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How Did Slaves Resist Slavery?

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Day-to-Day Resistance

The most common form of resistance available to slaves was what is known as “day-to-day” resistance, or small acts of rebellion. This form of resistance included sabotage, such as breaking tools or setting fire to buildings. Striking out at a slave owner's property was a way to strike at the man himself, albeit indirectly.

Other methods of day-to-day resistance were feigning illness, playing dumb, or slowing down work. Both men and women faked being ill to gain relief from their harsh working conditions. Women may have been able to feign illness more easily--they were expected to provide their owners with children, and at least some owners would have wanted to protect the childbearing capacity of their female slaves. Slaves could also play on their masters' and mistresses' prejudices by seeming to not understand instructions. When possible, slaves could also decrease their pace of work.

Women more often worked in the household and could sometimes use their position to undermine their masters. Historian Deborah Gray White tells of the case of a slave woman who was executed in 1755 in Charleston, South Carolina, for poisoning her master. White also argues that women may have resisted against their special burden under slavery—having to provide slaveholders with more slaves by bearing children. She speculates that women may have used birth control or abortion to keep their children out of slavery; while this cannot be known for certain, White points out that many slave owners were convinced that female slaves had ways of preventing pregnancy.

Throughout the history of American slavery, Africans and African Americans resisted whenever possible. The odds against slaves succeeding at a rebellion or in escaping permanently were so overwhelming that most slaves resisted the only way they could—through individual actions. But slaves also resisted the system of slavery through the formation of a distinctive culture and through their religious beliefs, which kept hope alive in the face of such severe persecution.

Sources

  • Banks, James A. March Toward Freedom: A History of Black Americans. Belmont, CA: Fearon Publishers, 1970.
  • Ford, Lacy K. Deliver Us From Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press US, 2009.
  • Franklin, John Hope and Loren Schweninger. Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. New York: Oxford University Press US, 2000.
  • Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press US, 2004.
  • White, Deborah Gray. “Let My People Go: 1804-1860” in To make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans, ed. Robin D. G. Kelley and Earl Lewis, 169-226. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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