brazil. Somewhat less than half of US slaves lived in units of twenty or less—though Genovese stretches the point when he calls all these smaller units “farms, not plantations.” About one quarter of southern slaves worked on plantations of fifty or more.

By contrast the units of production in Surinam, Brazil, and the islands were enormous. Many sugar estates on Jamaica had five hundred slaves and were, in effect, little factory villages. Some of the extant inventories of slaves list more than forty different slave occupations, from cooks, nurses, blacksmiths, and drivers to the “grass gang” of children. As far as the relative numbers of Africans and Afro-Americans are concerned, the US slave population became preponderantly creole considerably earlier than elsewhere, partly because the US slave population was the only one to reproduce itself and partly because the ideology, politics, and economics of the American Revolution drastically reduced the importation of slaves from Africa, well before the trade was restricted elsewhere.

All of Genovese’s other factors tell in the same direction. Southern slaves had little access to mountainous retreats, though they did to the Great Dismal Swamp in eastern Virginia and North Carolina as well as to swamp country in Florida where black maroons joined the Seminole Indians in pitched battles against the United States army. Absentee ownership was far more common in the Caribbean islands than in most of the southern states. Slaveholders in the South typically lived on and actively managed their plantations; even those who were absent periodically did not yearn to go back to a mother country, as so many owners in the islands did. By and large, southern slaveholders felt they had common interests, and this feeling strengthened in the final years when their position came under attack from northern abolitionists.

The final factor encompasses a more ambiguous situation: it refers to “the social structure of the slaveholding regime” which “permitted the emergence of an autonomous black leadership.” Genovese would probably not care to defend the proposition that the rise of autonomous black leaders depended entirely on the social structure of the ruling class. Too many other factors were at work, some of them reinforcing the expectation of more revolts in Latin America and the West Indies and some of them not. On very large plantations involving much processing work—most notably sugar—there was a far greater degree of specialization in different occupations than on the much smaller cotton plantations of the South. This fact in itself would move some historians to add another factor—the nature of the crop. In general, this greater occupational differentiation heightened the power and prestige of creole vis-à-vis African-born slaves. On the other hand, in Protestant-dominated areas, evangelical Christian doctrine came faster to slaves in the American South than in the West Indian islands, and there is therefore every reason to suppose that strong, autonomous black religious leadership developed earlier in the South than in the British and Dutch colonies.

In sum, Genovese’s explication of his list provides the best available discussion of why southern slaves did not revolt as often and in such large numbers as elsewhere in the New World. It is not radically different from some previous explanations, but it is much more clear and comprehensive. Yet it does not clarify one rather puzzling aspect of the problem. There was one small region in the United States where the social conditions of slavery approached those prevailing in the sugar islands. In the South Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands and low country, slaves outnumbered whites about nine to one. By southern standards, plantations were unusually large. Many wealthy rice and long-staple cotton planters spent months away from their plantations. The area was sufficiently African that many slaves spoke their own language, Gullah.

In short, the logic of Genovese’s list suggests that important slave revolts should have taken place especially in that region, more than elsewhere in the United States with the possible exception of the Louisiana sugar country. Yet for nearly two hundred years only one major revolt occurred in the area, the Angolan-dominated Stono Rebellion of 1739. Denmark Vesey’s conspiracy in 1822 was confined to Charleston, where very different conditions prevailed. Appreciable activity by runaway slaves took place only after federal forces invaded the area during the Civil War. In that connection Genovese himself refers to “the favorable geography of the low country.” In short, there is something of a puzzle here, and one wishes that the author had at least raised the matter and speculated on it.

The second, but not secondary, purpose of Genovese’s book is to interpret black slave revolts as part of the mainstream of the historical development of a “bourgeois-democratic” culture in the modern world. His thesis is best stated in his own words, since his point of view has its own somewhat specialized vocabulary.

Until the Age of Revolution the slave revolts did not challenge the world capitalist system within which slavery itself was embedded. Rather, they sought escape and autonomy—a local, precapitalist social restoration. When they did become revolutionary and raise the banner of abolition, they did so within the context of the bourgeois-democratic revolutionary wave, with bourgeois-democratic slogans and demands and with a commitment to bourgeois property relations.

Genovese does not always write this way. More concisely, he argues that “by the end of the eighteenth century, the historical content of the slave revolts shifted decisively from attempts to secure freedom from slavery to attempts to overthrow slavery as a social system.”

The thesis hinges upon questions about rebel perceptions, intentions, and rhetoric. Genovese makes his case briefly, for the book is the published version of three Fleming Lectures at Louisiana State University. He thus chooses to describe the “contours” of a shift from revolts seeking a precapitalist social restoration to abolitionist revolutions rather than to discuss individual rebellions in detail. He calls Toussaint’s Haitian Revolution “the turning point,” and has no difficulty in demonstrating that rebel leaders in Haiti were acutely conscious of the modern revolutionary ideas emanating from Paris in the 1790s. Black revolutionaries in Haiti talked freely about “the rights of man.” In the same decade, slave rebels in Spanish Venezuela “proclaimed ‘the law of the French, the Republic, liberty for slaves,’ and an end to economic and social injustice.” As the American, French, and Haitian revolutions reverberated in the New World, many slaves enlarged their aims beyond escape, local self-government, and the re-creation of somewhat Americanized African communities. The shift in rebel rhetoric is indisputable, and it probably reflected a real shift in goals.

Yet there are two closely related difficulties with Genovese’s formulation about this change from “restoration” to “revolution” in New World slave revolts. His decision to delineate “contours” in a brief book does indeed eliminate the necessity of writing ten or twelve volumes which would give a full account. Yet that decision precludes detailed examination of rebel aims in particular situations and thereby, in my opinion, allows his general theme to override the complex realities of slave rebellion. One can agree with his insistent contention that rebel slaves were “heroic”; but at the same time one can recognize that many rebels were fuzzy about their aims and quarrelsome about their leadership and methods. There is nothing surprising or contemptible in this tense confusion, given the situations in which slave rebels found themselves. But there is much evidence to show for it, and Genovese slights it while emphasizing the development of high political consciousness and purposefulness during and after the Haitian Revolution.

The second difficulty arises from the same emphasis. From Rebellion to Revolution correctly points out that before the nineteenth century it was African-born slaves who “organized and executed the vast majority of revolts and certainly the major ones.” Then, Genovese writes, “creole slaves introduced a new and fateful political content into the history of slave revolts.” The emergence of a creole numerical preponderance, he adds, “marked the great ideological divide in the history of slave revolts.” Yet by treating this shift as a primarily political and ideological development, Genovese slights important social and cultural consequences of the demographic change. He offhandedly refers to “the creoles’ access to more privileged positions on the plantations and in the towns and cities,” but he does little to examine the impact of this fact on the nature of slave revolts.

Creole slaves, for example, were much more likely to have quasi-industrial skills such as blacksmithing, and they were also more likely to have access to and familiarity with firearms. Surely this kind of knowledge affected both the mood and planning of potential rebels in ways that were neither political nor ideological. The social circumstances of the creoles did not always work in their favor; their planning was considerably more open to betrayal, and they were aware of this fact. Finally, Genovese appears merely to take for granted an important cultural change without which the creoles could never have developed the political consciousness which he emphasizes. In any given region they spoke a common language, which many of the Africans did not, either the language of their owners or a creole language based on it. In short, the author’s heavily political emphasis leaves him relatively uninterested in certain important aspects of the change he describes.

Yet Genovese’s book sparkles with perceptive observations about slave revolts, in part because of his political perspective. In his extended discussion of black maroon communities—originally established by runaway slaves in isolated geographical areas—he points out the subtle ambiguities of the four-way relations among maroons, slaves, Indians, and whites. Maroons and whites frequently fought each other, but they sometimes made treaties (most notably in Jamaica) in which the maroons were accorded independence in exchange for agreeing to capture and return runaway slaves. Genovese penetrates beneath the surface of these arrangements which so many historians have found merely anomalous.

What remains certain is that many maroon communities did try to influence the white slaveholders to treat their slaves more humanely. The maroons’ course thus simultaneously supported the efforts of the slaves to improve their condition and yet accepted the moral and judicial pretensions of the white slaveholders. Their course necessarily inhibited the development of an abolitionist—a revolutionary—ideology while the very existence of the maroon communities was sending revolutionary shock waves through the slave quarters.

Genovese’s political position also leads him to deal more directly than most historians with the morality of black violence and white retaliation. He is entirely correct in pointing out that slave rebels were far less given to inflicting atrocities than their masters were. On occasion slaves killed women and children, but rape and torture were rare except for a brief outburst early in the Haitian Revolution. By contrast, supposedly “civilized” whites everywhere applied the most grisly punishments to “savage” rebels, including slow roasting over fire, breaking on the wheel, hanging alive in chains, and decapitation. In several colonies castration or other dismemberment was the statutory punishment merely for running away. In the wake of many rebellions, such as Nat Turner’s, scores of blacks who had in no way participated were killed in a wave of frightened and vengeful retaliation. As Genovese points out, this pattern had nearly exact parallels during peasant revolts in Europe.

Thus the book’s outlook is thoroughly political. Genovese places little emphasis on racial antipathies and insecurities. Perhaps he does not need to. But it would be well to recall a striking scene when Haiti became an independent republic on New Year’s Day, 1804. The ideas of the French Revolution indeed had had a profound impact in Haiti, but as he stood before a crowd of shouting blacks, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the new black ruler, seized the Tricolor and furiously tore from it the band of white.

  • Email
  • Print