The beginning of chattel slavery in North America birthed something else: Rebellion. Enslaved people didn’t just engage in passive resistance against slaveholders—they planned and participated in armed revolts. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, enslaved Africans and African Americans in British North America and the United States staged hundreds of revolts.
Fed by a longing for freedom and occasionally inspired by slave actions in other parts of the region— especially the Caribbean—slave uprisings in the United States were daring, desperate, and inevitably doomed. Along the way, the organizers and participants of the rebellions shattered stereotypes of compliant, contented slaves, and challenged the institution of slavery itself.
Revolts evolved alongside slavery. The first known slave rebellion in one of England’s American colonies took place in Gloucester County, Virginia in 1663, 44 years after the first slaves arrived in the British colony. The Servants Plot, as it was known, involved white and black indentured servants who rebelled against the colony’s exploitative tobacco cultivation industry. Their plot failed and at least four men were hanged.
The incident unsettled planters. At the time, the tobacco economy relied on white and black indentured servants with finite contracts and some rights under the law. The uprising convinced many to trade their reliance on indentured servants and embrace race-based slavery instead. Planters increasingly purchased and enslaved Africans who had been kidnapped and brought to America by Dutch and English slavers; unlike indentured servants, these laborers had no contracts and their bondage was passed on to their children. (These were the first enslaved people to arrive in the American colonies in 1619.)
As more enslaved Africans arrived in American colonies, they continued to rebel. A 1712 slave rebellion in New York City killed at least nine white slave holders, while in 1739, up to 100 black people in colonial South Carolina participated in the Stono Rebellion, the largest slave uprising in British North America. The revolt resulted in some laws intended to discourage uprisings and rein in brutal slaveholders, but fomented fear of black rebellion. The colonies already had strict slave codes designed to govern the behavior of enslaved people. In response to the Stono Rebellion, laws became increasingly draconian.
Terrified of enslaved Africans, white slaveholders reduced their reliance on African-born slaves and stoked a growing trade in African American chattel. In all 14 slave states and the District of Columbia that were part of the newly born United States, laws restricted enslaved people’s assembly, travel, worship, literacy and more. (Watch divers uncover the history of slave shipwrecks.)
Many slave codes were based on similar laws in the Caribbean. Ironically, the 1791-1803 Haitian Revolution, a massive uprising in which enslaved and free black people joined together to overthrow French slaveholders on Saint-Domingue, inspired enslaved people in the United States to participate in the exact kind of resistance slave codes were designed to prevent. The uprising sowed a fear of insurrection in slaveholders, who passed the Fugitive Slave Act, a law that required every state to return runaway slaves to slaveholders, in response to the revolution.
But that law did not keep enslaved laborers from running away—or fighting back against those who sold, purchased, and exploited them. In 1811, more than 500 enslaved people armed with knives, guns, and farm tools rebelled on Louisiana’s German Coast. Fueled by the success of the Haitian Revolution, the highly organized group planned to establish an independent black state. They were felled by a local militia and U.S. troops, who brutally punished the fighters. The German Coast Uprising was the largest slave revolt in United States history.
The 1831 Nat Turner rebellion, organized by an enslaved preacher in Virginia, was the bloodiest to both white and black people. During a day-long rampage, Turner and his followers killed at least 55 white people. During the aftermath, at least 30 men were executed after trials before a panel of judges who were themselves slaveowners. White people attacked, tortured, and killed at least 36 more enslaved people they suspected of rebellion. Martial law was eventually declared and the uprising stoked even more fear and mistrust between white slaveholders and black people in bondage. (Historians are still making new discoveries about the enslaved preacher and his rebels.)
As abolitionists challenged the institution of slavery from the North, enslaved people kept resisting in the South. In 1859, John Brown planned to arm up to 500 enslaved people after an attack on the United States arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia. Brown’s plan did not succeed and he was executed along with several co-conspirators. Nonetheless, the revolt has been called “a dress rehearsal for the Civil War,” and increasing tensions over slavery tipped the nation into chaos less than two years later.
“The revolts were all doomed from the start,” writes historian Joseph E. Holloway, “and yet slaves still revolted against insurmountable odds in the fight for their personal freedom and liberty.” Slave rebellions in British North America and the United States were all unsuccessful, but they underscored the cruelty of the institution—and fueled a sense of unease among those whose fortunes depended on the forced labor of others.
Significant slave rebellions in British North America and the United States include:
1663: Servants Plot, Gloucester County, Virginia (four or more executed)
1739: Stono Rebellion, Stono, South Carolina (44 executed)
1791: Haitian Revolution
1741: New York City Conspiracy (over 100 executed or otherwise punished)
1811: German Coast Uprising (at least 84 killed in battle or executed)
1822: Denmark Vesey’s Revolt (35 executed)
1831: Nat Turner’s Revolt (30 executed)
1859: Harper’s Ferry Raid (five executed)