Protagonists of Resistance against the European Slave Trade
On this page we are presenting selected "Protagonists of Resistance" against the European Slave Trade, women and men who had the courage and strength to resist and fight one of the greatest crimes against humanity. People like Toussaint Louverture, who put an end to slavery in Haiti, or Olaudah Equiano who in 1794 published his autobiography "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African, written by himself" which became a bestseller of the anti-slavery movement, or Nanny of the Maroons, the national hero of Jamaika, who in 1720 founded "Nanny Town", a free settlement giving refuge to all fugitive ensalved Africans, or Harriet Tubman, who has been called "Moses of the people" because she helped liberate more than 300 enslaved Africans through the so-called Underground Railroad. These portraits are part of the Exhibition "Protagonists of Resistance", which was compiled in the framework of the interdisciplinary commemoration "200 Years later..." and received the UNESCO Tousaint Louverture Medal.
Olaudah Equiano (ca. 1745 – March 31, 1797)
Olaudah Equinao was born in 1745 in the Eboe area (present day Southern Nigeria). Together with his sister he was kidnapped at the age of approx. 11 and sold to slave traders. He survived the atrocious middle passage on the way to Barbados and then Virginia. Having been sold many times, he earned money by trading on the side and in only three years saved enough money to buy his freedom from Robert King. Equiano then spent much of the next 20 years travelling the world, including Turkey and the Arctic. During the 1780’s Equiano was involved in the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade and became a prominent member of the ‘Sons of Africa’, a group of 12 black men who campaigned for abolition. In 1782 he brought the Zong massacre, during which 133 slaves were thrown overboard, to the attention of campaigner Granville Sharp. In 1789 he published his autobiography, ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African’. He travelled widely promoting the book, which became immensely popular, helped the abolitionist cause, and made Equiano a wealthy man. It is one of the earliest books published by a black African writer. Equiano died on 31 March 1797.
Luiza Mahin (19th Century)
Luiza Mahin, born at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was an Afro-Brazilian freedom fighter who belonged to the African nation Nagô, practitioners of Islam. Luiza Mahin was involved in the articulation of all revolts and uprisings of slaves in the Brazilian province of Bahia in the first decades of the nineteenth century. A street vendor by profession, she used her business as a distributory cell for messages and leaflets in the resistance struggle. She played a central role in the rebellions “Revolta dos Males” (1835) and „Sabina“ (1837-1838). Had they been victorious, Louise would have been been recognized as Queen of a free Bahia.
Gaspar Yanga (1570 – 1609)
Gaspar Yanga—often simply Yanga or Nyanga—was a leader of a slave rebellion in Mexico during the early period of Spanish colonial rule. Said to be a member of the royal family of Gabon, Yanga came to be the head of revolting slaves near Veracruz around 1570. Escaping to the difficult highlands, he and around 500 people built a small free colony. It grew for more than 30 years. Upon the approach of the Spanish troops, Yanga sent terms of peace via a captured Spaniard. Essentially, Yanga asked for a treaty with an area of self-rule, in return for tribute and promises to support the Spanish if they were attacked. The Spaniards refused the terms, and a battle was fought, yielding heavy losses for both sides. The Spaniards advanced into the settlement and burned it. However, the people fled into the surrounding, difficult terrain, and the Spaniards could not achieve a conclusive victory. Eventually, Yanga’s terms were agreed to, with the additional proviso that Yanga’s family would be granted the right of rule. Finally, in 1630, the town of Yanga, Veracruz was officially established, the first Free Town in America. It remains to this day.
Queen Nzingha “Queen of Ndongo” (1582 – 1663)
Queen Nzingha was an African head of state and military leader. Her extraordinary story begins about 1582, the year of her birth. She is referred to as Nzingha, or Jinga. She was the sister of the then-reigning King of Ndongo, Ngoli Bbondi, present day Angola. Nzingha descended from the ethnic group of the Jagas, an extremely militant group that continuously fought against the Portuguese slave traders. Nzingha never accepted the Portuguese conquest of Angola. As part of her strategy against the invaders, she formed an alliance with the Dutch. In 1623, at the age of forty-one, Nzingha became Queen of Ndongo. She forbade her subjects to call her Queen though, and preferred to be referred to as King, and when leading an army in battle, dressed in men’s clothing. In 1659, at the age of seventy-five, she signed a treaty with the Portuguese, after having resisted them for most of her adult life. Her bravery, however was no match for gun powder. Queen Nzingha died in 1663, her death was followed by the massive expansion of the Portuguese slave trade.
King Amador (16th Century)
Rei Amador (King Amador) was the King of the Angolares Kingdom and the leader of the famous Slave Revolt of 1595 on the West African Islands São Tomé e Príncipe. According to historical documents, Amador was a slave who mobilized other Africans to escape their enslavement and help create their own free kingdom, a Kilombo. He escaped and built a free nation on the inner South of the islands. The Revolt took place on July 9, 1595. King Amador and his people, the Angolares, alliated with other Africans, marched from the inner forests and fought against the Portuguese. It is said that on that day, Amador raised a flag in front of the colonials and proclaimed himself the King of São Tomé e Príncipe, becoming known as King Amador – the liberator of all Black people. The 4th of January is a national day in São Tomé e Príncipe, a day to commemorate King Amador but also the Slave Revolt against the Portuguese slavery system. Still today, Rei Amador is actively remembered and commemorated on the islands as a historical figure of African self-determination and freedom. A statue of King Amador was inaugurated in 2004 by General Secretary of the United Nations, Kofi Annan.
Joseph Cinqué (1813 – ca. 1879)
Sengbe Pieh (1813 – ca. 1879), later known as Joseph Cinqué, was a West African who led a slave revolt on the Cuban Amistad slave ship in 1839. He was born around 1813 in what is now Sierra Leone. He was a rice farmer, married with three children when he was kidnapped in 1839 and imprisoned on the Portuguese slave ship Tecora. He was taken to Cuba where he was sold with 52 others to Spaniards José Ruiz and Pedro Montez. Together with many other Mendians, he was shipped on the Amistad bound for a Cuban sugar plantation. On June 30 Cinque incited the slaves to revolt at sea, killing the captain and cook and taking “their owners” as prisoners. Cinque requested Montez to pilot the vessel to Africa, but Montez reversed the course repeatedly towards North America. There the men were charged with mutiny and murder, awaited trial in New Haven, Connecticut. Cinqué served as the group’s informal representative. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, which ruled in March 1840 that the Africans mutinied to regain their freedom after being kidnapped and sold illegally. The Court ordered the Africans to be freed and to be returned to Africa, if they wished, which they did.
Nat Turner (Oct 2nd 1800 – Nov 11th 1831)
Nathaniel Turner was an African-American who led one of the most successful slave revolts in the USA. Born a slave on Oct. 2, 1800, in Southampton County, VA, he already exhibited notable qualities as a child, making many believe he was destined to be a prophet. He preached to other slaves, convincing many to resist and rebel against the institution of slavery. In February 1831, he took a solar eclipse as a sign to stage an insurrection, which he began on August 21. They killed approx. 60 whites throughout Southampton County but spared a family of poor whites who owned no slaves. On August 23, Turner‘s black liberation army was overpowered by a superior State and Federal military force. Over 100 black people were slain in the encounter, many more executed. Turner escaped and was not caught until October 30. Six days after having been tried, he was hanged, and then skinned, for trying to free his people from slavery. His so-called Confessions were not written by him at all, assembled instead out of a series of jail cell interviews by white Virginia lawyer Thomas R. Gray. In the hysterical climate that followed Turner’s revolt, close to 200 black people were murdered by white mobs.
Abraham the African Seminole Leader (approx. 1780’s – ? )
Abraham, sometimes called “Negro Abraham” in historical references, was an African-Native-American soldier and politician. He was born in Georgia and for a time he lived in Pensacola, FL, where he worked as a servant for a physician, Doctor Sierra. Abraham joined the British army under Major Edward Nichols during the War of 1812, who promised freedom to any slave who joined him. Abraham had fled the army of Andrew Jackson and helped build the fort at Prospect Bluff in Florida. When Nichols and Upper Creek Chief Joseph Francis set sail for England in 1815, Abraham stayed behind in the Fort, which had become a haven for Africans who had escaped from slavery. The fort was attacked and destroyed during the first Seminole War (1817 – 1818); Abraham was one of the few survivors. He made his way to a Suwannee River Town in Florida where he continued fighting during the first Seminole War and became known as “Sauanaffe Tustunnagee” (Suwannee Warrior). He lived in an African town in Florida called Pilaklinkaha, or Many Ponds, and was adopted as a member of the Seminole Nation. He became the Prime Minister of the Cowkeeper Dynasty and a chief adviser to Micanopy, principle chief of the Alachua Seminole. Abraham even served as an interpreter for Micanopy in 1826 when a delegation of Seminole Chiefs visited Washington D.C. By the time of the relocation to the new Indian Territory Abraham was responsible for the negotiations.
Jean-Jacques Dessalines (September 20, 1758 – 17 October 1806)
Jean-Jacques Dessalines was a leader of the Haitian Revolution and the first ruler of an independent Haiti. He was a slave on a plantation until he was about 30 years old. In 1791, he joined the slave rebellion led by Papillon and Biassou and met Toussaint Louverture. In 1794, after the French declared an end to slavery, Dessalines followed Toussaint who rallied with the French flag against the Spaniards and the British. However, Napoleon Bonaparte sent a formidable expeditionary force in 1802 to bring Toussaint in line and to secretly restore slavery. During the 11 March 1802 battle, Dessalines and his 1,300 men resisted assaults from 18,000 men. After Toussaint’s capture on 7 June 1802, Dessalines achieved a series of victories against the French, culminating in the last major battle of the Revolution, against Rochambeau. After the surrender of the French colonial army on 4 December 1803, Dessalines officially declared Independence in Gonaïves on 1 January 1804, returning to the Arawak name “Haiti”. On 22 September 1804, he proclaimed himself Emperor of Haiti. He forbade whites from owning property or land there. Dessalines was assassinated north of Port-au-Prince on 17 October 1806.
Queen Nanny of the Windward Maroons (ca. 1680s Ghana – 1750s Jamaica)
Queen Nanny was a spiritual, cultural and military Maroon leader at the beginning of the 18th Century and stands out in history as one of Jamaica’s national heroes. She was born in present day Ghana and is described as a fearless Asante warrior who used refined military techniques to fool and beguile the English. She escaped slavery and established herself in the Windward hills of Jamaica. Queen Nanny became particularly skilled in organising the guerrilla warfare carried out by the Eastern Maroons to fend off the British troops who attempted to penetrate the mountains to overpower them. Queen Nanny was particularly instrumental in the fierce fight against the British during the First Maroon War from 1720 – 1739.
Toussaint Louverture (May 20, 1743 – April 8, 1803 )
Toussaint Louverture was the pre-eminent figure of the Haitian Revolution. Born Bréda into slavery in Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) in a plantation near Cap Français and later freed. On August 29 he published a manifest calling on to struggle for freedom, using the name Louverture (The Opening) for the first time. In 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte an expedition of 20,000 soldiers and secret orders to retake control of the colony and to reinstitute slavery. Toussaint’s rebel forces put up fierce resistance, ultimately causing Napoleon to commit 40,000 additional troops. Toussaint was the Governor General of Saint-Domingue from April 1, 1797 to May 5, 1802. Toussaint was eventually betrayed, kidnapped, and taken to a prison in the French Alps. He remarked: “In overthrowing me, you have cut down only the trunk of the tree of liberty. It will spring up again by the roots, for they are numerous.” Toussaint Louverture died in Fort de Joux on April 7, 1803, unaware that his army would rally behind the leadership of his former general, Jean Jacques Dessalines, to win independence for good. France only acknowledged Haiti’s independence in 1825, but Haitians had to pay “reparations” to the former slave owners until 1938!
Harriet Tubman (ca. 1820 – March 10, 1913)
Harriet Ross Tubman was an African-American who, as an agent for the Underground Railroad, helped hundreds flee captivity. Born a slave in Dorchester County, Md., she demonstrated resistance even as a child. At the age of 12 she was seriously injured by a white overseer for refusing to assist in tying up a man who had attempted escape. She escaped in 1848. She is believed never to have lost a charge, returning to the South 20 times to help app. 300 slaves. In 1850 the Federal Fugitive Slave Law was reinforced with a clause that promised punishment to anyone who aided an escaping slave and a price of $40,000 was set for Tubman’s capture. After the failing of John Brown’s insurrection, which she supported, she engaged on an intensive speaking tour in 1860, calling for the abolition of slavery and a redefinition of woman’s rights. After the Civil war, Harriet Tubman was denied a government’s pension and had to struggle financially for the rest of her life. In 1857 Harriet Tubman had bought a house in Auburn, N.Y. During her last years she turned it into a home for the aged and needy. She died there on March 10, 1913, leaving the home as a monument to her character and will.
Sojourner Truth (ca. 1797 – 1883)
Sojourner Truth was an African-American freedom fighter and orator. She was born Isabella Baumfree in Ulster County, N.Y., the daughter of an African named Baumfree (after his Dutch owner). In 1827, after New York had passed an emancipation act freeing its slaves, she prepared to move away with her family. But her then “owner” began to show reluctance to this, so she ran away, only taking along her youngest child. After exercising menial jobs in New York City, she left on a pilgrimage to spread the truth of God’s word and help her people in freeing themselves, and in this period assumed her new name. Soon her reputation as an orator spread. Truth engaged the courts in two rather unusual cases, winning them both and establishing precedents. Thus, she became the first black to win a slander suit against prominent whites, and the first black woman to test the legality of segregation in Washington, D.C. streetcars. During the Civil War, Truth helped fugitive slaves find work and housing and raised money from her lectures. After the war she continued her campaigning for the Lord and against “racial” injustice, even in the sanatorium of Battle Creek, Mich., where she died on Nov. 26, 1883.
Jean-Baptiste Belley (ca. 1746 – ca. 1805)
Belley was born on 1 July 1746 or 1747 on the island of Gorée, Senegal. At the age of two, he was sold to slavers sailing for the French colony of Saint-Domingue. He bought his freedom with his own savings, according to his own account as told by historian Thomas Madiou. In 1793, Bellay was a Captain of infantry, fought against the colonists of Saint-Domingue and was six times wounded. On 24 September 1793, he was one of three members elected to the French National Convention by the northern region of Saint-Domingue, thus becoming the first black deputy to take a seat in the Convention. On 3 February 1794, he spoke in a debate in the Convention when it decided unanimously to abolish slavery. Belley remained as a Convention member until 1795, then seated at the “Conseil des Cinq-Cents”. He returned to Saint-Domingue with Charles Leclerc’s expedition of 1802 as an officer of gendarmes, but he was arrested, sent back to France and imprisoned in the fortress of Belle-Île. He was still being held prisoner there in 1805 when he wrote to Isaac Louverture, the son of Toussaint Louverture. He died later the same year.
Margaret Garner (? – 1858)
Margaret Garner was an African American woman in pre-Civil War America whose story embodies the desperate resistance to slavery. On January 28, 1856, the pregnant Margaret Garner and her husband Robert Garner, together with family members made a daring escape from their enslavement on two neighboring Kentucky plantations. They fled to Cincinnati, Ohio, where slave catchers and police eventually found them barricaded inside the house of a free man named Kite. The fugitives courageously fought for their freedom. Robert Garner fired several shots and wounded at least one deputy marshal. Margaret declared that she would kill herself and her children rather than seeing them return to slavery. She killed her two-year-old daughter with a butcher knife, after which she attempted to take the life of the other children and her own, but she was overpowered and hampered before she could complete her desperate work. Margaret was not immediately tried for murder, but was forced to return to a slave state and died in 1858 of typhoid fever. Her story was the inspiration for the novel Beloved by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, as well as for her libretto for the early 21st century opera Margaret Garner.
Henry Highland Garnet (December 23, 1815 – February 13, 1882)
Henry Highland Garnet was an African American abolitionist and orator. Garnet was born a slave near New Market in Kent County, Maryland. His family escaped to free-state Pennsylvania in 1824. Attending, amongst others, the African Free School, Garnet began his career in abolitionism while still in school. After becoming a pastor in 1842, he joined the American Anti-Slavery Society. By 1849 Garnet began to support emigration of blacks to Mexico, Liberia, or the West Indies, and founded the African Civilization Society. He lectured two and a half years in Great Britain and spent three years as a pastor in Jamaica. During the American Civil War, he organized black troops for the North. In the New York draft riots of 1863, he and his daughter had a narrow escape from mobs targeting blacks. Serving as the pastor of the Liberty (15th) Street Presbyterian Church, he became the first black minister to preach to the House of Representatives in 1865. He also worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau, where he was involved in developing programs to help former slaves. After the war, Garnet became U.S. Minister to Liberia in late 1881, but died two months later. He was given a state funeral and was buried in Monrovia.
Gabriel Prosser (ca. 1775 – 1800)
Gabriel Prosser was a skilled and literate enslaved blacksmith who planned and led a large slave rebellion in the Richmond area in the summer of 1800. Together with Jack Bowler and George Smith, two other slaves, Prosser designed and planned a scheme for a slave revolt during the spring and summer of 1800. They planned to seize control of Richmond and then to establish a kingdom of Virginia with Prosser as king. In the months preceding the attack Prosser recruited supporters and organized them into military units. Authorities never discovered how many slaves were involved, but there were undoubtedly several thousand, many armed with swords and pikes made from farm tools by slave blacksmiths. On August 30, 1800, Gabriel hoped to lead the slaves into Richmond, but torrential rains postponed the rebellion. Governor James Monroe and the state militia suppressed the rebellion. Gabriel and 26 other enslaved people who participated were hanged. Gabriel’s Rebellion was important as a sign of the desire slaves had for freedom. In response, the Virginia authorities and other legislatures passed restrictions on free blacks, as well as the education, movement and hiring out of the enslaved.
Frederick Douglass (February 14, 1818 – February 20, 1895)
Frederick Douglass was the foremost African American abolitionist in antebellum America. Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in February 1818 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, he was sent to Baltimore at the age of eight to live as a houseboy. When his owner forbade his wife to instruct Douglass in reading and writing, Frederick took it upon himself to learn from the neighbourhood boys. After attempting to escape from a professional slave breaker, Douglass succeeded in escaping at the age of twenty by impersonating a sailor. Whenever he could he attended abolitionist meetings, and in October, 1841, after attending an anti-slavery convention on Nantucket Island, Douglass became a lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. He published his own newspaper, The North Star, participated in the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, in 1848, and wrote three autobiographies. He was internationally recognized as a tireless worker for justice and equal opportunity. He became a trusted advisor to Abraham Lincoln, United States Marshal for the District of Columbia, Recorder of Deeds for Washington, D.C., and Minister-General to the Republic of Haiti. He died in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 20, 1895.
Dred Scott (1795 – September 17, 1858)
Dred Scott was a slave in the United States who fought a legal battle for his freedom in the famous Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857. He was born in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1799 as a slave of the Peter Blow family. Scott’s extended stay with his master in Illinois, a free state, gave him the legal standing to make a claim for freedom. Scott filed suit to obtain his freedom in 1846 and went to trial in 1847 in a state courthouse in St. Louis. Scott lost the first trial, but the presiding judge granted a second trial because hearsay evidence had been introduced. Three years later, in 1850, a jury decided that Scott and his wife should be freed. In 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court struck down the lower court ruling finding that neither he, nor any person of African ancestry, could claim citizenship in the United States. The Scotts were again returned to their masters. The case raised the issue of a black slave who lived in a free state. Congress had not asserted whether slaves were free once they set foot on Northern soil. Scott continued to live in St. Louis until his death on Sept. 17, 1858. African Americans would not become citizens of the US until the ratification of the 14th Amendment (1868).
Boukman Dutty (said to have been called “Book Man” in Jamaica because he was able to read) was sold by a British slaveholder to a Frenchman (thus his name became “Boukman” in Haiti). A giant with an imposing stature, and the courage to match, he was a houngan (Voodoo priest), exercising an undisputed influence and command over his followers, who knew him as “Zamba” Boukman. He had come to Haïti by way of Jamaica and lived and fought as a maroon in the forest of Morne Rouge. On August 22, 1791, Boukman conducted a ceremony at the Bois Caïman and prophesied that the slaves Jean François, Biassou, and Jeannot would be leaders of a slave revolt that would free the slaves of Saint-Domingue.
Thus began the great 13-year struggle that culminated in the independence of Haiti, as the first black nation in the world. Boukman was killed in November 1791 in a French counteroffensive. The French publicly displayed Boukman’s head after his execution, vainly attempting to dispel his aura of invincibility. Haitians honored Boukman by admitting him into the pantheon of loa (Voodoo spirits).
Zumbi dos Palmares (1655 – November 20, 1695)
Zumbi also known as Zumbi dos Palmares, was the last of the leaders of the Quilombo dos Palmares, in the present-day state of Alagoas, Brazil. Quilombo dos Palmares was a huge self-reliant republic of Maroons who had escaped from the Portuguese settlements in Bahia, with a population of over 30,000 at its height. Born free in Palmares in 1655, Zumbi was kidnapped by the Portuguese and given to a missionary, when he was approximately 6 years old. Zumbi escaped in 1670 and, at the age of 15, returned to his birthplace, soon becoming a respected military strategist. By 1678, the governor of Pernambuco, Pedro Almeida, approached Palmares leader Ganga Zumba with a deal. Unlike Ganga Zumba, Zumbi refused to accept freedom for the people of Palmares while other Africans remained enslaved. He challenged Ganga Zumba’s leadership and became the new leader of Palmares. Fifteen years later, the Palmares republic fell. Betrayed after having eluded the Portuguese and continued the rebellion for almost two years, Zumbi was kidnapped and beheaded on the spot November 20, 1695. His head was displayed in Recife. November 20 is celebrated, chiefly in Rio de Janeiro, as a day of black awareness.