10 of History’s Greatest Rebels

We can all relate to stories of notable rebels from history. Somewhere deep down, standing up to tyranny appeals to each one of us, even if most people wouldn’t go as far as these people did. That’s why many of them are still remembered as heroes in their own countries, regardless of whether they succeeded or not.

More importantly, these stories provide a more accurate and complete picture of their respective time periods, as they shine a light on those parts that’d have otherwise been written out of history. Rome’s slave rebellions, as an example, help us understand the Roman story from the perspective of its sizable slave population, instead of just a handful of nobles that got to write it.

10. Wat Tyler

wat tyler

The 14th century wasn’t a great time for Europe. It all started with the famine of 1315-1317, triggered by abnormally heavy rains and floods across the continent. Before things could recover, many densely-populated cities and towns across the continent were hit by the Black Death in 1948, which turned out to be one of the deadliest viral outbreaks in history. 

That was the backdrop for Wat Tyler’s revolt of 1381 – a peasant revolt in Britain against unfair taxation laws. While not much is known about Tyler’s early life, later records suggest that the rebellion was centered in the Essex region, with widespread support from the local population. 

He gathered a group of peasants, armed them with whatever they could gather, and marched on London. While they were initially successful and managed to enter the city – forcing King Richard II to come to the negotiating table – it couldn’t last. Tyler was eventually killed by the mayor of London – Sir William Walworth – during a heated round of negotiations, effectively ending the uprising. 

9. Zhu Yuanzhang

hongwu

Like Europe, China was going through its own wave of uprisings for the better part of the 14th century, caused by widespread hunger and famine in its northern and central regions. By far the most successful of them was the rebellion of Zhu Yuanzhang, who’d go on to establish one of the longest running dynasties in Chinese history.

Born in poverty in a small village on China’s east coast in 1328, Yuanzhang joined one of the many rebel forces rising in the region against the ruling Mongol Yuan dynasty at the age of 16. He quickly rose through the ranks and gained a set of loyal followers, successfully marching on the strategic center of Nanjing in 1356. That was the turning point, and after years of battles and victories against the Mongols, Zhu finally occupied the Yuan capital of Dadu – now Beijing – in 1368.

Zhu Yuanzhang would be the first emperor and founder of the Ming Dynasty, which ruled over a largely unified China for close to three centuries, as well as one of the most successful rebels in history. 

8. Zenobia

zenobia

The kingdom of Palmyra – with its capital city of the same name – came under Roman rule in the first century AD, though only as a client state still largely controlled by its own royalty. By the third century, though, as Roman power dwindled across the region, so did its hold on its various foreign territories. Palmyra – now a strong, prosperous region ruled by Queen Zenobia – decided to take its chances, and rebelled.

Zenobia was a gifted strategist and tactician, and wanted to establish an eastern empire on the lines of Rome at the height of its glory. By the year 270, she had already captured Egypt and established herself as a formidable challenge to the Roman forces.

At the end, though, Queen Zenobia’s forces couldn’t match up to the Roman war machine – still one of the most well-trained forces of the time. Aurelian Augustus – the Roman emperor at the time – besieged and captured the city of Palmyra in 272. Records aren’t clear on what happened to her, though some sources claim that she was captured and spent the rest of her life as a Roman prisoner. 

7. William Wallace

william wallace

While many of you may already know about William Wallace – thanks to the 1995 film based on his story, Braveheart – he still deserves a spot on any list of notable rebels in history. Still celebrated as a national hero in Scotland, Wallace’s story isn’t just an example of one man rising against the might of a kingdom, but also of the sheer brutality of rulers towards failed rebellions.

Wallace was one of the main leaders of the First Scottish War of Independence, as well as one of the most successful. By 1297, he had managed to defeat King Edward’s forces at the major Battle of Stirling Bridge, establishing himself as a major challenger to Britain’s rule in Scotland. 

Unfortunately, the victory would be short-lived, as Wallace’s forces were defeated by royal forces in 1298, though he managed to escape. Not much is known about his activities in the years following that, until 1305, when he was captured and handed over to the king by a Scottish knight.

As an example to the rest of the subjects, William Wallace was publicly hanged, disemboweled, beheaded and quartered, with his limbs sent to different parts of the land. 

6. Sitting Bull

sitting bull

Tatanka Iyotake – also known as Sitting Bull – was a native American leader from the Lakota tribe. While he wasn’t the first native American leader to rebel against the US government’s authority, he was certainly one of the most successful – at least initially. 

Starting his fighting career at the age of 14, Iyotake soon established a reputation as a skilled fighter. He’d go on to mount campaigns against US forces and other native American tribes for many years, earning a reputation as a fearless warrior and capable leader. He was appointed as the principal chief of the entire Sioux nation in 1867.  

Sitting Bull is still remembered for his decisive victory over George Armstrong Custer – a major US military leader in the American Indian Wars – at the Battle of Bighorn, a part of the larger Great Sioux wars of 1876. While that established him as a formidable rebel leader in the Great Plains region, it prompted the government to divert even more resources to re-asserting its control. The Sitting Bull was eventually defeated and forced to surrender in 1881. 

5. Boudica

boudica

While the Roman Empire faced its fair share of rebellions throughout its existence, most of them were crushed without a lot of effort (until the big one that succeeded, of course). Some rebel leaders, however, posed a greater challenge to Roman rule than the others. 

One of them was Boudica, a warrior queen of the native Iceni tribe from Britain. Unfortunately, we only know about her from later Roman sources, who were heavily biased towards the Roman side of the story. By all accounts, though, she was one of Rome’s most successful rebels at the peak of its power.

The rebellion started in 60 AD, caused by increasingly brutal and repressive acts by Roman authorities against the native Britons. Things reached a breaking point however, when Boudica was flogged and her two daughters raped by Roman soldiers. In response, the Iceni – along with other tribes in the region – went up in open revolt.

The response was swift and brutal, as Boudica’s forces retaliated against any Romans in the region. She captured the capital of Roman Britain – Camulodunum, now Colchester – and brutally massacred the entire Roman population of the city within a few days.

While she won a few more battles, Boudica’s rebellion was eventually crushed by the Romans. Records aren’t clear on what happened to her after that, though according to at least one account, she poisoned herself to avoid capture.

4. Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh 1946

Most of us remember Ho Chi Minh for his campaign against US and South Vietnam-led forces during the Vietnam War, though his career as a rebel guerrilla leader actually started way before that. One of the most celebrated communist leaders of the Cold War era, Ho had been active in politics since at least 1917, founding the Indochina Communist Party in 1930, and its successor Viet-Minh in 1941. 

He led the Vietnamese independence movement against the Japanese starting in 1941, and then against France in 1945, uniting various groups under his command. Ho Chi Minh’s forces successfully defeated the better-equipped French colonial army at the climactic battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1953-54

While they defeated the French, the country was now controlled as two competing units, North and South Vietnam, effectively beginning the two-decades-long Vietnam War. He – along with a few other North Vietnamese leaders – were responsible for the North Vietnamese forces adopting guerrilla tactics some time in 1965, avoiding open confrontation unless odds were in their favour. 

As we all know, that strategy worked and Ho Chi Minh’s forces ultimately dominated. Vietnam was reunited in 1975 as a socialist nation, and Ho is still remembered as a national hero in Vietnam and other ex-communist nations.

3. Nat Turner

nat turner

The history of slavery in the US has been well-documented and discussed, though that rarely includes all the slave rebellions. Much like other slave-based economies in the world throughout history, US history is full of examples of slaves that decided to take up arms and fight.

The most sustained and successful of those was Nat Turner’s rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. Starting on August 21, 1831, he and his band of about 70 revolting slaves – armed with rudimentary weapons like knives and staffs – raided the white settlements in the area, killing anywhere between 55-70 people, depending on the source. 

The rebellion was ultimately put down by the state police and local militias loyal to them. While Nat Turner was captured and hanged in 1831, the whole thing seriously alarmed the rest of the slaveholder population across the South. The uprising forced the government to enact even stricter laws to control the slave population, until slavery was finally outlawed in the aftermath of the American Civil War.

2. Tito

tito

Tito – or Josip Broz – was the leader of perhaps one of the most successful rebellion movements in history – the Partisan Army. It was only one of the many rebel groups that sprung up across Yugoslavia after Nazis occupied it in 1941, collectively called the Yugoslav Partisans. By the end of the war, though, the Partisan Army in particular had turned into a major challenge for the Nazis. 

Tito’s Partisans would deploy a variety of methods to weaken the Nazis, including printing revolutionary material to inspire other Yugoslavians to join their cause. After the war was won, Tito went on to serve as the effective head of the government of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, until his death in 1980

1. Lenin

lenin

Vladmiri Lenin evokes mixed responses from everyone, though no one can deny that he was one of the most successful rebel leaders in history. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 permanently – and brutally – ended one of the longest-running royal lineages of Europe, as well as inspired multiple other revolutions in the rest of Europe and beyond. 

Lenin turned to revolutionary theory when his brother was executed by the state for conspiring to assassinate the emperor in 1887. He’d go on to work with many Marxist societies around the world and develop his theory, and was even exiled in 1895 for trying to unionize workers in Petrograd. 

Lenin’s ideology – Bolshevism – was more militaristic than other socialist groups in the country at the turn of the 20th century. It was this faction that ultimately deposed the Tsar’s government in 1917 and formed the Soviet Republic – one of the longest running empires ever.

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