Remembering the slave rebellions that changed the world

Authors: Jece Shunmugam, Jack Maycock
  • Reading time: 7 min.
  • Posted on: August 23, 2020

The 23rd August is not a date that sticks out in many memories for its significance – but it should. It was this day in 1791 that a slave uprising began on the island of Saint Domingue (that we now know as Haiti) that would light the fuse of movements fighting for the abolition of slavery across the world. Today, we remember this pivotal moment and mark the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. 

From the African Cape coastline to Brazilian sugar plantations, we’re putting the spotlight on some lesser-known, but nonetheless inspiring, stories of rebellions that had a lasting legacy eventually leading to slavery’s eventual abolition.


Zumbi is considered a hero amongst afro-Brazilians and was the last King of Quilombo dos Palmares, a small emancipated community in Brazil that became a haven for slaves throughout the 1600s. 

In 1605, runaway African slaves in two north-eastern districts of Brazil (which received c.4.9million slaves through the transatlantic trade) set-up small and scattered communities in the inaccessible region of Palmares. Portuguese expeditions to remove these settlements proved unsuccessful and by the 1640’s, after the war had led to the escape of many slaves, two communities established themselves with around 10,000 people. Members of the quilombos regularly returned to towns and plantations to persuade other slaves to join them. 

For nearly 90 years, Quilombo dos Palmares thrived and were home to liberated slaves from Africa, as well as indigenous Brazilians, those with mixed heritage, and even Portuguese soldiers looking to escape forced military service. It is estimated that in the 1690’s, over 30,000 people inhabited Palmeres. 

The success of Quilombos dos Palmares challenged Portuguese authority in Brazil and became a beacon of slave resistance until its eventual abolition in 1888. The day of Zumbi’s death – November 20 1695 –  is still celebrated today as Black Consciousness Day in Brazil.


South Africa’s coastline was also a hotbed for slave revolts. What was perhaps unique about the Cape Colony’s slave rebellions was the unification of slaves and servants from all backgrounds. In 1808, James Hooper and Michael Kelly, Jeptha of Batavia, Abraham and Adonis (African slaves), Louis (slave tailor) and others – whose names are unknown – were the first to lead an abolition movement in South Africa.

The group marched from farm to farm, persuading slaves and servants to join them. Louis, Hooper and Kelly were disguised as British officers, encountering little resistance. The group quickly grew to over 300.  When news of a revolt reached the Governor,  infantry was ordered to ambush and capture the rebels. Around 40 rebels were captured, nine found guilty of treason and hanged, with others imprisoned on Robben Island or returned to slave-owners.

Although unsuccessful, this revolt, known as the Jij Rebellion, was pivotal and is widely seen as the seed from which all future slave resistances grew, leading to recurring slave uprisings across the Cape Colony, until eventual abolition on the 1st of January, 1834.


Denmark Vesey was an African-American leader in Charleston, South Carolina, originally from the Caribbean where he was born into slavery. Although he led a failed uprising, Vesey became known as a local hero, leading to a statue being erected to memorialise him in 2014

After buying his freedom upon winning the lottery, Vesey became an active church leader, founding the independent African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church after the Civil War, which rapidly grew in numbers and still exists today. In 1822, it was alleged that he was the leader of a planned slave revolt, plotting to liberate slaves. The revolt would have involved thousands of slaves across the city, as well as those living on surrounding plantations . In the end, no slaveholders were injured but Vesey was convicted as the leader of “the rising”; he and five other slaves were condemned to death. 

Just one year after his statue was erected,  a gunman murdered nine people at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, the historic black church that Vesey helped build. The horrific hate crime is symbolic of the fact that despite centuries passing since the abolition of slavery, racism is still deeply rooted in the structures of the American Deep South.It may no longer manifest itself through shackles and bonds, but its violence is still very much alive.


When Samuel Sharpe was born into enslavement in Jamaica, Britain had ruled over the colony for nearly 150 years. Around 1 million slaves were transported to Jamaica alone, peaking between 1750 and 1808. 

During Sharpe’s formative years in Jamaica, Britain had made the transatlantic slave trade illegal in 1807 before banning the transfer of slaves between islands in 1811. In 1831, hearing rumours of emancipation from Britain, Sharpe planned a general strike during the important sugar cane harvest, with the hope of gaining more freedoms and a working wage. However, repression from local plantation owners led to the “Baptist War” — the largest rebellion to take place in the British West Indies, mobilising over 60,000 of Jamaica’s 300,000 slaves. In just 8 days, they caused £52 million (in modern terms) of damages, burning crop fields and other colonial property, before it was eventually suppressed.

In 1832, Sharpe was tried and executed (along with 300 other slaves) for his role in the rebellion. The Baptist War and its aftermath are considered as major catalysts for the Slavery Abolition Act of 1834. Sharpe was declared a National Hero by Jamaica in 1975 and his image is now used on the Jamaican $50 bill.   


As we remember those who fought for their freedom across history, let us not forget that slavery still continues to this day. Modern slavery does not bear many of the characteristics of its predecessors, and from the outside it can often look like a normal job. Worldwide, it is estimated that around 40 million people are currently trapped in slavery, 71% of which are female, and 25% children.

Hadijatou Mani was born into slavery in Niger in 1984. By the age of 12, she was sold to live as a ‘Wahaya’, an unofficial wife to a man that already had the maximum four wives legally permitted. Hadijatou served her master and his family for 10 years, carrying out work for zero pay, in addition to the regular sexual violence she was subjected to. Aged 21, her master released her to legalise their ‘relationship’, but when she left and freely chose to marry another man, he took her to court for bigamy and she was handed 6 months imprisonment. 

Hadijatou took her case to the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In 2008, the court ruled in a groundbreaking judgement that Niger had failed to protect Hadijatou from slavery, in violation of its own laws. Hadijatou’s case proved a catalyst for change and the practice of ‘Wahaya’ was officially outlawed by Niger in 2019.