Resistance and freedom

Photograph of newspaper advert for runaways

Advertisement for runaways from Barbados Mercury, Saturday 7 January 1797. Read the text from this advertisement.

Whatever they did and wherever they worked, Africans and their descendants faced brutal oppression and a total lack of freedom. This was because owners lived in a constant fear of rebellion. Owners and overseers frequently mistreated their slaves: they abused the women and often raped them. They inflicted physical and degrading punishment for minor offences. In law, slaves were property with no rights and no freedoms.

Slaves fought back by working slowly, by destroying equipment or by acts of individual revenge. Occasionally they injured or killed their owners and families, or in desperation committed suicide. Many ran away. Some established communities of runaways (or maroons) in the swamps and mountains out of the reach of slave owners. The impact of this day-to-day resistance was not lost on the owners and over time slaves won some minor rights.

The rape of Black women by white men, as well as more conventional relationships, resulted in a growing population of people of mixed race. In general white fathers disowned their mixed race children. The majority of people of mixed race were slaves, as were their descendants. Even if free, they were treated as inferior by whites and suffered discrimination.

Some slaves were freed by their owners, others were able to buy their freedom. This was possible for those who had been able to earn some money by growing and selling a few crops, making objects to sell or by using their skills.

By 1800, there were substantial numbers of free Black people in the United States, the Caribbean and Brazil. However they were still denied most of the rights enjoyed by white people.

Europeans and Africans inevitably influenced each other's social, religious and cultural customs. As new generations were born into a slave society so a new mixed culture, called Creole, developed across the social classes, strictly defined by race and colour. Family and community life were sustained away from the gaze of the owner and ensured the survival of languages, songs, music, stories and the practice of religion. These supported a whole culture which resisted the dehumanising effects of slavery.