Shipboard Revolts, African Authority, and the Atlantic Slave Trade

TitleShipboard Revolts, African Authority, and the Atlantic Slave Trade
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2001
AuthorsRichardson, David
JournalWilliam and Mary Quarterly
Pagination69 - 92
Date Published01/2001

Violent and nonviolent resistance by Africans against European enslavement are now well known in the annals of transatlantic slavery. No longer is it possible to posit, in the words of one eminent historian, "the myth of slave docility and quiescence." Yet the scholarly literature on the subject has been overwhelmingly concerned with slave resistance in the Americas, even in those cases where historians acknowledge that plantation-based revolts were but one element in a spectrum of resistance that transcended Africa, the Middle Passage, and the Americas. This article seeks to redress the imbalance in the literature by examining patterns of slave revolts on board ships at the African coast and in the Atlantic crossing between circa 1650 and 1860. Using newly revealed quantitative data, it attempts to uncover explanations of these revolts and to assess their impact on the level, as well as the structure of the slave trade. The analysis suggests that rebelliousness by slaves on ship and the resulting efforts by European carriers of slaves to curb such behavior significantly reduced the shipments of slaves. In addition, the analysis uncovers major variations in the incidence of revolts over time and, equally important, by geographical origin of the slaves shipped. These variations cannot be explained by reference to failure of European management regimes on slave ships but seem instead to be rooted in differences in the political economy of the various African slave supply regions. Overall, therefore, patterns of shipboard revolt shed important light on the impact of Africa and Africans on the organization and scale of the Atlantic slave trade as well as on the relationship of the trade in enslaved Africans to the development of Atlantic history.

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