Given the substantial suffering of enslavement, why didn’t more slaves revolt during the Middle Passage of the Atlantic slave trade? This paper argues that the collective action problem was an important impediment to revolt. Revolts nearly always resulted in slave casualties, and crews tortured and killed conspirators. Overthrowing the crew benefited all of the slaves, so each slave had an incentive to free ride on others’ efforts to secure freedom. Using a rational choice framework, this paper argues that slaves could more effectively overcome the collective action problem when there were fewer slaves aboard, when there were fewer male slaves, and when the slaves were more homogenous. Data on slave voyages from 1750 to 1775 and archival and historical documents support these claims.
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