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Slave No More

Slave No More: Self-Liberation before Abolitionism in the Americas

Aline Helg
Translated from the French by Lara Vergnaud
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  • Book Info
    Slave No More
    Book Description:

    Commanding a vast historiography of slavery and emancipation, Aline Helg reveals as never before how significant numbers of enslaved Africans across the entire Western Hemisphere managed to free themselves hundreds of years before the formation of white-run abolitionist movements. Her sweeping view of resistance and struggle covers more than three centuries, from early colonization to the American and Haitian revolutions, Spanish American independence, and abolition in the British Caribbean. Helg not only underscores the agency of those who managed to become "free people of color" before abolitionism took hold but also assesses in detail the specific strategies they created and utilized.

    While recognizing the powerful forces supporting slavery, Helg articulates four primary liberation strategies: flight and marronage; manumission by legal document; military service, for men, in exchange for promised emancipation; and revolt-along with a willingness to exploit any weakness in the domination system. Helg looks at such actions at both individual and community levels and in the context of national and international political movements. Bringing together the broad currents of liberal abolitionism with an original analysis of forms of manumission and marronage, Slave No More deepens our understanding of how enslaved men, women, and even children contributed to the slow demise of slavery.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-4965-8
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    During the mid-eighteenth century, between fifty-three thousand and seventy thousand African captives were brought to the Americas each year to be sold at slave markets. These men, women, and children soon realized that after surviving the long Atlantic crossing in slave ship steerage compartments, they would have to set out on foot, often chained to other slaves, toward the plantation, mine, or home of the master who had purchased them, somewhere on a Caribbean island, in the colony of Georgia, on the Pacific coast of South America, or in Brazil. Whippings, hunger, thirst, disease, and death were omnipresent, but these...

  2. PART I Settings and Eras

    • 1 The Slave Trade and Slavery in the Americas Transcontinental Trends
      (pp. 17-40)

      Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Christian Western Hemisphere relied on the enslavement of Africans and their descendants to varying degrees. To this end, thousands, and later tens of thousands, of men, women, and children were deported from Africa to the Caribbean and the American continent every year for nearly four centuries. In total, according to estimates by Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, approximately 12,332,000 Africans were loaded onto slave ships bound for the Americas.¹ In all likelihood, an additional 8 to 10 million died during capture, marches to African ports, or the long wait in coastal depots....

  3. PART II From Conquest to the End of the Seven Years’ War (1501–1763)

    • 2 Marronage A Risky but Possible Path to Freedom
      (pp. 43-63)

      Historically, among all social groups, flight has been the strategy the most commonly used to escape, in the short or long term, a condition judged to be intolerable or unalterable. The same is true of slaves. Most of the men and women taken in Africa undoubtedly thought of escaping at the moment of their capture, and then during their transport and confinement in coastal depots: some of those who tried to flee succeeded, individually or in groups. That is illustrated by the fact that the very term quilombo, or a Brazilian maroon community, has a Central African origin: it refers...

    • 3 Self-Purchase and Military Service Legal but Limited Paths to Emancipation
      (pp. 64-81)

      Like marronage, self-purchase and military service were among the strategies used by slaves to obtain their freedom beginning with the first slave ship’s arrival in Hispaniola. And, like marronage, those strategies paved the way for the slow abolition of slavery throughout the nineteenth century. However, in contrast to marronage, they were forms not of revolt but rather of individual, familial, and at times community resistance that used existing legislative frameworks to escape a condition of servitude. The letter or certificate of freedom obtained by an emancipated slave was not only a legal document often carried on his or her person,...

    • 4 Conspiracy and Revolt The Most Perilous Paths to Freedom
      (pp. 82-110)

      Up until the age of revolution and independence in the Americas, slaves, like all other exploited classes, rarely revolted against their masters by killing them and destroying their places of work. When they did, it was generally in order to flee rather than an attempt to construct an alternate society that they would dominate and in which they would be free. In reality, lacking support or any challenges to the institution of slavery from other social sectors, the most radical strategy available to slaves was to escape to territories that had not yet been conquered by whites and in which...

  4. PART III The Age of Revolution and Independence (1763–1825)

    • 5 Slaves as Actors on the Path to U.S. Independence
      (pp. 113-139)

      After the Seven Years’ War, slaves in the Americas adapted previously tested liberation strategies and developed new ones in response to a broad series of transformations. Over the subsequent decades, the colonial map of the Americas was redrawn, prompting a rebalancing of power among Europe’s monarchies both on the continent and in the Caribbean. Furthermore, Great Britain, France, and Spain, countries whose royal coffers had been drained by armed conflicts, were showing their desire to better control and exploit their colonies. Those upheavals, which coincided with the rise of philosophies espousing natural rights and fundamental freedoms, were the basis of...

    • 6 From the Slave Revolt in Saint Domingue to the Founding of the Black Nation of Haiti
      (pp. 140-163)

      The French Revolution, even more than the process of U.S. independence, expanded opportunities for enslaved peoples to resort to liberation strategies they had already tested in the past. The revolution gradually disrupted the balance of power, not only within French society and between France and its colonies, but also within every society in the French Caribbean. The interests of slave-owners and the French state drifted apart, creating vast rifts that were quickly exploited by slaves in search of freedom. At first, conflicts between royalist and revolutionary whites and between whites and free people of color encouraged enslaved men to enlist...

    • 7 The Shock Waves of the Haitian Revolution
      (pp. 164-196)

      The massive slave insurrection in northern Saint Domingue in August 1791 took both the Americas and Europe by surprise. Yet the uprising did not truly represent the “unthinkable,” to borrow an expression from anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot, given that fears of a planned slave revolt entailing the destruction of centers of production and the murder of whites had haunted colonial elites regularly since the discovery of a presumed conspiracy in Mexico City in 1537.¹ In reality, the truly “unthinkable” came with the outcome, thirteen years later, of the process begun in Saint Domingue in 1791: the Haitian Revolution—visible proof, in...

    • 8 The Wars of Independence in Continental Iberian America New Opportunities for Liberation
      (pp. 197-218)

      Bonaparte’s invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 1807–8 disrupted relations between the kings of Portugal and Spain and their respective subjects on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. At the same time, as had occurred in 1776 in the British colonies and in 1791 in Saint Domingue, enslaved peoples in Brazil and in Spanish viceroyalties were beginning to hope that the changing relationships between their king and their masters would lead to their liberation or an improvement in their condition. But although the Spanish king’s abdication and the Portuguese king’s escape to Brazil immediately cast doubt on Europe’s relationships with...

  5. PART IV Defending Slavery versus Abolitionism (1800–1838)

    • 9 Marronage and the Purchase of Freedom Old Strategies in New Times
      (pp. 221-244)

      Between 1770 and 1825, revolutions and independence wars disrupted relations between colonists and Europe, leading to power vacuums and waning control over territories, both of which aided enslaved peoples in their quests for freedom. In Great Britain’s and Spain’s continental colonies, conflicts between loyalists and separatists and the population displacements that they generated enabled thousands of slaves to flee their masters, buy their freedom, or enlist in armies in exchange for promised emancipation. Nonetheless, only slaves in Saint Domingue, who constituted the vast majority of the population, were able to carry out a massive uprising—after which they merged the...

    • 10 Revolts and Abolitionism
      (pp. 245-273)

      At the same time that the Congress of Vienna was ending conflicts between empires in Europe and the Americas, a new kind of uprising erupted in the British colonies, between 1816 and 1831. Claiming to act in the name of reforms from the British Parliament and liberating Christianity, enslaved men and women revolted in numbers never before seen in that region to demand their emancipation. Their rebellions coincided with the growing conflict pitting British slaveholders against the royal government, which allowed captives to glimpse an alternative authority to planters, on which they could base their claims and demands for freedom....

  6. Epilogue
    (pp. 274-286)

    When I began this diachronic project about slaves’ self-liberation across the entirety of the Americas and the Caribbean, I had only one certitude, based on U.S., Latin American, Caribbean, and European historiography since the 1980s: that not only did many slaves attempt to free themselves, but some did so successfully, to the extent that they transformed their societies. Drawing from extensive studies of local, provincial, and national archives on both sides of the Atlantic, much of the published scholarship that served as major inspiration for my critical inventory focused on slaves as historical actors. That “bottom-up” perspective, which this endeavor...