African slaves in the Americas endured grim and arduous conditions for centuries, with no hope for social mobility so long as they were enslaved. Many resisted in a variety of ways, ranging from refusing to comply with their master to using violence. Each of these efforts, regardless of their severity and outcome, were part of a larger movement meant to maintain Africans’ sense of their culture, community, and freedom. When resisting slavery, slaves relied mainly on knowledge retained from Africa and adapted it to their life in the Americas. Had the African traditions pertaining to religion, warfare, kinship and relations with other communities been forgotten, their efforts to resist would have been significantly less successful.
African religious practices helped many slaves protect themselves from their masters. Africans who did not willingly affiliate with Christianity believed that witchcraft could be helpful or harmful, as portrayed in Recreating Africa by James Sweet. They believed that malevolent witchcraft resulted in a sudden or dramatic socioeconomic divide between the tormentor and the community, which they experienced through enslavement. Africans came to believe that they were victims of European witchcraft and retaliated with some of their own.
1 The immediate goals of witchcraft ranged from self-defense against beatings to serious attempts to hurt the master or his family. One cook during the 1780s conspired with several slaves to put feitiços, or spells, in their master’s food, causing paralysis and an extreme illness. While 2 malicious witchcraft was rarely used in Africa unless self-defense was necessary, slaves in the Americas sometimes killed other slaves in order to target their owner’s economic welfare. Slaves learned to adapt the use of witchcraft to target the priorities of slave owners in the Americas. Slaves retained African skills and strategies that helped them in warfare in the Americas. Among those who were sold as reparations for debt, as punishment for crimes or as captives from raids, many slaves were prisoners of war. Throughout the Kongolese civil wars during the mid- to late seventeenth century, many soldiers were captured and sold into slavery.
These 3 slaves were equipped with firearm training and strategies that differed vastly from those of the Europeans. Those slaves who served as soldiers in Africa would teach and protect those who did not. In maroons, escaped slaves were skilled at guerilla warfare, which could undermine the traditional European open-battle tactic. Although they had to learn about their environment in 4 order to use this strategy in battle, their retained knowledge on guerilla warfare helped them overcome the obstacle of having fewer soldiers by capitalizing on the element of surprise. African slaves often thought of their communities in the Americas in terms of kinship. Extremely loyal to each other, they owed one another a “broad range of mutual obligations,” as put by Leslie S. Rowland and Ira Berlin .
These obligations ranged from protection to raising the children of another slave 5 when necessary. Maroons, or runaway slaves who formed communities for protection, used African principles and adapted them to American geographical conditions. As depicted in Maroons and Their Communities, many maroon groups disguised their area, used traps and created “false paths carefully mined with pointed spikes or leading only to fatal quagmires,” 6 Berlin and Rowland’s article gives examples of ways in which slaves’ familial connections were inhibited: slaves could not marry, could be separated or sold at any point, and generally lacked power over their children, while owners could discipline slaves’ children as they pleased. One 7 might argue that, because masters had the power to monopolize the parent role, African knowledge in the Americas would have diminished within several generations of slavery. To the contrary, slave owners often allowed familial ties, to encourage reproduction and thus develop their labor force.
Given this opportunity to spend time together, slaves taught their children African traditions and helped them apply this knowledge to better survive, and sometimes to escape, their harsh conditions in the Americas. In the piece Slave Communities are Grounded in Family and Kinship, Berlin and Rowland portray the importance of family to slaves: Slaves reserved their harshest judgement against their owners not for insufficient food, shabby clothing, inadequate shelter, overwork, or even gratuitous violence but for playing havoc with their families. Many slaves carried in their minds detailed genealogies that reached back generations, sometimes to an African root. That familial root, which nurtured people of African descent through the years of bondage, also shaped their vision of a future in freedom.
8 The extent to which communal values were ingrained in African culture added a key incentive for resistance. This issue triggered so much violence that it caused many slave owners to yield to some of the slaves’ demands. Slaves understood that the “struggle for mastery” stemmed from their own families, and that they needed to raise their children in a specific way to eventually be freed. As a result, the use of African tradition in the Americas continued to pass through 9 generations. Slaves forged connections with allies through the languages and religions learned in Africa. Only as a result of the similarity between the Spanish and Portuguese languages was the Spanish governor of Florida able to offer freedom to Kongolese slaves in South Carolina. According to African Dimensions of the Stono Rebellion by John Thorton, “Kongolese slaves would have seen the Spanish offers in terms of freedom of religion (or rather, freedom of Catholic religion) as additionally attractive beyond promises of freedom in general.” The 10 prospect of freedom in Florida appealed to these slaves not only because they would be freed, but because they would likely fit in better in a Catholic, Spanish-speaking society.
Thus, it is possible that their quality of life would be better as freed slaves in Spanish Florida than in an English colony. If not for the culture of the Kingdom of Kongo, very few, if any slaves would have had the ability to communicate with the Spaniards, and the Stono Rebellion may never have taken place in the capacity that it did. Additionally, maroons would often ally with nearby slaves, as well as Native American and European middlemen, who would help by warning them of attacks and supplying them with everyday staples. Amerindians taught slaves techniques for fishing and hunting in their area. Spanish intermediaries in Florida sold meat and fish to the 11 maroons and supplied them with arms in return, and some maroons depended economically on plantations by using trade, extortion, or more aggressive approaches for a gain. Through these 12 networks, fugitive slaves gained access to information and supplies that were likely critical to their survival and freedom, and they may never have forged these networks if not for their African understanding of kinships. Fortunately, maroons knew how to use these reciprocal relationships to their advantage in the Americas.
The use and adaptation of African knowledge proved to be most commonly used and most effective for slave resistance. European unfamiliarity with African practices gave slaves an edge because Europeans did not know how to combat these tactics. Europeans had rules for open battle, but witchcraft, guerrilla warfare, and African kinship were less intuitive to them.
Even when escape was not achieved, a firm grasp on African tradition helped slaves cope with the brutal and inhumane conditions suffered on American plantations.