TeacherServe Essays

Slave Resistance

Author: Sweet, James H. (NHC Fellow, 2006–07)

Slave resistance began in British North America almost as soon as the first slaves arrived in the Chesapeake in the early seventeenth century. Forms varied, but the common denominator in all acts of resistance was an attempt to claim some measure of freedom against an institution that defined people fundamentally as property. In addition to everyday forms of resistance, slaves sometimes staked more direct and overt claims to freedom. The most common form of overt resistance was flight. If caught, runaways faced certain punishment—whipping, branding, and even the severing of the Achilles tendon. Those lucky enough to evade detection sought sanctuary in Native American communities, marshy lowlands like the Great Dismal Swamp along the Virginia/North Carolina coastal border, and, eventually, Canada and the free states of the American North. The most spectacular, and perhaps best-known, forms of resistance were organized, armed rebellions. Slave rebellions in colonial America and the United States never achieved much widespread success; however, the importance of rebellion cannot be overstated.

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Subjects: History; Education Studies; Slave Resistance; Enslaved Persons; Rebellions; Fugitives from Slavery; African American History