Reexamining U.S. Slaves' Role in Their Emancipation

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
December 6, 2002
The 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in the United States was ratified
137 years ago today, on December 6, 1865. Fittingly, today is also the
start of a conference at Yale University focusing on the often
overlooked role that enslaved Africans played in freeing themselves.

The experience of enslaved Africans in the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries varied greatly.

In the United States, Abraham Lincoln and white abolitionists have been largely credited with slavery's demise.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, slaves are often credited in taking a far more active role. But the "difference is chiefly about the forms resistance to slavery takes, given different conditions of enslavement," said Robert P. Forbes, associate director of Yale University's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition.

In the Caribbean and Latin America, where slaves greatly outnumbered whites, relatively large numbers of slaves escaped to isolated areas and established self-governing "maroon" communities.

In the Deep South of the United States, where slaves comprised only 12 to 14 percent of the population, the ability to escape and form hidden communities was much more limited. The mantle of resistance rested on the efforts of individual fugitive slaves.

"In each location, one finds resourcefulness, pragmatism, and adaptation to local conditions, which in places like Jamaica and Surinam meant creation of quasi-independent political institutions, and in the United States meant making the best use possible of existing ones," said Forbes.

Strategies differed based on what was possible and practical. But always there was resistance.

"Impact in historical situations doesn't necessarily depend on large numbers," said William Freehling, a professor of history at the University of Kentucky. "Slaves [in the U.S.] very shrewdly picked a mode of resistance that was absolutely perfect for their situation and helped to bring about the end of their enslavement."

Slavery as War

Interpretations of the slavery experience in the United States over the last century or so, have been based on the premise that enslaved Africans in the United States essentially acquiesced to a paternalistic arrangement that kept them enslaved but allowed them to form a strong and separate cultural identity.

"What's been emerging over the past ten years is an acknowledgement of the greater sense of agency slaves themselves had in achieving their freedom, rather than whites bringing about that freedom," said John Stauffer, a professor at Harvard and author of several books on slavery in the United States.

This shift in thinking is the result of looking at slavery from a different angle, he said.

"The change in emphasis—of looking at black culture and black agency from the point of view of the slave rather than the master—changes the questions and changes the ways in which slave societies are understood," said Stauffer.

Rather than asking why more enslaved Africans in the U.S. didn't rebel, attack their masters, and engage in other forms of active protest, the question becomes how did a seriously outnumbered underclass rebel?

Slavery "represents a perpetual state of war from the point of view of the slave," said Stauffer. "Therefore there is always going to be resistance, tension, and fighting, regardless of how successful those efforts are."

This new perspective is not making an argument for self-emancipation—emancipation solely through the efforts of slaves—but neither does it accept emancipation secured solely by white agents.

"When you focus on the ability of the white power structure to destroy maroon communities, then we overlook other forms of resistance that were in the long run more successful," said Sylvia Frey, a history professor at Tulane University.

"Enslaved Africans were deprived of power but they weren't powerless," she said. "Sometimes passive resistance is more effective than violent resistance."

Maroons and Fugitives

The forms of resistance employed by enslaved Africans in the 17th and 18th centuries were dictated by social and environmental conditions, these historians point out.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, a variety of conditions favored the formation of isolated large-scale maroon communities: the presence of remote and inaccessible locations, low population density, and terrain that consisted of dense forests, impenetrable swamps, and thick jungles.

Of the roughly 12 million Africans captured and imported to the West, about 40 percent ended up in Brazil. Maroon communities in the region during the 17th century have been estimated to number between 11,000 to possibly as many as 30,000 escaped slaves.

On the islands of the Caribbean, where sugar plantations were plentiful and slaves outnumbered whites by large margins, escaped slaves were able to form large, stable, and long-lasting maroon communities.

Despite being outnumbered and ill-equipped, maroon communities in Jamaica in the 17th century launched armed rebellions and forced a treaty in 1739 with the colonial government.

In Haiti, guerilla warfare and a six-year rebellion by maroons preceded the successful slave rebellion in 1791.

These and other instances of large-scale escape and armed rebellion have led some historians to conclude that the response to enslavement was inherently different between slaves in Latin American and the Caribbean and those in the United States.

Forbes and others say this is not true.

"When and where the conditions still existed for long-term maroonage in the continental U.S., it happened," said Forbes. Maroon communities formed in the United States in places such as the Virginia/Carolina Dismal Swamp, Louisiana, Florida, and southern Georgia, he noted.

These isolated U.S. slave settlements, he added, "had much in common environmentally with the remote sites of large-scale maroon communities in Latin America and the West Indies."

Barbados is a prime example. "When the geographic conditions of thick jungle and low population density prevailed, resistance took the 'Caribbean' form of maroonage," said Forbes. "But when the forests were all cut down and the island became covered with plantations, slaves adopted the more typically 'American' tactic of 'outlying' and running away to neighboring plantations."

The American Experience

In the United States prior to the Civil War, no more than 5,000 slaves—less than one percent—successfully ran away each year, according to Freehling.

Given the vigilante tactics of Southern slave owners, only individual slaves or very small groups were able to escape. The fugitives were predominantly young men in their 20s; women and children, and to a lesser extent fathers, seldom made the attempt.

Although relatively few in number, especially compared to Latin America, these fugitives helped keep the issue of slavery in the forefront of political debate, said Freehling.

The draconian Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, mandating that Northerners return fugitives to their owners, enraged opponents of slavery.

It took $100,000 and a lot of soldiers to return Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave from Virginia, to his owner, over the vociferous protests of thousands of Bostonians, Freehling notes in a paper he's presenting at the conference.

"Fugitive slaves and African Americans were a crucial factor in Union victory," Stauffer concurs. "There were an enormous number of black abolitionists. The abolitionist movement was every bit as much a black movement as it was a white one, and that understanding and recognition is very new."

The number of U.S. slave fugitives swelled to around 150,000 a year during the Civil War. More than 100,000 joined the Union army, and although few served on the frontlines of battles in the Deep South, they served in western garrisons, freeing whites to serve in the crucial battles that took place in Virginia.

"There's been a continuum of resistance, beginning with the first fugitive—even earlier—that flourishes from Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglas…[and] comes to a climax with Martin Luther King," said Freehling.

"By choosing non-violent forms of protest, they were resisting in ways that could get their compatriots in the white community to help, and this is what an underclass has to do. Its the only way," he said.

The conference, titled "Unshackled Spaces: Fugitives from Slavery and Maroon Communities in the Americas," is sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition in New Haven, Connecticut, part of Yale University's Center for International and Area Studies.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.