1200 Years of Reistance: Five Lesser Taught Black Led Slave Revolts

History, Society and Culture

Last week was the 155th celebration of Juneteenth, the commemoration of a federal announcement made in Galveston, Texas on June 19th 1865 that all slaves in the state were officially free — two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was made.

Liberty has always come late. Delaware and Kentucky, slaveholding border states during the Civil War, did not outlaw slavery until December of 1865 when the 13th amendment was ratified, and it is widely acknowledged that clandestine slavery persisted in the United States until as recently as the 1960’s.

Still, the symbolic strength of Juneteenth and what it meant and still means for millions of people is worth memorializing. Not in the name of a false benevolence, not as the end of racism, oppression or violence, but as a sign of hope and a beacon for something better.

As momentum increases to officially make Juneteenth a federal holiday in the US, it is important we remember the legacy of resistance that preceded that Monday in June 155 years ago.  It is important to keep fresh in our minds that the evils of racism, bondage and servitude have been known and rebelled against as long as history can recall, and that we, today, can carry the righteous rage of those who have fought before us forward and towards a truly free tomorrow.

Below are 5 pivotal though lesser known slave revolts which helped to pave the way towards a liberty we are still very much fighting for today.

The Zanj Rebellion (869-883)

We often think of slavery in terms of centuries —one and a half since slavery was abolished in the US, four since the transatlantic slave trade was established— but the Zanj Rebellion forces us to see just how long and brutal the African slave trade truly was.

Begun by the Black poet-prophet ‘Ali ibn Muhammad in 869, the Zanj Rebellion was a major uprising of East African, Bantu-speaking slaves against the Abbasid Caliphate. The conflict started around the city of Basra in present day Iraq and steadily blossomed along the banks of the Tigris. For 14 years ‘Ali ibn Muhammad and a multiracial, multisect, multi class coalition of Zanj, Bahraini, Bedouin and other freedom fighters engaged in multilateral guerilla warfare against the Abbasid Caliphate; freeing slaves, capturing cities, erecting forts, forming a navy and minting their own coins.

The widespread success of the first years of the rebellion as well as it’s early Islamic egalitarian inspirations drew people from across West Asia to join in the revolt.  It’s breadth, ferocity and death toll led to it becoming one of the most well documented and extensively described military campaigns of early Islamic history.  When ‘Ali ibn Muhammad was captured and killed by the Abbasid Caliphate in 883, effectively squashing the rebellion, the death toll is estimated to have reached anywhere between 500,000 and 2,500,000 people.  It wasn’t until 1858, a thousand years later,  that the Ottoman Empire finally outlawed the Zanj slave trade, though it persisted even after the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 that eradicated the open selling and trading of Zanj women in Constantinople.  

São Tomé and Príncipe Rebellion (1595)

Reí Amador on a São Tomé and Príncipe dobras note.

On July 9th, 1595 a man now known as Reí Amador, having avoided enslavement, organized a large-scale uprising of Angolar slaves on the volcanic island of São Tomé off of the northwestern coast of Gabon. The island had been established as a Portuguese “slave depot” around 1500, and by the 1590’s were sending thousands of people a year to Europe and the Americas. Amador and the Angolares marched into the interior of the island and raised a flag before a contingent of Portuguese colonizers, declaring himself “Reí (king in Portuguese) Amador, liberator of all Black people.”

The Angolar success in the ensuing battle allowed for Reí Amador and the Angolares to establish a free state on the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe that lasted until January of 1596 when Reí Amador was captured and killed by Portuguese forces. Successive Kilombo free states continued on the islands for centuries until they finally gained independence from Portugal in 1970. In 2005, January 4th was declared an official holiday honoring Reí Amador in São Tomé and Príncipe.

Gaspar Yanga’s Revolt (1609-1618)

Gaspar Yanga from a mural in the Palacio Municipal of Xalapa, Veracruz

In 1570 Gaspar Yanga, a member of the royal family of Gabon who had been captured and sold into slavery in present day Mexico, led a group of escaped slaves into the highlands of Veracruz to establish a palenque that would come to be known as San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo. For over 30 years, thanks in part to the densely forested terrain and the strength of its inhabitants, the settlement maintained control of the region and attracted escaped slaves and defectors who helped to sustain the community through routine raids in Spanish supply caravans along the Camino Real that connected Veracruz and Mexico City.

In January of 1609, some 550 spanish colonial forces began a campaign to capture the territory. As Gaspar Yanga had reached an old age the resistance was led on the ground by a younger Angolan man named Francisco de la Matosa. After refusing a treaty with Yanga, Spanish colonial forces descended on the settlement, burning it to the ground in the process, but the inhabitants escaped into the surrounding mountains and maintained a decade-long stalemate. In 1618, after sustaining continual losses at the hands of Yanga’s free forces, the Spanish Colonial government signed a treaty granting the settlement sovereignty, and by 1630 the town of San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo was officially established.

In 1871 the Mexican government designated Gaspar Yanga “El Primer Libertador de las Américas” and a national hero of Mexico.  San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo in the state of Veracruz was officially named Yanga in his honor in 1932.

First Maroon Wars (1728-1740)

Queen Nanny of the Maroons

In the late 1710’s and early 1720’s Nanny, an Ashanti woman born in Ghana, established a free state community, or maroon, in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica. For years Nanny, along with a cadre of escaped slaves dubbed the Windward Maroons, maintained steady control of the region, venturing into the surrounding territories to free slaves and raid plantations and colonial armories for supplies and weaponry. In 1728, after seizing colonial control from the Spanish, English troops advanced on the territory of the Windward Maroons and the large settlement, Nanny Town, within it.

Over the following six years English forces routinely attempted to capture Nanny Town, succeeding on several occasions but never being able to maintain control.  The military tactics of the Windward Maroons, which included long distance communications, camouflage, organized ambushes and well trained troops, allowed them to maintain dominance in the region and cause major losses for the British.  

By 1734 the skirmishes had dwindled and British troops retreated from the area after burning Nanny Town to the ground, though for the next 6 years a military campaign consisting of regular raids and slave freeing operations by the Windward Maroons continued to mount British losses.  On April 20th, 1740 the British colonial government agreed to a treaty which granted Queen Nanny and the Windward Maroons sovereignty, along with over 500 acres of land upon which the community of New Nanny Town was established and still stands today.

Queen Nanny has been recognized as a national hero of Jamaica and her likeness appears on the $500 Jamaican dollar bill, affectionately referred to as a Nanny.  Her fierce military might and strength as a leader has awarded her a reverent and broad admiration from anti-colonial resistors for nearly 300 years.  

The German Coast Uprising (1811)

1811 Revolt by Lorraine Gendron, 2000

In January of 1811, Charles Deslondes, a creole man born into slavery in Haiti, along with Marie Rose, Jessamine and others organized between 200 and 500 slaves and maroons to rise up against the plantations in present day St. John the Baptist Parish along the Mississippi River. Known as the German Coast due to the history of German settlements in the 1600s, the area was home to a number of large plantations host to thousands of enslaved peoples.

On January 8th, Deslondes, Rose and many of the 86 slaves who lived with them on the Andry plantation took up arms and killed one slave driver and severely wounded Manuel Andry, the plantation owner, with an ax.  Over the following four days Charles Deslondes and his cadre marched up the German Coast toward New Orleans, sacking plantations and freeing slaves along the way.  While their numbers grew greatly, the rebellion only claimed two lives, the slave driver and one other man on the outskirts of New Orleans when they were confronted by a planter militia formed by Manuel Andry and forced to turn around.  

On January 11th the militia attacked and eventually claimed the lives of 95 anti-slavery resistors, including Deslondes who was brutally tortured and killed.  It is thought that more than 100 slaves escaped the attack though many more were returned to the plantations they’d so desperately tried to escape.

While the German Coast uprising was ultimately repressed, word of the scale and ferocity of the insurgency spread and played a critical role in influencing Nat Turner’s Southampton revolt and John Brown’s abolitionist attack on Harper’s Ferry. On November 8th of 2019, artist Dread Scott and filmmaker John Akomfrah organized a re-enactment of the revolt, with hundreds of people making the 26 mile march along the German Coast from St. John the Baptist Parish to New Orleans in full period regalia and arms.

Depiction of the Haitian Revolution against the French-1805

These five instances are merely glimpses into a long lineage of bravery, strength and resistance. They are meant to remind us that the battle for justice, liberty and freedom is recurring and constant, and though wrought with sorrow and pain, eternally and profoundly necessary.

Don’t give up the momentum.

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