Slave Revolts in the Caribbean and Brazil

When it comes to the study of slavery and abolitionism in the modern world, the events that occurred in the United States tend to take a precedence. The revolts led by Nat Turner and Jim Brown are among the most well-known in many public school history classes. However the fact lies that slavery existed in all of the New World: North and South America and the Caribbean. It has been noted that chattel slavery originated in the Caribbean and Latin America was much more brutal in its conditions than what occurred in the United States and Canada. Three countries that were designed as slave colonies were Haiti, Jamaica and Brazil. The brutality and living conditions for slaves and freedmen in these countries were abominable to say the least. Tired of the horrid mistreatment and discrimination, the populations of these three countries revolted. Many of these revolts occurred concurrently with the abolitionist movements in the United States. Whether in North America, the Caribbean or South America, all of these uprisings served an improtant purpose in challenging the racial hierarchy put in place by European colonists.

The country of Haiti has an unfortunate reputation in the media as lower class and in constant need of foreign aid due to its natural disasters and poverty. However what seems to be forgotten is the fact that Haiti was the first colony in the Caribbean to declare independence from its colonizer which was France. Haiti was also the first country in the New World to abolish slavery and have a fully-run Black government. This revolution which lasted from 1791 to 1804 was headed by Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743-1803), a former slave turned general. In Saint-Domingue (the French name of the colony), there existed three classes: 1) the White population who were at the top of society, 2) the Mulatto (mixed race) population who enjoyed freedom but still considered second class citizens with no representation and political or economic power, and 3) the Black population who were slaves and at the bottom of society. The Mulatto and Black population both were dissatisfied with the cruel treatment they received at the hands of the Frenchmen and teamed up together to take down the oppressive government.

Francois-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture. Painting by Unknown. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


L’Ouverture organized a large army of slaves and Mulattoes to overthrow the French. Gifted with charisma and intellect, he recruited and trained hundreds of soldiers and developed effective military tactics. The efforts of L’Ouverture’s army resulted in the abolition of slavery in the colony partially in 1793 and officially in 1794. On January 1, 1804, Saint-Domingue had finally acquired its independence from France after 13 years of a bloody and tumultuous war. Thousands of lives were lost during the war. The French colonists were forced to relocate, the ones who could afford to travel settled in nearby islands like Cuba and Dominica and the other French colony Louisiana. The remaining White colonists were massacred except the ones with important occupations such as doctors, engineers and teachers. The name Haiti which was the original name of the country that the indigenous inhabitants (Taino Native Americans) called it, was officially adopted by the new government. L’Ouverture unfortunately did not live to see his dream of a fully-Black republic form as he died in 1803 in France after being captured by Napoleon’s army.

Another impressive feat of slave resistance in the Caribbean were the Maroon Wars of Jamaica. These wars were fought between the Maroons, a group of former Jamaican slaves fighting against the British-controlled Jamaican government for their land and freedom. The Maroon community was founded by slaves who escaped the plantations owned by the Spanish colonizers; these slaves settled in mountainous regions. When ownership of Jamaica transferred from Spain to Britain, this spurred an increase of African slaves brought over to work the plantations. Many of these slaves would abandon the British plantations and join the Maroon community in the mountains. This growing community was perceived as a threat to the British rule, the government declared war on the Maroons in 1729. Another war erupted in 1795. One prominent leader in the Maroon War, was a Jamaican woman and former slave of Asante descent known only by the title “Nanny of the Maroons” who was an Asante woman from Ghana brought to Jamaica as a child due to the slave trade. She and her brother Cudjoe ran away from their plantation and founded different settlements. Nanny founded Nanny Town and Cudjoe founded Cudjoe Town. They both were important Maroon leaders who bravely defied British rule. Nanny organized raids on plantations and was so successful in her plans that over 1,000 slaves were freed and integrated into the Maroon community in a thirty year period. She died in 1733.

Maroons of Jamaica. Photo by National Library of Jamaica


Nanny Town was constantly invaded by British forces between 1728 to 1734, the Maroons would prove themselves skillful warriors and managed to hold their own. Finally in 1739, Cudjoe would sign a treaty with the British colonizers to recognize the Maroons as an independent nation with five major towns: Accompong, Trelawny Town, Mountain Top, Scots Hall, Nanny Town. The treaty included benefits such as not having to pay taxes and gaining large tracts of land but the condition involved suppressing slave rebellions, returning refugees to plantations and aiding the British in battles against the Spanish and French. Another condition of the treaty were that while the five towns would have a Maroon chief, one British supervisor would be positioned in each of them. Today, Cudjoe is honored with the celebration of Cudjoe Day in Jamaica which is held on the first Monday of January every year. Nanny was officially recognized as a National Hero of Jamaica in 1976 and her image is seen on the $500 Jamaican bill.

A lesser known event is the Malê revolt in Brazil. Despite its relative obscurity, this was the most important slave revolt in Brazilian history. The Malê were a community of Muslim slaves and freedmen who came from West African groups which included the Wolof, Mandinke, Yoruba, Hausa and Nupe. Inspired by the Haitian Revolution, the Malê decided to fight for their freedom, end slavery and sail back to Africa. In 1814 and 1816, the Malê attempted a start revolts but were thwarted by the Portuguese before anything even occurred. Small slave revolts occurred in Bahia over the next 20 years by Muslims and non-Muslims alike but unfortunately no progress resulted from these effort. The Malê grew strong in numbers due to the efforts of Malê leaders to convert other freedmen and slaves to Islam. These leaders were Islamic scholars who used a mosque as a base of operations and called for a jihad against the Portuguese. In January 1835, the Malê began their uprising in the city of Salvador da Bahia. A battle erupted however the Malê were greatly outnumbered and quickly defeated by the thousands of Brazilian soldiers who arrived with firearms after receiving word of the revolt prior.

Slaves in Brazil. Painting by Jean Baptise Debret.


After 1835, no major slave revolt of this extent occurred in Brazil. However the uprising of the Malê serves as an important turning point in Brazil’s slave history. Anti-Black racism increased more than ever and there was a genuine fear of a growing revolution on par with what occurred in Haiti. Thus a call for a mass deportation of African Brazilians back to Africa was suggested but only resulted in a small portion to be deported. An Islamophobic sentiment also spread throughout Brazil. Many Malê were forced to convert to Catholicism and any public display of Islamic faith resulted in punishment however Islam still remains a strong minor presence in the Bahia today. The Malê revolt also helped the abolitionist movement push forward in Brazil though slavery did not legally end in Brazil until 1888 (25 years after it ended in the United States).

The brave efforts of African diaspora throughout North and South America and the Caribbean helped lead the path to a new beginning of empowerment and humanization that Africans were long denied. While the history and abolitionist efforts which occurred in the United States are undoubtedly important, it is also essential to acknowledge all that happened to Black people outside the US. In a postcolonial world, the struggle for civil rights is a universal phenomenon that minorities have always had to endure. But no matter the circumstances, the fight will never end as long as humans hold the desire for the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s