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The Power of Resistance

Slaves used resistance as a powerful tool to fight against slavery on board of the slave ships used to transport them across the Atlantic Trade. Before becoming cargo on board slave ships, slaves suffered as captives on land at the hands of both Africans and European. Slavery in Africa was not as harsh as slavery on board the slave ship, yet slaves still endured horrific treatment. It was on land that resistance began amongst those being held captive. Equiano, a slave who was brought onto a slave ship at the age of eleven, resisted against African slavery in ways that reflected similar resistance on board of the slave ship. Equiano and his sister, “when offered food…refused to eat” and also “took deep solace in the companionship of [each other].”[1] By resisting, slaves separated themselves from being ordinary cargo. They did not stay silent; they acted out and made sure that their displeased presence was known on board the slave ship and to their captors. This resistance forced all the non-slaves present to think about slavery in a context other than trade and profit. The most effective form of resistance to slavery on board of slave ships was the creation of relationships with other slaves because those relationships gave way to a culture of resistance that forced the people of authority involved with slave ships to take action.

Resistance amongst slaves heading to the slave ship and on board the slave ship was so prevalent that it became part of the culture. Resistance was used as a form of expression because it gave slaves on board the ship an identity. By resisting, slaves were showing their oppressors that they were people who had a voice and control over their own body. There were several different kinds of resistance, including: suicide, refusal to eat, refusal to answer to names given to them by their captors, understanding how the shipped worked, communicating with other slaves, and starting rebellions. Refusal to eat food given to them by their captors was “commonplace on the slave ship.”[2] It does not make sense for someone who is starving and not had food or water to refuse it when it is offered to him or her. Slaves weren’t being stupid when they refused to eat or drink, they were making a statement. Slaves were showing that they were in control and that they had autonomy. Suicide was form of resistance because it gave the slaves control over their lives and destiny. By committing suicide, slaves weren’t ending their lives; instead they were finding a way to get back home to their family. Slaves were escaping their torment and finding their own freedom through resistance.

The most powerful response to slave resistance was separating slaves from their friends and ‘fictive kin.’ This stripped slaves of their identity and took away any companionship and solace they might have found aboard the ship. Despite the fact that “many of [the slaves spoke] differently,” slaves were still able to communicate with one another and build relationships. [3] Slaves created a family among their “shipmates” and turned to them for comfort “when [they] were in distress,” just like one would with his or her own family.[4] Through communication, slaves became companions and created a culture formed out of resistance. Communication and the formation of relationships between slaves had a significant impact on slavery because slavers had to be weary of rebellion and what resistance meant for the survival of the slave ship and the practice of slavery.

Resistance meant that the slaver now also had to be concerned with the safety of their ship and the people on board of the ship. The impact of resistance was that slave ships began to account for some of the resistance. The resistance also impacted the physical slave ship; netting was placed on the sides of the ship to prevent suicides. Captains and those not enslaved on the slave ship cared about the suicide rate, not because they cared for the well being of slaves but because they cared about an increase in riots and resistance. Also, a slave life cost them a lot of money. Merchant owners wrote in letters to captains that “the enslaved must be constrained by netting and chains” because “merchants feared suicide and especially insurrection among the enslaved.” [5] Merchant investors made explicit instructions in letters to slave ship captains that detailed how the captain and crew could try to contain and prevent resistance because they understood the power resistance had to destroy the slave ship and the practice of slavery. Slave resistance had a direct impact on profit because resistance meant that investors and the ship’s crew would have to make proper adjustments to keep their ship safe from rebellions. Some captain took this to mean that they had to inflict further torture and abuse to slaves to prove that they were “the absolute in his command” and therefore had a “savage and insensible spirit.” [6] Resistance could not be ignored on the slave ship or else the trade of slavery would be negatively affected.

Although resistance on and before getting to the slave ship did not give slaves freedom, it did give them a voice in which their dissent could be heard. Captains, sailors, and Merchant investors all understood the severity of resistance and took careful measures to dispel resistance, which they viewed as a form of rebellion. Resistance took many forms amongst the slaves, but the most important aspect of resistance was the culture that was created because of it. Resistance allowed slaves to form a community and have individual identities. The bond made between slaves was an act of resistance that threatened the longevity and profitableness of slave ships. In order to still capitalize on slavery, investors, captains, and crew members had to precautions against resistance by altering the slave ship.


[1] Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship, Penguin Group (New York, 2007), Page 113.

[2] Rediker, The Slave Ship, page113.

[3] Rediker, The Slave Ship, page 3.

[4] Rediker, The Slave Ship, page 130.

[5] Rediker, The Slave Ship, 196.

[6] Rediker, The Slave Ship, page 220.

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