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'Spirit of resistance': Marking 500 years since the first slave revolt in the Americas

The Santo Domingo Slave Revolt of 1521 ushered in a backlash through "Black Codes" and repressive measures.

Five hundred years ago this month, the Americas saw its first revolt of enslaved people, when Black Africans rose up against colonial powers in the Caribbean.

Historians believe the Santo Domingo Slave Revolt took place on Dec. 26, 1521, starting at a sugar plantation owned by Diego Columbus, son of Christopher Columbus. He was governor of La Española, the present-day Dominican Republic and Haiti, according to a monograph on the revolt published by the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute (DSI) at the City College of New York.

The enslaved people marched 62 miles from the plantation to a village in an attempt to reach other Black Africans seeking freedom. The uprising was strategically planned during the Christmas season, because the enslaved knew that the white Spaniards would be distracted and deep in prayer, according to the monograph. 

“This was so well planned, which is also very interesting to me as a sociologist, that they came from different places in Africa," said scholar Ramona Hernandez, director of CUNY DSI and a professor of sociology at City College. "So they spoke different languages yet they found ways of putting together an insurrection."

“It reveals this spirit of resistance, and not taking on oppression passively," Hernandez said.

The Spanish soon sent in military reinforcements that effectively halted the revolt. But the legacy of the rebellion, which is considered the first recorded revolt in the Americas, reverberated throughout the region. 

Slaves Attempt To Overcome Their Spanish Owners
Slaves try to overcome their Spanish owners but are captured and hanged from trees in 1595. Theodor de Bry / Heritage Images/Getty Images

The start of 'Black Codes'

The year after the revolt, La Española introduced laws targeting Black people that were set in place to restrict the rights and movements of any person who was Black, whether they were free or not. This was one of the first versions of “Black Codes” seen in the Americas, according to Hernandez. 

“These are the first laws that are going to tell masters and others that were a part of the power structure in La Española how the black enslaved people are going to be treated,” Hernandez said.

She noted that many enslaved people did manage to escape after arriving on the island in the late 1400s. But the Santo Domingo Revolt was the first time Black Africans were combating authorities head-on, which led to strict and punitive treatment. 

Overall, there is a lot that is still unknown about how the enslaved people of La Española managed to attempt such a bold insurrection. To further the conversation and unpack the significance of this history, CUNY DSI and the Black Studies Program at City College is hosting a two-day conference titled “The Struggle for Freedom in La Española.”

In collaboration with nearly 13 other schools and institutions, including the Eduardo León Jiménes Cultural Center in the Dominican Republic, the multidisciplinary conference looks at how this uprising confronted the Spanish colonials and defied the status quo. 

“We need to commemorate this, that this happened 500 years ago, that the civil rights movement that we saw here [in the U.S.] was simply a continuation of something that our ancestors have done, so that our people continue to think that it is their job to combat what is evil in humanity," Hernandez said.

Although the conference is set to engage well-known scholars and voices on the subject, Hernandez expects to tap younger generations who can benefit from understanding and exploring the history of liberation in the Americas. 

“Any action that one of our people have taken anywhere, anytime to undermine what has been done to us, we need to remember it," said Hernandez, "and we need to acknowledge it so that the younger generation doesn't forget."

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