When many people think of slave rebellions, the images that come to mind are of men:

-Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey.

But very few people think of Black women, much less can name even one Black woman in the history of slave rebellions.
There have been many Black women who have fought against the oppression of enslavement, and their stories have been ignored and forgotten for too long.
Black women have been resisting the cruelties of race-based Western slavery while on the African continent, on slave ships that crossed the Atlantic, on the soil of North America, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.
Today is the first in a series of the history of revolts that Black women carried out against their oppressors, and how those Black women left an enduring legacy of resistance they passed down to their daughters unto this day.
Here is the beginning of their stories.




Even before being brought aboard slave ships, African women fought to free themselves from a life bound for abject cruelty and misery. Witness here how one African woman, one of many, who sought to free herself from the terror of a life of enslavement.



“To the left of the canoe, she saw a sandbar and made a decision. The paddles plashed gently in the water, two, three, four times, and she jumped from the side, swimming furiously to escape her captors. She heard splashes as a couple of canoemen jumped in after her. No sooner had they hit the water than she heard a new commotion, looked over her shoulder, and saw them pulling themselves back into the canoe. As she waded onto the edge of the sandbar, she saw a  large, stocky gray shark, about eight feet long, with a blunt, rounded snout and small eyes, gliding alongside the canoe as it came directly at her. Cursing, the men clubbed the shark with their paddles, beached the watercraft, jumped out, and waded in, then loped after her. She had nowhere to run on the sandbar, and the shark made it impossible to return to the water. She fought to no avail. The men lashed rough vine around her wrists and legs and threw her back into the bottom of the canoe. They resumed paddling and soon began to sing. After a while she could hear, at first faintly, then with increasing clarity, other sounds—the waves slapping the hull of the big ship, its timbers creaking.


“Then came muffled screaming in a strange language.


“She had arrived at the slave ship.


“The canoemen untied the lashing and pushed the woman toward a rope ladder, which she ascended with fifteen others from her canoe, everyone naked. Several of the men climbed up with them, as did the black trader in a gold-laced hat who had escorted them from the canoe house to the owba coocoo. Most of the people in her group, herself included, were amazed by what they saw, but a couple of the male captives seemed strangely at ease, even speaking to the white men in their own tongue. Here was a world unto itself, with tall, shaved, limbless trees; strange instruments; and a high-reaching system of ropes. Pigs, goats, and fowl milled around the main deck. One of the white men had a local parrot, another a monkey. The owba coocoo was so big it even had its own ewba wanta (small boat) on board. Another white man, filthy in person, leered at her, made a lewd gesture, and tried to grope her. She lunged at the man, digging her fingernails into his face, bringing blood in several places before he disentangled himself from her and lashed her sharply three times with a small whip he was carrying. The black trader intervened and hustled her away.


“Soon after she had been examined, a white man barked at her, “Get below! Now! Hurry!” and pushed her toward a big square hole in the deck. A young woman sanding nearby feared that she did not understand the order and whispered urgently, “Gemalla! Geyen gwango!” As she descended the rungs of a ladder into the lower deck, an horrific stench assaulted her nostrils and suddenly made her dizzy, weak, queasy. She knew it as the smell of awawo, death. It emanated from two sick women lying alone in a dark corner, unattended, near the  athasa, or “mess-tub,” as the white men called it. The women died the following day, their bodies thrown overboard. Almost instantaneously the surrounding waters broke, swirled, and reddened.


“The shark that had followed her canoe had its meal at last.”


From the book, The Slave Ship: A Human History,” by Marcus Rediker, Viking Publishers (Penguin Group), 2007, pgs. 1-4.






This young woman’s story is but one of many. Her name is lost to history’s past, but, she had a life before she was stolen and sold into a lifetime of demeaning and debasing servitude.


But, hers was not the only story of resistance, and hers would not be the last. Here is an account of an African woman who helped in a rebellion aboard the slave ship Robert of Bristol, England. The captured African, Captain Tomba, who led a revolt against the ship’s crew, fought against their captors with the help of one of the women onboard:



“Captain Tomba was eventually purchased by Captain Harding and taken aboard the Robert of Bristol. Chained and thrown into the lower deck, he immediately plotted his escape. He combined with “three or four of the stoutest of his Country-men” and an enslaved  woman who had freer range about the ship and hence better knowledge of when the plan might be put into action. One night the unnamed woman found only five white men on deck, all asleep. Through the gratings, she slipped Captain Tomba a hammer, to pound off the fetters, and “all the Weapons she could find.”



Captain Tomba encouraged the men belowdecks “with the Prospect of Liberty,” but only one and the woman above were willing to join him. When he came upon three sleeping sailors, he killed two of them instantly with a “single Stroke upon the Temples.” In killing the third, he made commotion that awoke two the others on watch as well as the rest of the crew, sleeping elsewhere. Captain Harding himself picked up a handspike, flailed at Tomba, knocked him out, and “laid him at length flat upon the Deck.” The crew locked up all three rebels in irons.


“When the time came for punishment, Captain Harding weighed “the stoutest and worth” of the two male rebels and decided it was in his economic interests to “whip and scarify them only.” He then selected three others only marginally involved in the conspiracy—but also less value—and used them to create terror among the rest of the enslaved aboard the vessel. These he sentenced to “cruel Deaths.” He killed one immediately and made the others eat his heart and liver.


“The woman (who helped free them), “he had hoisted up by the Thumbs, whipp’d, and slashed her with Knives, before the other Slaves, till she died.”


From the book, “The Slave Ship.” Chapter 1: “Life, Death, and Terror in the Slave Trade,”. pgs. 15-16.




And another tale of an African woman, Sarah, who helped in a rebellion aboard the slave ship,  Hudibras:



“She had beauty, grace, and charisma: “Sprightliness was in her every gesture…..She was the best dancer and the best singer on the ship. “Ever lively! ever gay!” seemed to sum up her aura, even under the extreme pressure of enslavement and exile.


“Captain Evans gave her the name Sarah. He chose the biblical name, linking the enslaved woman, who was likely an Igbo speaker, to a princess, the beautiful wife of Abraham. Perhaps the captain hoped that she would share other traits with the biblical Sarah, who remained submissive and obedient to her husband during a long journey to Canaan.


“Soon the enslaved men on the Hudibras erupted in insurrection. The goal was “to massacre the ship’s company, and take possession of the vessel.” The rising was suppressed, bloody punishments dispensed. Afterward Captain Evans and other officers suspected that Sarah and her mother (who also was on board) were somehow involved, even though the women had not joined the men in the actual revolt. When questioned closely, with violence looming, they denied having any knowledge, but “fear, or guilt, was strongly marked in their countenances.” Later that night, as male and female captives angrily shouted recriminations around the ship in the aftermath of defeat, it became clear that Sarah and her mother not only knew about the plot, they had indeed been involved in it. Sarah had likely used her privileged position as a favourite, and her great freedom of movement that this entailed, to help with the planning and perhaps even to pass tools to the men, allowing them to hack off their shackles and manacles.


“Sarah survived the Middle Passage and whatever punishment she may have gotten for her involvement in the insurrection. She was sold at Grenada, with almost three hundred others, in 1787. She was allowed to stay on the vessel longer than most, probably with the special permission of Captain Evans. When she went ashore, she carried African traditions of dance, song, and resistance with her.


From the book, “A Slave Ship,” pgs. 19-20.




On the African continent, from the revolts aboard slave ships, from the rebellions on plantations and slave factories all across this hemisphere, many Black women fought against the enslavement of themselves and their people.


For every Black woman whose name we will never know, for every Sarah, there would be many more who would strike a blow in the name of freedom. They would be known by their names to future generations: 









to name just a few.


Their stories began on the African Slave Coast, the Gold Coast——

——in Negroland—-so-called because the slavers stole so many innocents from this area that they gave it the degrading term that described the exploitation of native peoples who lived there:

Negroland and Guinea with the European Settlements, 1736.jpg
A 1729 map titled: “NEGROLAND and GUINEA. with the European settlements, Explaining what belongs to England, Holland, Denmark &c.”
By H. Moll Geographer (Printed and sold by T. Bowles next ye Chapter House in St. Pauls Church yard, & I. Bowles at ye Black Horse in Cornhill, 1736?).

In the bellies of slave ships. . . .in the Americas, in the Caribbean, everywhere Black women took a stand against hate, oppression, racism and the violence of enslavement. . . .

. . . . .their legacies of resistance have remained unbroken through the centuries.


The journey begins.


The saga will now be told.


For centuries and generations, Black women have been victimized by what historian Gerda Lerner called “scholarly neglect and racist assumptions.”

No more shall they be marginalized and ignored for the courage they showed in the face of enslavement and certain death.


No more shall they be relegated to oblivion.


Anyone who has ever lived among women of African descent in the so-called New world, knows that it is inconceivable to even imagine them as invisible, voiceless women who did not fight those who sought their destruction. Everywhere one looks one will find living, breathing, working, struggling, and nurturing Black women who have always been the primary source of life itself.


Black women have been central to the development of humankind.


Black women are the mothers of humankind.


Yet, they have been written out of history, their roles and effect on history trivialized into insignificance. But, over the last thirty years, many historians and scholars have revealed their lost stories to the world, the truths of their voices and lives lived that created a strength of indomitable spirit and perseverance.


Black women have never been the submissive, shrinking spectators so many people have painted them to be. Black women have a long, rich, and proud history of resistance.


And that history still lives even unto today.

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