BLACK REBELLION: CRUSHING THE MYTH OF THE ‘DOCILE SLAVE’

amistad ship revolt 1
by Lisa Insansa Woods

The structure of white supremacy feeds off the narrative of the ‘docile slave.’ Painting Black people in history as submissive beings upholds the white conscience; it tapes over white people’s historical and present reliance on oppression for their mental stability and superiority, by suggesting that Black people were willingly inferior. When, in reality, Black people have been rebelling with might since their capture.

Slave ship mutinies

Although the exact number cannot be certain due to insufficient records, an estimated 15-20% of all slave ships that left the shores of Africa never reached the Americas due to on-board insurrections. Africans – some of whom were warriors – mutinied against their white oppressors during the Middle Passage, sometimes killing the crew and sailing back to freedom.

The most famous slave ship rebellion was in 1839 on La Amistad (which inspired the 1997 Steven Spielberg film “Amistad”). The revolt on La Amistad took place during a voyage from Havana, Cuba to the Cuban plantations in which 53 newly-captured Africans (the Mende people) from Sierra Leone, including leader Joseph Cinqué, took control of the ship and ordered it to be taken back to their homeland. The Africans were tricked and the ship was seized in New York. The case of La Amistad was significant as it led to the famous Supreme Court case “United States v. Schooner Amistad” which deemed that the 43 African survivors were free people who acted to defend their liberty. The case led to their repatriation.

an estimated 15-20% of all slave ships that left the shores of Africa never reached the Americas due to on-board insurrections

The Amistad was but one case in a pool of many other slave ship rebellions, such as the mutiny on the Clare, the Meermin, the Creole and the Little George, to name a few. As well as major revolts on board ships, the Africans on board the vessels also rebelled in individual acts of violence, refusing to eat, or jumping off board to suicide in resistance to being controlled.

Maroon communities

Another method of revolt during slavery was the formation of maroon communities, following the Africans’ arrival in the New World. Maroon communities were settlements of runaway slaves. They were the antithesis to white European colonial expansion and the oppressive slavery system in the Americas. Maroon communities were so widespread that they were referred to as “the chronic plague” of the New World.

Maroon communities were established mostly by first generation slaves who still had visions of Africa. Their settlements were birthed in inhospitable areas within the bushy wilderness and impenetrable jungles surrounded by pits or swamps. The people of these communities practised successful guerrilla warfare against the colonists (sometimes in the form of plantation raids, which were especially frequent in Suriname); gained economic independence and established trade networks, for example by selling crops such as yams, sweet potatoes, plantain, sugar cane, tobacco, cotton and many other plants and vegetables; and held onto their African culture through customs such as the spiritual practice of Obeah.

File:Incendie de la Plaine du Cap. - Massacre des Blancs par les Noirs. FRANCE MILITAIRE. - Martinet del. - Masson Sculp - 33.jpg
Incendie de la Plaine du Cap. – Massacre des Blancs par les Noirs. – Public Domain

The maroons often had contact with the Native populations through skill-sharing, trade or merely through mutual suffering – although, the two parties did not always unite. As well as Natives, maroons worked alongside slave populations in order to smuggle arms, intelligence and other objects from the plantations. These aid networks allowed maroon communities to flourish and some are still present today, such as the Saramaka, or “Bush Negroes,” who are the largest surviving maroon community, located in Suriname. 

As well as full marooning, “petit-marronage” was a common practice during slavery. This refers to the act of slaves leaving their plantation for a short period of time to visit friends or family on nearby plantations. It was so frequent that over time it became an accepted part of slave society. Resistance also came in the form of practising one’s traditional culture, to full-blown insurrections, to merely resting.

Slave plantation insurrections

Slave insurrections on the plantations were an overt form of resistance. We can look back at famous struggles, such as the Nat Turner rebellion and the successful Haitian Revolution which led to the establishment of the first and only slave society in the New World. However, underneath these two well-documented cases, lie hundreds of others.

Resistance also came in the form of practising one’s traditional culture, to full-blown insurrections, to merely resting.

For example, during the period from 1807 to 1835, Brazil’s Bahia region was continually experiencing revolts: 1807, 1809, 1813, 1816, 1826, 1827, 1830, up to the Malê revolt of 1835, also known as “The Great Revolt,” where a group of Black Muslim slaves and free people rebelled against the government – it was a revolt inspired by the Haitian Revolution and is often marked as a turning point in Brazilian slavery.

Missing history

We only know the details of The Great Revolt due to the efforts and works of a small group of people; within those details, however, lies dispute due to the government’s conscious suppression of facts surrounding the event. This is the case for a lot of Black history. Dr John Henrik Clarke, an African-American history and pioneer of Pan-African studies, referred to African history and the history of the African diaspora as “the missing pages of world history.” This comment by Clarke is the inspiration for Akala’s seminar of the same name.

Instead of highlighting the powerful revolutionary history of Black people, we see condescending narratives, such as the “Uncle Tom” or the “Mammy.” These two stereotypes can be accredited to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” – the best selling novel of the 19th century. Although an abolitionist text, Uncle Tom’s Cabin perpetuated the regressive stereotype of the child-like, submissive slave – a stereotype that still exists, even in a supposed “anti-racist” context.


It exists within the white-saviour narrative that plagues perceptions of the Black community in the Global North and the Global South through aid campaigns, the media, and government intervention; it exists in the veneration of Martin Luther King’s peaceful tactics and simultaneous subduing of reactive activism; and it exists in anti-racism education that exerts the “poor them” discourse, instead of focusing on Black rebellion.

Black people do not need saving. They need reparations. They need the white world to stop lying about Black history and about present-day racism. But most of all, and as the missing pages of history show us, Black people will continue to rise up in revolt until all oppressive systems are finally destroyed.

Featured image in public domain


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