New Worlds: Runaways and Rebellion

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A few months ago, we looked at the institution of slavery. Now it’s time to talk about how it ends.

Slavery can end for individual people or for a society’s entire slave class, and it can end legally or illegally. To be clear, when I use that latter term, it’s not in a disapproving sense; slavery being an awful institution, I’m in favor of people getting out of it by hook or by crook, not waiting around for the people in charge to do the morally correct thing. For this essay, we’re going to focus on those methods from outside the law, and leave the legal ones until next week.

On the individual level, we’re looking at runaways. These were a constant issue in pretty much any slave-owning society, and so slave-owners poured vast amounts of effort into both making escape difficult and inflicting horrific punishments on any runaway they caught, to discourage anyone else from following in their footsteps.

Ease of escape depended heavily on the context a slave worked in. A mine slave could very readily be marched to and from the work site by armed overseers, then locked into some kind of barracks at night. Owners might even invest in ankle chains, hobbling their slaves’ steps to inhibit flight. But that’s expensive, and for slaves who work as household servants, even running errands for their masters around town, that degree of oversight and control is simply impractical. For them, it was more common to fasten on a permanent collar or other device that marked them as a slave on sight. Given that the city was probably full of slaves, though, that hardly attracted notice — so in theory, nothing stopped them from simply wandering off whenever they pleased.

In theory. In practice, of course, it wasn’t that simple. To truly escape, a slave had to not only get away from their master, but go someplace their master couldn’t find them and drag them back. For the Underground Railroad in the United States, that meant getting the escapees deep into free state territory, or even into Canada — and meanwhile, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 did its best to force residents of free states to comply with the efforts of slave-catchers to recapture the ones who got away. Slaves taken in war were usually held captive far from their homelands, rendered easily identifiable by their speech and possibly their appearance. Getting away wasn’t impossible . . . but it wasn’t easy. (Unless, apparently, you were an Aztec slave. They had a peculiar tradition that if an escaped slave could make it into the royal palace, they achieved their freedom — essentially an “olly olly oxen free” clause.)

Slaves who were caught inevitably suffered punishment. This might range from a beating to branding (e.g. with the word “runaway”) to having their legs broken. Sometimes even execution, but that tended to be reserved for the most intransigent slaves, or ones who had committed some additional crime like murdering their master before fleeing. Whatever tiny freedoms or privileges they enjoyed before then were almost certainly gone; in some cases they might be sold to new masters, especially for work that would afford them fewer opportunities to escape. But probably the cruelest deterrent transformed one of those privileges into a weapon: if the slave had a family, the master could punish or sell away their spouse or children. Fear of what might happen to their loved ones kept many slaves in line, even if they had a good chance of personally escaping.

Over on the group end of the scale, you also have the possibility of a full-bore slave rebellion. Like runaways, rebellions happened over and over again in history; slave-owning societies lived in more or less constant fear of revolt. The more slaves, the more peril. In Sparta — where Herodotus estimated the helot population was seven times larger than that of the spartiates, the full citizens of the realm — the government literally declared war on its own slaves, enacting an annual ritual wherein a cadre of men were sent out to murder helots and cull their numbers, on the theory that terror and brutality would keep the survivors in line. (It didn’t work.)

Just as with runaways, some groups had better opportunities for rebellion than others. Spartacus was famously a gladiator; captured soldiers were also common leaders of revolts. After all, it’s not enough simply to stand up and make noise about injustice. If all you have are a bunch of household servants with no weapons, training, or experienced military leadership, you aren’t going to get very far.

Unfortunately, even with those things, the track record for slave rebellions is . . . not great. As in, basically the only real success story is the Haitian Revolution. All the others failed outright, or they replaced one slave state with a different one (possibly with many of the same people in bondage), or they achieved some change, but not the sort that left former slaves in a position of power. Even Haiti still had forced labor afterward, which is something we’ll talk about at the end of this month.

So how successful are the illegal methods at breaking the back of slavery as an institution? Not very. Individual runaways can escape, but the drip-drip-drip of that loss is nothing compared to the scale on which the process tends to operate. Revolts mostly get violently crushed. Which doesn’t stop both of these things from happening over and over again; it’s rather telling that Rome had three events referred to as Servile Wars, i.e. mass uprisings by their slaves, quite apart from all the smaller insurrections that occurred here and there. The slave owners were right to fear what the people they claimed as property might do.

In fiction, it’s easy to paint a rosier picture than history provides. Slaves rise up and win the day, huzzah! Freedom for everyone! But it’s much harder to make that convincing, given the enormous disparity of power and resources between the owners and the owned. Doing it well takes careful consideration of many factors, from the socioeconomic to the military, and finessing the setting to make victory plausible. Sure, you can always lean on “something magical happens!” to explain it . . . but for a topic so intimately tied to the widespread oppression and suffering of so many people across so many centuries, a simplistic answer like that risks looking like an insult.

And, of course, there’s the question of what happens afterward. But before we get there, we’ll turn to the legal avenues — look for those next week!

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4 thoughts on “New Worlds: Runaways and Rebellion”

  1. [ “… the track record for slave rebellions is . . . not great. As in, basically the only real success story is the Haitian Revolution.” ]

    Due to the extremity of of the work conditions, San Domingue’s labor force suffered maiming and death at horrific rates, thus needed to be refreshed constantly, one of the great drivers then, of of Africa’s Slaver Wars. Most of West Africa was in a state of constant war, to prevent becoming a slave or fighting to take slaves for the market. This means a very large number of San Domingue’s men and many women too, were trained, experienced soldiers and military commanders, who understood strategy and tactics — and who, of course, were intimate with the current topography. They were also literate, thanks to Islam, for those out of the sub-Sahel regions, and Catholicism, for those out of Kongo. There are many interconnected reasons why this slave rebellion succeeded, but this is one of the big reasons.

  2. There was a place in ancient times that proposed a law that slaves have to wear certain clothing. It was not put into effect when they realized that it would let the slaves see how numerous they were.

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