For those who were enslaved, resistance meant making choices that asserted their fundamental humanity. Many nurtured a cultural community, and others sought emotional support through marriage, even though their unions were not recognized by the law.
Some individuals tried negotiation as a means to improve their conditions while others resisted by seizing opportunity as they arose. All forms of resistance could result in punishment, but running away and fighting back were the most dangerous actions of all.
Although enslaved individuals were defined as property under colonial law, they nevertheless made decisions throughout their lifetimes to defy this dehumanizing legal definition. While their choices were limited and often had traumatic consequences, the actions they took have left us with a record of resistance and survival.
Negotiation under slavery occurred daily. Some enslaved people withheld their labor skills to lobby for improved conditions. Others did so to protest work in general. Despite various acts of defiance, most positive outcomes were temporary.
Some individuals rejected negotiation in favor of outright defiance. However, defying the interests of an enslaver could have life-threatening consequences. Enslavers had the legal authority to sell, separate, and brutally punish those they held as property. Nevertheless, some enslaved people seized what opportunities they could to disrupt the balance of power.
Throughout the colonial North, newspapers printed thousands of advertisements for “runaway slaves.” These ads, while often biased and demeaning, also inadvertently showcased the skills, education, ingenuity, and determination of the many enslaved people who made the decision to self-emancipate, despite the risk.
Arson. Rebellion. Sabotage. Poisoning. When enslaved people fought back with violence, punishment was swift and brutal. But they continued to rebel, showing enslavers that the system of treating people as property would not go unchallenged.