Photo Research in Action Jason Sharples

The Truth Behind Slave Rebellion Rumors

Jason Sharples, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of History
Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters

Are there examples of real burnings and murders under slavery?   

The burnings and murders that occurred most often — by far — were committed by white enslavers against the people whom they enslaved. White enslavers were not held accountable in the law for destroying their own “property.” American governments also killed free and enslaved Black people in these ways. Enslaved Black people, for their part, sometimes committed murders and organized rebellions, but not nearly as often as White people feared and expected. Enslaved Black people did set fire to buildings as a form of resistance that could not easily be traced back to an individual arsonist. For example, they burned buildings and equipment at a crucial moment to disrupt the agricultural cycle and perhaps avoid a particularly grueling task while also making their point.

In your eyes Dr. Sharples, what is the difference between European white and Spanish (Spain) white?    

The concept of a person being “white” changed a lot through time. I’ll answer about the 18th century, but keep in mind that several groups, such as the Irish and Sicilians, were not considered white in America until the 20th century. The U.S. government also continually revised census forms to redefine who counted as white. In the 18th century, whiteness also differed by the culture of each society. In the 18th century, the same person could be considered non-white in Cuba in the Spanish Empire and then travel to New York in the British Empire and immediately be considered white.

Are you familiar with the book “The Counter-Revolution Of 1776,” which theorizes that a major cause of the American Revolution was fear of slave rebellions and abolition, spurred by the Somerset Decision of 1772.    

Several leaders in southern colonies who participated in the American Revolution explicitly said that one of their main grievances was that the British threatened to undo the American system of racial chattel slavery. A large and growing body of scholarship now acknowledges this, including the book that you cite, as well as my own book. Robert Parkinson’s Thirteen Clocks is perhaps that best on the subject.

What were differences in Black enslaved populations in the North versus the South, ie. New York slavery?   

Regional cultural differences for enslaved Black populations in the 18th century can be explained through the demographic history of each region — birth rates and death rates. In southern colonies, birth rates were lower and death came earlier because enslavers who grew staple crops found it more profitable to work people closer to death and to keep them on the brink of starvation. Malaria and pulmonary diseases were also common in the water landscape where enslaved people were forced to grow rice. In these areas, with fewer children born into slavery, enslavers purchased replacement slaves directly from the slave ships that came from Africa. Depending on the political history of the kingdoms of West Africa, those ships might come predominantly from one cultural group in Africa (say the Igbo) or another (the Akan, say) in any given moment. When forced migrants from various regions of Africa arrived in large numbers at a country plantation where they could live in slave quarters in close proximity to each other, they could maintain their African cultural ways. In contrast, more northerly colonies had slave economies (and disease environments) that tended to permit enslaved people to have relatively more children, even though they still suffered a great deal of abuse and malnutrition. The growing American-born population, moreover, tended to live in smaller groups and more closely with their enslavers and other White colonists. In New York City, for example, they would inhabit the same house. Anyone who had been born in Africa had a harder time maintaining their cultural traditions, particularly with restrictions on their movements after dark on city streets that were easily surveilled by police.

How did believe in God, i.e. Sojourner Truth?    

Enslaved people, particularly those born in America rather than Africa, increasingly practiced Christianity. Several stories from the Bible spoke to their condition: Jonah and the whale, Daniel in the lion’s den, the Exodus and the Hebrew Day of Jubilee. Christianity also promised liberation in the afterlife even if it wasn’t achieved in this life. Some missionaries tended to enslaved Christians. Some enslaved individuals themselves became preachers and led their flocks whenever their enslavers weren’t looking. Faiths from Africa also crossed the Atlantic with forced migrants. Some were Muslims (Islam had a strong presence in the northern reaches of West Africa). Others brought West African belief systems that are less familiar today. Many practiced what we would call magic. Often these various religions mixed together as these vulnerable people looked for any available tool to grapple with their exploitation.

How long did a typical "conspiracy scare" last? Was this something that played out over weeks or months?    

They typically lasted weeks rather than months, at least for those on which we have that kind of data. The major events, in which many lives were lost, lasted two to four months.

What would you propose as some possible factors contributing to establishing fear in the investigators in the 18th century that were possibly absent in ancient civilizations and empires?   

British colonial and U.S. slavery, as a system of exploitation, had fewer “safety valves” than ancient slavery or even the 18th-century Spanish empire’s slavery. It provided fewer opportunities for enslaved people to become free through legal means such as self-purchase. There was also a racial component to American slavery and American society that may have made white people feel that the stakes were especially high — especially after the Haitian Revolution.