The European colonies in the Americas were built upon the backs of the African slaves whose unpaid labor produced immense capital for Atlantic economies. Taken from their African homelands and thrust into the Americas, Black slaves labored under the hot Western sun to produce cash crops to add to the coffers of others. The slaves had no economic incentive to produce for their masters. To provide the necessary motivation, the slave masters relied above all on violence to coerce their slaves into labor.
The slave trade and the production of cash crops created great wealth and was of great benefit to men on either side of the Atlantic, with the notable exception of the individuals who actually performed the labor. The history of Africans in the Americas is as much a history of slavery as it is a history of resistance to enslavement. From the moment they set foot on American soil, Africans plotted against their masters. Haiti and Brazil were two regions where slavery was as especially important as it was harsh.
An African, upon touching Brazilian soil, had a life expectancy of sixteen yearseight years if he was sentenced carrying coffee. (Conrad 125) One third of all Haitian slaves died within several years. (Klubock) Both nations offer countless tales of Black resistance to White domination. Revolutionary action was often connected to religious practice, which slaves had to conduct in secret. African slaves also sought ways to maintain their African culture through secret dances and religious ceremonies, as well as the flight to mock African communities in the Americas to escape bondage.
Manumission was also not uncommon as a relief from slavery. In Brazil, manumission was often purchased by a slave who had accumulated wealth on his own. Frequently these slaves were mulattos and more often than not women. In Haiti, children of the master, born of a slave concubine, were frequently manumitted. Haitian and Brazilian manumission created sizable populations of free blacks and mulattos, some of whom became very successful in Euro-American society. (Klubock) Though often temporary, another means of escaping slavery was to flee.
Sometimes slaves left their plantations to participate in secret dances. Other slaves attempted permanent escape. As Conrad wrote, “The problem of runaway slaves placed a permanent claim on the energies and assets of the slaveholding class” (362). The escape of slaves from their plantations was a common event in Brazil. The rosters of most slave owners included runaways, and the metropolitan newspapers were rife with advertisements with descriptions of runaway slaves and offers of rewards.
Gathering together in the jungles of frontier Brazil, runaway slaves formed towns and villages called quilombos (Conrad 367). These quilombos became centers of African culture where African languages and customs predominated. As in Africa, quilombos were often governed by a king. And given enough time, authority in a quilombo could become hereditary. (Conrad 368) Operating autonomously, quilombos near Brazilian towns were often able to offer their services in exchange for goods.
Such arrangements were conducted outside of Brazilian law and efforts were made on the part of the government to suppress these contacts and eliminate the quilombos. (Conrad 368)A Brazilian police report written in 1876 describes the commercial trade conducted between two quilombos and the city of Rio de Janeiro. In addition to supplying the residents of the quilombos with provisions and equipment, Brazilians from Rio de Janeiro “always warned them when there was reason to suspect that the authorities were trying to capture them”. In exchange, the members of the quilombos cut and loaded firewood for the Brazilians.
Conrad 386) Another document, written in 1854 by the British consul in Belm, Brazil, describes the members of a quilombo as “industrious in the cultivation of rice, mandioca, and Indian corn, and in the manufacture of charcoal. ” The inhabitants of the quilombo also manufactured canoes and small sail boats for navigating the rivers of the Amazon Valley and carrying on trade. Their trading partners were “the inferior class of tradesmen in the neighboring towns” with whom the members of the quilombo traded for provisions and equipment. (Conrad 390)
Despite the industriousness of many quilombos others relied on less productive means of procuring wealth. When they were located near plantations and settlements, quilombos frequently carried out raids on their Brazilian neighbors, taking back food, supplies, and often women. Because of the danger they represented, quilombos located near Brazilian settlements were frequently raided, with captured members frequently sold back into slavery. However, for many blacks, quilombos offered permanent freedom. (Conrad 368) Slave rebellions were also common to the Americas.
Frequently, the goal of insurrection was not complete liberation from slavery, but rather improvement of the conditions under which the slaves labored. The participants of an 1806 Brazilian slave rebellion produced a peace proposal to the slaves master which included demands for more time to tend their own subsistence crops and for the reduction of production quotas. (Conrad 397) Other slave insurrections had more ambitious goals, including the wholesale slaughter of all whites. One notable Brazilian hotbed of slave resistance was the region of Bahia.
By the early 1800s, blacks in that region outnumbered both whites and mulattos by more than twenty to one. Between 1807 and 1845, this region hosted at least eleven slave revolts. (Conrad 401) This high level of civil unrest may have been due to the large proportion of Africans in Bahia. Newcomers were less likely to have been “institutionalized” by slavery as Brazilian-born slaves. However, it is interesting to note that the large proportion of Africans was also an obstacle to unity in that the various ethnic groups were fractious. (Conrad 404)
Many of the African slaves were adherents of Islam, and among these a number were literate in Arabic. A document written in 1814, following a slave uprising states that “almost all of them can read and write in unknown characters which are similar to the Arabic used among the Usss, who now evidently have made an alliance with the Nags. ” This passage also demonstrates that Africans often had to overcome their own ethnic differences in order to form a united front. (Conrad 410) The same document also claims that the slaves of Bahia had knowledge of the slave rebellion of Haiti, which had come to a close ten years earlier.
They know about and discuss the disastrous occurrences that took place on the island of Saint Domingue, and one hears mutinous claims that by St. Johns Day there will not be one white or mulatto alive. ” (Conrad 405) Violence was also a common response to slavery in Haiti, where poisoning was frequent. (James 16) Often used in individual acts of vengeance, poison caused the deaths of masters and slaves alike. One of the most common causes of poisoning was the masters taking of a slaves wife.
Another cause was the jealousy of one the masters slave concubines towards another. (James 16) In addition to individual acts of murder, poisoning was employed by the slaves to accomplish larger goals. Younger children of an owner were poisoned in some instances, so as to keep the entirety of the plantation included in a single inheritance. The murder of slave children also served the larger purpose of keeping their own population in check, thereby preventing their master from embarking on schemes to increase production, and therefore demands for labor. (James 16)
In Haiti, as in Brazil, escape was a recourse frequently utilized by slaves to obtain their freedom from bondage. In Haiti, as in Brazil, escaped slaves comprised a population sizable enough to facilitate the formation of independent colonies, known in Haiti as maroons. As in the case of the Brazilian quilombos, Haitian maroon colonies became centers of African culture on the island, and spawned Voodoo, a mixing of Western and African religious beliefs. (James 20) However, The ties to plantation slaves in Haitian maroon colonies were stronger than those maintained by the Brazilian quilombos.
Slaves would frequent maroon colonies to attend maroon religious festivals and dances, and members of maroon colonies would sometimes travel to plantations to meet with plantation slaves. Whereas Brazilian quilombos represented a retreat from Brazilian society, the Haitian maroons were a source of revolutionary energy and ideas. (Klubock) One notable insurrection scheme hatched inside a maroon colony was the plot to conduct the mass poisoning of whites. This scheme was the brainchild of the Mackandal, a maroon leader from Guinea.
A political and religious figure, Mackandal claimed immortality and the ability to see the future. For six years he organized his plan to poison the whites and conquer Haiti. But, before he could bring his plan to fruition, he became drunk and was discovered. (James 21) In both Brazil and Haiti, a hierarchy existed among the African descendants, with free mulattos at the top, followed by free blacks, then skilled slaves, house slaves, and foremen at the top, and the field hands at the bottom.
The high ranking slaves were the recipients of better food, clothing, treatment were more frequently manumitted. In Brazil, free blacks and mulattos often assimilated with Euro-American society, and the high ranking slaves often maintained distance from the lower slaves. However, it is from among the ranks of the better off slaves that the Haitian revolution found its most valuable participants and leaders. (Klubock) Boukman, who led the initial insurrection that led to the overthrow of whites in Haiti, was a high level slave.
A foreman at his plantation, Boukman was also a Voodoo priest who conducted religious ceremonies in the countryside outside Le Cap. At these gatherings, he and other slaves were able to plan the simultaneous arson of the plantations of Le Cap (James 88). The execution of the plot didnt proceed precisely according to plan, with a particular plantations slaves acting prematurely. However, within a month the slaves were able to take the countryside surrounding Le Cap.
Toussaint LOverture, who had been a cattle manager for his master, joined the revolution at this point and later became its leader. (James 88) Toussaint, who was Haitian-born, looked to the maintenance of Haitian agriculture as a means to success for the island. However, the masses of African-born slaves, who comprised two thirds of Haitian slaves at the time of the revolution, wished rather to destroy all remnants of the plantation system. In its place, African style subsistence agriculture became the chief activity of Haitians.
In a sense, Haiti became a Caribbean replica of Africa. (Klubock) History has shown that, beaten down as they may have been, Black slaves in the Americas never lost their spirit. Thrown into a system that sought to deprive them not only of the fruits of their labor but also their humanity, black slaves, in the jungles of Brazil and in the mountains of Haiti, forged from their various ethnic backgrounds new societies and religious practices that were novel yet deeply rooted in Africa.
Not every attempt at freedom among the Africans succeeded. Yet, that these men were ever even able to organize and plot, or even lash out individually, proves that in the battle for their humanity the masters whips and chains were no match for human spirit. And, the powerful presence of African culture in the Americas, as exemplified by modern Voodoo, attests to the slaves success in maintaining African culture in the Americas.