Slaveholding societies always lived in fear of the people they kept in bondage. Slave populations were typically much larger than those of their masters, and the anger provoked by a life in chains often spilled over into violent revolts and uprisings. But while these rebellions were usually defeated in brutal fashion, in some instances the slaves managed to escape persecution and even went on to set up their own communities and countries. Find out more about seven groups of slaves who risked everything for a chance at freedom.
Spartacus was a Thracian gladiator who commanded a massive slave army during the Third Servile War, the largest and most successful slave rebellion in Roman history. The uprising began in 73 B.C. when Spartacus and a small band of slaves escaped from a gladiator school by using kitchen utensils as weapons. Slaves from across the Roman countryside soon flocked to join the revolt, and the rebel army caused a panic in the Roman senate after it defeated a militia at Mt. Vesuvius and two legions near Mt. Garganus.
According to the ancient historian Appian, as more slaves joined the uprising their ranks swelled to include as many as 120,000 former bondsmen. But despite their early victories, the slaves later fell prey to disunion and split into several unorganized factions. The main rebellion was then defeated in 71 B.C. after eight Roman legions commanded by Marcus Lucinius Crassus cornered Spartacus and demolished what remained of his army. Spartacus died in the battle, and 6,000 surviving slaves were later crucified along a Roman highway as a brutal warning against future revolts.
One of the most famous slave revolts in American history came in 1831 when Nat Turner led a bloody uprising in Southampton County, Virginia. Turner was deeply religious, and planned his rebellion after he experienced prophetic visions ordering him to gain his freedom by force. On August 21, 1831, Turner and his accomplices killed his master’s family as they lay sleeping. From there, the small band of about 70 slaves moved from house to house, eventually killing over 50 whites with clubs, knives and muskets. It took a militia force to put down the rebellion, and Turner and 55 other slaves were captured and later executed by the state.
Hysteria swept through the region in the aftermath of Nat Turner’s revolt, and as many as 200 slaves were eventually killed by white mobs and militias. The rebellion also triggered a series of oppressive restrictions on slave populations. Citing Turner’s intelligence as a major factor in his revolt, several states would pass laws making it illegal to teach blacks to read or write.
Long before African slaves were ever brought to North America, they incited a rebellion in the Middle East and went head to head with an empire. The insurrection began in 869 A.D. when Zanj slaves—an Arabic term used to describe East Africans—joined with an Arab revolutionary named Ali bin Muhammad and rose up against the Abbasid Caliphate. Spurred on by promises of land and freedom, the Zanj began conducting night raids on nearby cities in order to seize supplies and liberate fellow slaves.
What began as a humble revolt slowly grew into a full-scale revolution that lasted 15 years. Slaves, Bedouins and serfs all joined with the rebels, who at their height supposedly numbered over 500,000. These revolutionaries even amassed a navy and controlled as many as six fortified cities in modern-day Iraq. The Zanj Rebellion would finally end in the early 880s after the Abbasid army mobilized and conquered the rebel capital. Ali bin Muhammad was killed in the battle, but many of the Zanj were spared and were even invited to join the Abbasid military.
The most successful slave rebellion in history, the Haitian Revolution began as a slave revolt and ended with the founding of an independent state. The main insurrection started in 1791 in the valuable French colony of Saint-Domingue. Inspired in part by the egalitarian philosophy of the French Revolution, black slaves launched an organized rebellion, killing thousands of whites and burning sugar plantations en route to gaining control of the northern regions of Saint-Domingue.
The unrest would continue until February 1794, when the French government officially abolished slavery in all its territories. The famed rebel general Toussaint Louverture then joined forces with French Republicans and by 1801 had established himself as governor of the island. But when Napoleon Bonaparte’s imperial forces captured Louverture in 1802 and attempted to reinstate slavery, the former slaves took up arms once again. Led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, in 1803 they defeated French forces at the Battle of Vertières. The following year the former slaves declared their independence and established the island as the new republic of Haiti. News of the first successful rebellion—the only slave uprising in history to end with the foundation of a new country—went on to inspire countless other revolts throughout the United States and the Caribbean.
One of the earliest slave revolts in North America saw a group of African slaves effectively conquer the Danish-owned island of St. John. At the time, most of St. John’s slaves were part of the Akan, an African people from modern-day Ghana. Plagued by widespread illness, droughts and harsh slave codes, in November 1733 a group of high-ranking Akans began to plot against their Danish masters.
The rebellion began when a group of slaves used smuggled weapons to kill several Danish soldiers inside a fort at a plantation called Coral Bay. Another 150 conspirators soon converged on the island’s other plantations, killing several white colonists and eventually seizing command of most of St. John. The slaves planned to claim the island and its valuable farmland as their own, but their freedom was ultimately short-lived. After only six months of Akan rule, in May 1734 several hundred French troops arrived and violently put down the rebellion. It was not until 1848 that slavery was finally abolished in the Danish West Indies.
While it started as a peaceful protest, Jamaica’s Baptist War ended with a bloody uprising and the death of over 600 slaves. Inspired by abolitionist movements in Great Britain, on Christmas Day 1831 as many as 60,000 of Jamaica’s 300,000 slaves went on a general strike. Under the direction of a Baptist preacher and slave named Samuel Sharpe, the bondsmen vowed not to return to work until they were awarded basic freedoms and a living wage.
When rumors spread that British colonists planned to break the strike by force, the protest turned into an outright rebellion. In what became the largest slave uprising in the history of the British West Indies, the slaves burned and looted plantations for several days, eventually causing $1.1 million in property damage. The human toll was much more severe. By the time the British colonial army mobilized and put down the revolt, as many as 300 slaves and 14 whites had been killed. Three hundred more slaves—including the ringleader Sharpe—were later hanged for their involvement in the uprising. While it may have been unsuccessful, the effects of the Baptist War were eventually felt all the way across the Atlantic. Only one year later, the British Parliament would once and for all abolish slavery in the British Empire.
Known as the “first liberator of the Americas,” Gaspar Yanga was an African slave who spent four decades establishing a free settlement in Mexico. Yanga’s odyssey began in 1570 when he staged a revolt at a sugarcane plantation near Veracruz. After fleeing into the forest, Yanga and a small group of former slaves established their own colony, or palanque, which they called San Lorenzo de los Negros. They would spend the next 40 years hiding in this outlaw community, surviving mostly through farming and occasional raids on Spanish supply convoys.
Colonial authorities succeeded in destroying San Lorenzo de los Negros in 1609, but they were unable to capture Yanga’s followers and eventually settled for a peace treaty with the former slaves. Now in his old age, Yanga negotiated the right to build his own free colony as long as it paid taxes to the Spanish crown. This municipality—the first official settlement of freed Africans in the Americas—was finally established in 1630 and still exists today under the name “Yanga.”