top of page

Live Free or Die in the Caribbean

There have been revolts by enslaved persons for as long as there has been slavery. For example, in Ancient Rome there were what became known as the Servile Wars – three revolts between 135 BCE and 73 BCE. The last one, also known as the Revolt of the Gladiators was led by Spartacus and was the largest, longest and most devastating, almost dealing a severe defeat to Roman forces.
Then there was the Zanj Rebellion which was a major revolt against the Abbasid, which took place from 869 until 883. Begun near the city of Basra in present-day southern Iraq led by Ali ibn Muhammad who claimed direct lineage to the Prophet Mohammed. Interestingly, the insurrection involved both enslaved and freed Africans who had been kidnapped from the coast of Southern Africa.

In the Caribbean, the enslaved, whether Native American or African, whether born into slavery in the Caribbean or recently arrived from Africa, always conspired or plotted to gain their freedom by eliminating the white establishment that oppressed them. Conspiracies, insurrections, plots, rebellions, revolts and uprisings occurred regardless of the situations in which the enslaved found themselves whether on an agricultural plantation, harvesting timber, diving for pearls or laboring in a mine. The reaction of the enslaved was the same whether the oppressors were Danish, Dutch, English, French or Spanish. The enslaved Native Americans and Africans demonstrated an unquenchable thirst and an irrepressible desire for freedom.

Staging a revolt or even planning a revolt required tremendous courage, determination and fortitude. The punishments that awaited unsuccessful insurrectionists were brutal including flogging involving hundreds of lashes even flogging to death, hanging, imprisonment, branding, gibbeting, dismemberment, disemboweling, having their noses slit, being maimed (having the tendons of their ankles cut), being burned alive, being boiled in oil, being beheaded, being drawn, hung and quartered, being hung in irons and starved, being broken on the rack, broken at the wheel, being mutilated, and being shot by firing squad. Female maroons and insurrectionists faced the additional prospect of gang rape.

These brave souls embodied the sentiment expressed by François-Noël Gracchus Babeuf in his defense of the Conspiracy of Equals in April 1797 "better that we should die on our feet rather than live on our knees" and also expressed by the Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata "I'd rather die on my feet, than live on my knees."

The institution of slavery was based on terror. In order for slavery to endure, the slave state had to instill a sense of terror in the enslaved to ensure that they lived with constant fear and dread. That is why even the mildest challenge to the slave system was met by barbaric, brutal forms of punishment and insurrections or even conspiracies were savagely repressed.

While these methods of execution to our modern sensibilities seem barbaric and unnecessarily cruel, it should be remembered that these forms of killing the condemned were not devised in the Caribbean or anywhere in the Americas. Europeans had been using these gruesome methods of execution for centuries against other Europeans and others in the 'Old World' and simply imported their
'barbaric' methods to the Caribbean.

Return to the Home page

bottom of page