Insurrection on Board Slave Ships

Insurrection on Board Slave ships


Thousands of enslaved Africans tried to overthrow their captors on slave ships taking them to the Americas. The exact number of shipboard rebellions is unknown. But, historians have documented over 500 incidents from 1500 to 1867—or 100,000 Africans—died in revolts at the African coast or in the Atlantic crossing This was one-fifteenth the number of all those who died in the Middle Passage.  The total figure of Africans who died during the Middle Passage might be as high as 60 million over three hundred years of slave trading activities.


  • Create historical empathy and understanding for the plight of enslaved Africans.
  • Students will create a sensory figure of a slave.
  • Students will write a paragraph arguing a point of view about the nature of slave revolts on board slave ships and answer questions about were their differences between slave revolts on board slave ships and slave revolts on American plantations.


Trace the history and development of the transatlantic slave trade and answer the following questions:

  • What was the role of African rulers?
  • Which European countries were involved?
  • What was the cost to Africa  in terms of future development?
  • Did the African slave trade depopulate Africa?
  • Should countries that participated in the African holocaust pay reparations to Africa?

Materials: Internet Access:

  • Read insurrect on Board Slave ships by Joseph E. Holloway
  • Read some of the newspaper and captain reports of slave revolts on ships listed as “Slave Revolts at Sea” on the website.
  • Video: Amistad or the second video in the “Roots” series.
  • Student worksheet for sensory figure.

Procedure: Note to Instructor

  • Show clip of beginning of Amistad the movie showing a slave revolt
  • Read the “insurrection on Board Slave ships.”
  • Discuss the article and perspectives of both the ship employees and the enslaved Africans.
  • Focus on the perspective of the ship board employees in discussion because students will have to expand on the perspective of enslaved Africans in more detail.
  • Discuss of Europe underdeveloped Africa.
  • If the student finds more than one slave revolt of interest they should 1) compare and contrast the causes of the rebellions, 2) list the event of the rebellion, 3) individuals involved; and a summary that includes the students’ insights or opinions on the subject.

The Lesson

Anticipatory Set

  • This lesson challenges students to investigate slave rebellion on board slave ships.
  • The Transatlantic slave trade has been referred by scholars as the African holocaust.  Student should  define holocaust. 
  • Teacher can  pose the question have there been other holocausts?
  • Use the examples of the Armenian holocaust of 1915 by the Turks.
  • Nazi holocaust were six million Jews and  another 30 million others including gheist were exterminated.
  •  Student should also be made aware of the Rwanda holocaust.
  • Have students try to make connections to the enslaved Africans must have felt in rebelling against the injustice of their enslavement.
  • Tell students their written essays should contain the information they found in a concise manner and include a bibliography of sources, which is part of the students’ research task.
  • Instruct students to conduct research, and write it down at the time.
  • Students can download from the website pictures, documents and citation for their final papers.  


Assess students’ work keeping the following criteria in mind.  Their written essays need to follow the format determined by the information found and written in complete paragraphs, using good word choice, organization, sentence fluency, and conventions.  Students need to record their sources in a bibliography.

Related Works

Students can use the following books for further study of on board slave revolts.

  • Davidson, Basil. The African Slave Trade: Revised and Expanded Edition. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980.
  • Donnan, Elizabeth, ed. Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade. 2 vols. New York, Octagon, 1965.
  • Dow, George Frances. Slave Ships and Slavings. Salem, Mass: Marine Research Society
  • Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the America. Cambridge, 2000, 232; Also see Eltis, "The Volume and Structure of the Transatlantic Slave Trade: A Reassessment," in the same volume.
  • Klein, Herbert S. The Atlantic Slave Trade. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. The Middle Passage: Comparative Studies in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.
  • Lovejoy, P. Africans in Bondage: Studies in Slavery and the Slave Trade. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986.
  • Manning, Patrick. Slavery and African Life: Occidental, Oriental, and African Slave Trades. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  • Taylor, Eric, Robert. If We Must Die: Shipboard Insurrections in the Era of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Louisiana State University Press, 2009.
  • Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.