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There are a number of challenges facing historians and scholars who are interested in understanding slave resistances in Latin America.[1] Scholars have generally not given a great deal of inquiry into the various forms of resistance against slavery in the Western Hemisphere, except for a few prominent scholars[2] who acknowledge that incidents of slave revolts, rebellions, resistances and plots, were more numerous in Latin and Central American countries than in the U.S.[3] It has almost become commonplace for scholars to use the large number of slave revolts in the Americas as a yardstick for assessing slave’s personality, as a factor in their ability to response to their enslavement.

For years scholars have debated over the number of slave revolts in the Americas, and used that number to measure the relationship between slave docility, passivity, or masculinity and the rebelliousness of enslaved Africans in North and South America. In part, the question is a function of nomenclature –that is, what scholars decide to call slave actions a revolt, a rebellion, or an insurrection,[4] and how to include these actions in the historical record. The very definition of the events themselves has long been in question. Scholars have pursued a number of typologies and taxonomies, trying to classify revolts, insurrections, rebellions, and conspiracies based on these outdated and racist notions.[5]

The “Sambo” thesis has been used to explain the high number of slave revolts in Latin America as compared to the low number in North America. Sambo did exist in Latin America, but appears not to have influenced his ability to rebel.  Bates writes: “the Negroes were possessed of something like a biologic and psychic predisposition to life in the tropics.  There was their greater fertility in hot regions.  Their taste for the sun.  Their energy, always fresh and new when it contact with  the tropical jungle.”[6] Sambo was an imaginary character, and a prototype of the average slave that existed in the mind of planters. Slave masters and overseers described “Sambo” as slow, lazy, and trifling.[7] The origin of this “Sambo” thesis begins with U.B. Phillips. Phillips, in American Negro Slave (1918), believed that slave revolts were rare in the United States for two reasons: 1) enslaved Africans failed to response to their oppression because of the benevolent nature of slavery in North America, 2) enslaved Africans were born submissive. The logic was that benevolence produced submissive docile slaves that accepted the conditions of slavery without protest. According to Phillips: “The slaves were Negroes, who for the most part were by racial quality submissive rather than defiant, lighthearted instead of gloomy, amiable and ingratiating instead of sullen, and whose very defects invited paternalism rather than repression.”[8]

The conclusion drawn from the Sambo thesis was that Latin Americans manumitted more enslaved Africans than their North American counterpart, and that as a result the slave system was “open” in “that emancipation was within the grasp of the majority of bondsmen.”[9] Whereas, the system in the United States was “close” and there were few opportunities for freedom. Sir Harry Johnston in 1910 originated this notion in The Negro in the New World where he  concluded  that the slave system of servitude in Spanish America was milder and more benign than the slave system in the United States.[10] Sir Harry Johnston’s  thesis was further developed by Frank Tannenbaum, U. B. Phillips, and more recently Stanley Elkins.

Frank Tannenbaum in Slave and Citizen (1935) takes a slightly different position, but arrived at the same conclusion of fewer slave revolts because enslaved Africans in Latin American countries enjoyed a milder form of slavery and had more opportunity to revolt for two reasons: first because of the liberal tradition of Catholic humanitarianism, and secondly, because of the legal restriction which stemmed from that tradition. On this point, Tannenbaum writes: “what the law and tradition did was to make the social mobility easy and natural in one place, difficult and slow and painful in another.”[11] When Tannenbaum argued that the legal tradition in Latin America allowed the slave more rights and opportunity than they had in the United States, this is misleading because he only focused on the theory of slave laws as opposed to the reality underlying the laws in terms of the actual practice of slavery in Latin America. For instance, while the laws in Latin America were more liberal in theory, in practice slavery in Latin American countries were just as brutal and inhuman as in North America if not more so. Tannenbaum’s major short-coming was the primary focus on the difference in legal tradition, suggesting that there is a relationship between liberal legal code and slave insurrection in Latin America, claiming that slavery was more humane because of slaves’ protection under the law. He concludes that there were more slave revolts in Latin America because enslaved Africans were not docile, submissive and dehumanized to the point where they failed to rebel against their oppression. He believes that as a result abolition of slavery in Latin America did not require a Civil War as it did in the U.S. But, the fact remains that slavery ended in the US in 1865, and did not end in Cuba until 1886 and in Brazil until 1888 which counters this argument.

Some current works on resistances in Latin America include the following: Guillermo A. Baralt, Slave Revolts in Puerto Rico: Conspiracies and Uprisings 1795-1873, Matt D. Childs, The 1812 Aponte Rebellion in Cuba and the Struggle Against African Slavery, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006; David P. Geggus, ed., The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001; Joao Jose Reis, Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia (Johns Hopkins Studies in Atlantic History and Culture), Johns Hopkins Univ. Press 1993; Rodriguez, Junius P., ed. Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2007; Rodriguez, Junius P., ed.Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2007.

There are a number of studies which are useful.  Colin A. Palmer, Slaves of the White God:Blacks in Mexico, 1570-1650.  Harvard University Press, 1976; Gilberto Freyre, The Masters and the Slaves: A Study in the Development of Brazilian Civilization. University of California Press, 1986.  One of the best studies of slave resistance in Latin America is Leslie B. Rout Jr. The African Experience in Spanish America (1972; 2003).  However, he seems to be had been heavily influenced by Tannenbaum, when he writes that: “In the United States, the conspiracies of Nat Turner [he must have meant revolt and not conspiracy] and Gabriel Prosser have been analyzed and even romanticized, probably because of the relative scarcity of examples of large-scale revolt in that country.  The situation was different in Spanish America[12], where the Spanish were forced because of the “danger of mass slave insurrection” to suspend legal regulations, saying that, in the case of “general rebellion, sedition, or plunder,” one need not to follow the law.  “Ring leaders and their cohorts, of whatever race or color, were to be summarily dealt with by royal officials.”[13]

Thus, Tannenbaum concluded that Latin America and North America colonies developed distinctly different slave cultures‘ developing dissimilar behavior pattern among enslaved Africans in each culture.  In Elkins’ adoption of Tannenbaum’s thesis, he took the debate on step further by arguing that the reason why the slaves reacted so differently in Latin America in comparison with slaves in the United States was rooted in the liberal legal tradition, which produced no Sambos—thus more revolts against enslavement. The result was a less oppressive slave society as evidenced by incidents of rebellion. Whereas, in the United States because of the legal tradition restricting slaves’ rights, slavery in North America was more repressive and dehumanizing, producing a Sambo-like slave, leading to fewer revolts.

Elkins’ Slavery (1968) has been one of the most controversial books on slavery of this decade. His probing analysis of the slave personality is important to understanding the slave rebellion controversy. His book has forced the discussion of slavery in America to be examined in its total hemispheric context. The focus on slave personality brought a new approach to slave historiography. Nevertheless, the book aroused considerable controversy among historians and other scholars.

Elkins’ thesis follows a similar racist argument to Phillips, though with a certain degree of refinement. Like Phillips, he argues that slave revolts in North America were few, but because of different slave systems and conditions of slavery, he believed it produced docile Sambos. According to Elkin’s, “the slave (in Latin America) could actually–to an extent quite unthinkable in the United States–conceive of himself as a rebel. Bloody slave revolts, actual wars, took place in Latin America; nothing on this order occurred in the United States.”[14] Thus, because of the repressive nature of slavery in America, he concludes that its effects on the slave personality were dehumanizing and destructive, creating a slave with the psychological dependence of a child–a stereotype, Sambo-like docile creature.

Elkins’ argument differs from Phillips’ mainly in the interpretation he gives to the quality of American slavery. For Elkins, the cause was the pleasantness of the system. Phillips believed Blacks were inherently docile. Stanley Elkins continued the Phillips tradition by projecting a Sambo as the dominant plantation type. In brief, both Phillips and Elkins agree on Black docility but for different reasons. Whatever the reason of this docility, both authors believed that the results were fewer successful slave revolts. These two views have been accepted as the baseline when examining the subject of slave revolts in the Americas. One must admit that while it is true there were fewer slave revolts in America, the cause and reason lie not in the notion of inherent docility, but rather in the historical development cultures of slavery in North and South America.

While we are mainly concerned with Elkins’ views in relationship to the slave rebellion controversy, some of his other hypotheses have a direct relationship to the debate, particularly his psychological reason for the creation of Sambo. However, more important than this, are his approach to comparative slave historiography and the use of his concentration camp analogy. In this analogy, he attempts to show a parallel relation between the experience of concentration camp inmates and experience of enslaved Africans on the plantations in order to demonstrate his theories of slave personality as a factor in fewer slave revolts.

In this analogy, he compares the effects of the Nazi concentration camps on the personality of its victims with the effects of the southern plantation on the personality of the slaves. In such an analogy, the cultures must be studied in relationship to cultural differences and the corresponding times of historical development. Elkins does neither well.

According to Eugene Genovese, Elkin’s analogy is faulty for many reasons: for one, the fundamental difference between the concentration camps and plantation experience was that slaves received clothing and food designed to provide minimum comfort; for another, slaves rarely suffered from outright malnutrition. On the other hand, concentration camp prisoners received inadequate clothing and food purposely to test their reactions to extreme cold weather and the ability to work while in a state of acute hunger. According to Genovese, here lay the crucial differences; “prisoners might be kept alive for experimental purposes, but slaves received treatment designed to grant them long life.”[15]

In addition, concentration camp inmates were given meaningless tasks designed to break down and destroy personalities; whereas, slaves performed work that was productive and necessary for the survival of all. Since the plantation owners wanted the slaves to identify with their interests, slaves were allowed to develop individual personalities as long as they occasionally played Sambo. The Gestapo was not concerned with the loyalty of inmates. They deliberately denied the individuality of prisoners as a policy to break down their will to resist.[16]

Furthermore, the effects of the Nazi concentration camps on the Jewish people produced zombie like people, who can further be described as the “walking dead.” As a response to their condition, few if any, revolts occurred in the concentration camps. There are unbelievable stories of the Jews digging their own graves–total and complete submission to their oppressors. Though slaves might be seen, according to this analogy, as an earlier version of the “walking dead,” this behavior for many slaves was only a cover-up to insure their survival.

Though he rightly associates docility with the passivity of concentration camp prisoners, he is wrong to apply this to American slavery. He fails to distinguish between the master’s interpretation of the “Sambo” behavior and the slave’s knowledge of what its true nature was, a façade covering rage, despair, and hatred quite the opposite of inherent docility. It has become increasingly clear to historians that enslaved Africans played the role of Sambo simply to stay alive.

According to Tannenbaum’s hypothesis, still generally held as the norm, the Latin American colonies enjoyed a milder form of slavery than the Dutch and English colonies.  If this is true then it poses another question.  Why did Latin American and West Indian colonies decrease in population, whereas the English colonies such as the United States actually increase in population?  For example, Cuba had about 7 per cent of the whole slave trade in the Americas, yet the Black and Mulatto population of the island in 1953 was only about 1.5 million, or 3 percent of the African-American population of the Americas.[17]

These figures suggest that the endurance and expansion of slavery in America was sustained primarily by natural reproduction.  This phenomenon is unique in the history of slavery.  In no place where slavery existed did the slave population increase by natural means as it did in the United States.  For example, in the United States the slave population increased from 400,000  in 1807 to 4.5 million in 1865.[18] This figure is remarkable because the slave importation was ended for all practical purpose by 1808.  Counter to Tannenbaum hypothesis other societies with a Catholic tradition such as Saint Dominique in 1791 imported twice the number of slaves as the United States, and “yet the surviving slave population in 1865 was only 480,000.”[19]

These figures show that slave rearing was dominant in the United States, and that the slave population in the United States during the nineteenth century was being generated through natural conception which suggests the existence of a strong family unit despite the condition of slavery.

Slave breeding was not as important in Brazilian society as it was in America.  The master-class apparently felt that is was not worth the trouble to raise children when they could instead import an adult who could immediately provide maximum labor output.  As a result, Brazil and the rest of Latin America imported mostly male slaves, which created a natural biological imbalance in the ratio of women to men.  This clearly showed that Brazilians were primarily interested in labor, and not families.  In other words, the steady flow of enslaved Africans from Africa to replace the sick and dying made it impossible for a African culture to maintain itself from generation-to-generation and for the African family concept to survive.  This was not possible in the North America.

Thus given the Elkins repressive hypothesis, one could ask why the life expectancy of a slave in Latin America and the West Indies averaged only seven years.[20] As soon as a slave died from overwork another would be imported from Africa to replace him.  This is one of the major reasons why Africans were constantly being imported to Brazil until 1888.  If American slaves had a higher life expectancy of 35 years as compared to their Latin American counter-parts, it stands to reason that slavery in America was not as bad as we have been led to believe.  The fact that slaves did survive, and increase in population suggests that the Elkins’ hypothesis is incorrect and needs re-evaluation.  These facts clearly demonstrate that Latin American slavery was not milder than in America.  Elkins is walking on shaky moral ground when he argues that one form of slavery was more dehumanizing than another.  Thus it appears that this idea of a repressive slavery does not answer the question of why there were fewer slave revolts in North America in comparison to Latin America.  By exploring pertinent evidence the question can adequately be answered.

The reason for more slave revolts in Latin America had to do with the superior numbers; moreover, the process of ethnic separation played an important role in determining which countries were more susceptible to slave revolts.  Upon arrival in Brazil the various “tribal” groups were not separated as they were in America.  More than any single explanation the American policy of selective separation was one of the key reasons why there were fewer slave revolts in the United States.

In other words, the masters in the United States were consciously known to purchase slaves of different nations to forestall rebellion.  According to Carl Degler “much more significant in accounting for the difference in rebelliousness was the fact that in Brazil the continuance of the slave trade kept alive the sense of [African] identity that was the tinder from which revolts could be ignited and the fact with which they could be sustained.”[21] On the other hand in the United States the majority of slaves were born in this country and the memories of Africa were so dim as to provide little basis for the kind of migration and connection of ideas to hold a culture intact.[22] Eugene Genovese also points out that “everywhere in the Americas a correlation existed between concentration of African-born slaves and the outbreak of revolts.  Creole slaves were generally more adjusted to their enslavement than those who had undergone the shock and detachment process from Africa to America.”[23]

Thus because of the large presence of African-born slaves in Latin America, they were able to re-create much of their own culture in a new land.  Since most of the slaves in Brazil were African-born and from the same “tribal” (ethnic) group, they were able to organize into large Para-military units such as the quilombo of Palmares.  In other words, they were able to make a historical connection with other Africans of the same nations who had a similar cultural view based on a familiar world outlook.  Because they shared the same ethnic background, they were able to communicate and discuss plans for affirmative action against the slave regime in Brazil.  As mentioned earlier, because of the large Creole population in the United States, this type of historical connection was almost impossible.

Again, great pains were taken by the slave owners in the United States to separate slaves of the same ethnic origin.  Slave groups with a known revolutionary tradition such as the Igbos, Hausas, and Yorubas were generally excluded from the American market.  This process effectively eliminated any real threat of “tribal” unity, which could result in possible attempts to over-throw the slave system.

A general consensus of contemporary sources shows that slave owners in America had specific preference from where they wanted slaves to be purchased.  For instance, the Africans who were considered most suitable for the American market were the Senegalese who “had a strong Arabic strain in their ancestry, and because they were believed to be of mixed heritage were considered the most intelligent of and were especially to be trained and used in domestic service and as handicrafts worker.”  Phillips continued “they are good commanders over other Negroes, having a high spirit and tolerable share of fidelity: but they are unfit for hard work, their bodies are not robust nor their constitution vigorous.”  Mandingoes, on the other hand, were considered gentle in demeanor but prone to theft.  Since they were believed to fatigue easily, they were to be employed in the distilleries, boiling houses and to have served as watchmen against fire.[24] In Latin America the Mandingoes held a similar position.

The “Whydahs,” “Pawpaws” (Popo) from Dahomey, and “Nagoes” Yorubas of the Slave Coast were considered less rebellious than the “Coromantess” (Asanti-Fanti) of the then Gold Coast.  According to Phillips, the “Whydahs,” “Pawpaws,” and “Nagoes” were generally considered “the most highly esteemed of all,”[25] because they were “lusty and industrious, cheerful and submissive.”  While the Asanti-Fanti were prone to rebel, the Igbo were known to commit suicide and believed to have been at the bottom of most of the major revolts in Latin America.  For instance, in Haiti they say “Ibos pend cor, a yo”–The Ibo hang themselves.  Dr. J. S. Harris has noticed this same tendency among the “Calabar” or Igbo of Africa.  Calabar is another generic name for Igbos.[26] In the United States the biographer of Henry Laurens remarked that in South Carolina “the frequent suicides among Calabar slaves indicate the different degrees of sensitive and independent spirit among the various Negro tribes.”[27]

According to Phillips description of the Igbo he writes:  As to the Eboes or Mocoes, described as having a sickly yellow tinge in their complexion, jaundiced eyes, and prognathous faces like baboons, the women were said to be diligent but the men lazy, despondent and prone to suicide.[28] According to Phillips the place where slave traders were instructed to avoid was the kingdom of Gabon.  He writes: “From thence a good Negro was scarcely ever brought.  They are purchased so cheaply on the coast as to tempt many captains to freight with them: but they generally die either on the passage or soon after their arrival in the islands.[29]”

The Igbo, Yorubas, Fon, Ijaws, and Asanti-Fanti all found their way to North America.  However, in comparison to the rest of the ethnic groups the Igbos and Gaboneans were almost completely excluded from the North American slave markets.  These factor more than Elkins Sambo theory or any other explanation accounts for the differences in social tradition.  These cultural factors clearly demonstrate that the frequency of revolts had little to do with the repressiveness of the system, but rather the condition of slavery, the preferences of slavers, and how each enslaved African community adapted to changing realities on the ground.

Post Author: slaverebellion