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…

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