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Slave Resistance

Slave Resistance


Demographic realities and power relationships in the British mainland colonies and later, following independence, in the United States, militated against the type of large-scale slave conspiracies that took place in South America and the Caribbean. The presence of a heavily armed white majority in every state except South Carolina (and, toward the very end of the antebellum period, Mississippi), the lack of an impregnable hinterland in which to create maroon colonies from which runaways could besiege plantations, the relatively dispersed nature and small size of slaveholding, and the fact that the landlord class was in residence (not absentee) combined to make massive slave rebellions far less common than day-to-day resistance or individual acts of self-threat. In the years after the Revolution, as harsher forms of colonial patriarchalism began to metamorphose into paternalisma complex and ongoing process of negotiation and brutality that many scholars regrettably reduce to a simplistic model of accommodationslaves achieved enough living space to build stable families and rich spiritual communities. Given the odds against success, it is hardly surprising that the handful of slaves bold enough to rise for their freedom found their rebellions reduced to unsuccessful conspiracies and their fellows doomed to die in combat or on the gallows.

Despite persistent attempts by historians to force a uniformity of vision and goals on rebel leaders, insurgent slaves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries differed from one another fully as much as white revolutionaries in the same era. Jemmy, an Angolan who led an agrarian uprising in 1739 near Stono River, South Carolina, tried to hasten his African followers across the border into Spanish Florida. Caesar Varick, who only two years later in 1741 conspired to burn New York City, lived in one of North Americas largest urban centers with an Irish wife. Gabriel, a young, secular rebel who had turned away from African traditions, hoped to stay and work in a more egalitarian Virginia. Denmark Vesey, an aged free black who bought his freedom the year before Gabriel died in 1800, expected to achieve a limited exodus for his family and followers out of Charleston to Haiti. Vesey and his chief lieutenant, Gullah Jack Pritchard, an East African priest, fused African theology with the Old Testament God of wrath and justice, whereas Nat Turner relied on Christian millennial themes and hoped to bring on the day of jubilee for black Virginians. Beyond their obvious abilities as leaders and their equally obvious desire to breathe free, bond rebels in the United States fit no simple pattern.

If slave rebellions in North America correspond to any one model, it is that they proliferated during times when the white majority was divided against itself in significant ways. Colonial insurgents in South Carolina and New York City turned to violence at a time when their masters were at war with France and Spain. Gabriel, the most politicized of all the slave rebels, formulated his plans during the divisive election of 1800, when Federalists and Republicans threatened to take up arms against one another. The rebels in the Tidewater area of Virginia, despite the memory of the repression that followed Gabriels death, began to organize again during the chaos of the War of 1812. Having read of the Missouri debates in Charleston newspapers, Vesey prayed that northern whites would prove tardy in riding to the rescue of the estranged Southerners. Slaves near Natchez, Mississippi, began to plan for their freedom in 1861, following the outbreak of the Civil War.

Most of all, slaves, who well knew what they were up against and rarely contemplated suicidal ventures, plotted for their freedom only when safer avenues had been closed to them. For most of the seventeenth century, for example, when the high death rate in the Southern colonies made inexpensive white indentured servants far more numerous than costly African slaves, enterprising bondpersons relied more on self-purchase than the sword. The economic possibilities in early Virginia produced more runaways than rebels; the practice of buying ones own body even produced several black entrepreneurssuch as Anthony Johnson, a former slave who became a wealthy planter and who named his estate Angola after the land of his birth. It was only after landless whites and hard-used white indentured workers under the command of Nathaniel Bacon burned Jamestown in 1676 that Southern planters made a concerted effort to replace white servants with African slaves. The comprehensive Virginia Slave Code of 1705, the first of its kind in colonial North America, crushed the hope of industrious slaves that they might be upwardly mobile. Only then, as North American racial walls rapidly hardened, did desperate slaves turn to physically hazardous paths toward freedom. During the last days of Queen Annes War in April 1712, a determined band of twenty-five Coromantee Africans burned several buildings in New York City and killed nine whites. (Unfree labor had been legalized in New York by the Dukes Law of 1665.) Having made a commitment to unfree labor, equally determined whites revenged themselves on the rebels. Several rebels committed suicide before they could be captured, but those taken alive were broken on the wheel and hanged in chains as a warning to future rebels.

In the early eighteenth century, even though the constant threat of war between Britain and its continental neighbors provided endless opportunities for daring slaves, mainland revolts rarely posed much real danger to the slaveholding regime. Because the Atlantic slave trade was at its peak, every colony included large numbers of native Africans who sought to escape from bondage by building isolated maroon communities. Most runaways fled into the hinterland, where they established maroon colonies and tried to re-create the African communities they had lost. Even the two most significant rebellions of the periodthat of Stono, South Carolina, and the subsequent attempt to burn New York Citywere led by Africans who dreamed only of ending their own bondage, not of ending unfree labor in general. Aware of Spanish promises of freedom in colonial Florida, Angolan soldiers under Jemmy tried to escape across the border. To the north, New York City bondmen planned to torch the wooden city and flee to French Canada, which was then at war with the rebels masters. The price of failure was high. New York authorities ordered Caesar Varick and twelve of his followers burned alive; eighteen others were hangedtwo of them in chainsand seventy more bondmen were banished from the colony.

Given the odds against them, most enslaved men and women resisted their condition through other methods. Young men, especially those who had not yet married, ran away, often in homogenous groups. Before the early nineteenth century, slaves in the Southern colonies fled toward Spanish Florida, while those in the North sought freedom in French Canada; with the gradual emancipation of slavery in the Northern states and the American acquisition of Florida, bondmen journeyed toward the free states or remained truants within the South. Some women, particularly domestic servants, occasionally fought back through poison. Although it is hard to know whether the illness of white masters was due to toxins or natural causes, colonies like South Carolina passed legislation in 1751 against the detestable crime of poisoning [that] hath of late been frequently committed by many slaves (Rucker 2005, 112).

The onset of the American Revolution alternately discouraged and stimulated slave rebellions. Although the British invasion and the animosity between patriots and Tories presented slaves with a unique opportunity to organize, most slaves chose instead to take advantage of the dislocation of war to escape with their families into the growing cities or behind British lines. (The Revolution was the one time in North American history when as many female slaves as males ran away.) Because the aggressive bondmen who cast their lots with the military forces of King George were precisely the sort of bold, determined slaves who normally tended to organize slave conspiracies, the bloody fighting in the Southern states after 1778 actually diminished the prospect that a mainland counterpart of Toussaint Louverture would rise out of the tobacco plantations.

Nonetheless, as Eugene D. Genovese suggested in his influential study From Rebellion to Revolution (1979), the age of revolution, and especially the slave revolt in Saint Domingue in 1791, marked a change in patterns in black resistance. The Caribbean rebels under the leadership of Boukman and Toussaint Louverture sought not only to destroy the power of their Parisian absentee masters but to join the societies in which they lived on equal terms. For black Americans determined to realize the egalitarian promise of the American Revolution, the news from the Caribbean reminded them that if they dared, the end of slavery might be within their reach. Whereas Jemmy and his African recruits hoped only to escape the chains of colonial South Carolina, the slave Gabriel of Virginia, born in the year 1776, wanted to join political society on equal terms. Gabriel and his lieutenants, who instigated the most extensive plot in Virginia history, hoped to force the white patriot elite to live up to its stated ideal: that all men were created free and equal. Leading a small army of slaves in Henrico County, the young blacksmith planned to march into Richmond under a banner emblazoned with the words Death or Liberty. He assured one supporter that poor white people, who had no more political power than the slaves, would also join them in the struggle for equality. Although trial testimony makes little mention of events in Saint Domingue, white authorities like Governor James Monroe harbored no doubts that Toussaint Louvertures victories had an enormous effect on all the peoples of colour in the early national South (Egerton 1993, 169).

In several cases, bondmen who had been carried from revolutionary Saint Domingue by their masters participated in North American slave revolts. In 1792 slaves on Virginias eastern shore proposed to blow up the magazine in Norfolk, and massacre its inhabitants (Aptheker 1943, 228).

Norfolk County had a white majority, but Northampton and Elizabeth City counties, just across the Chesapeake Bay, had an enslaved majority. Although the rebel leader Caleb, a favored servant and driver, was evidently American-born, several of his recruits were Haitian refugees, and allaccording to the trial testimonyhad been inspired by the example of Saint Domingue. Two decades later, in 1811, one of the most extensive conspiracies in the history of the United States erupted in southern Louisiana, only a few miles upriver from New Orleans. Slaves led by a mixed-race driver named Charles Deslondes announced their intention of marching on the city to kill whites (Aptheker, 249). Although Deslondes, contrary to myth, was not Haitian, many of the roughly two hundred slaves who rose with him had resided in the French Caribbean.

After Gabriels execution and the death of twenty-five of his followers in the fall of 1800, slave rebellions on the eastern seaboard became both less common and less politically conscious. Slaves who worked along the rivers in southern Virginia and Halifax County, North Carolina, under the leadership of Sancho, a ferryman, formed a highly decentralized scheme to rise on Easter Monday of 1802. But Sancho, despite having been involved in Gabriels plot, shared little of Gabriels dream of a multiracial republic. The lack of an ideological dimension appeared even when the dislocation brought on by the War of 1812 and a second British invasion of the Chesapeake once more gave bondmen in Virginia an opportunity to rise for their liberty. Gloucester County authorities jailed ten slaves in March 1813, and the following month found rebels in Lancester County and Williamsburg condemned on a charge of conspiracy & insurrection (Aptheker, 255). By the late summer and early fall, rumors of revolt unnerved inhabitants of Norfolk and Richmond as well.

If the relative ease with which white authorities crushed these isolated rebellions did not extinguish the desire for freedom, it nonetheless reminded leaders in the slave community that the determined white majority in the American South presented insurgents with a formidable obstacle. Denmark Vesey of Charleston, perhaps the most pragmatic of all the rebel leaders, realized that Gabriels dream of forcing mainland elites to accommodate blacks aspirations to freedom and economic justice was impossible.

Vesey plotted, therefore, not to end slavery in South Carolina, but instead to lead a mass escape from Charleston to the Caribbean, where he had lived and worked as a boy. Hoping to take control of the city on the night of July 14, 1822, Veseys recruitsmany of them Africansintended to slaughter the inhabitants of the city and seize bank reserves before fleeing to Haiti, an embattled black republic sorely in need of capital and skilled labor. If Vesey, a prosperous freeman, doomed those who remained behind to renewed repression by whites, he can scarcely be faulted: He understood that his followers had virtually no hope of bringing down the peculiar institution in South Carolina.

Even Veseys unsuccessful exodus, which may be regarded more as mass flight than a revolution, indicated the difficulties of planning an effective strategy amidst large numbers of ever-vigilant whites. Like virtually all rebel leaders in the United States, Vesey recognized the danger of openly recruiting in the countryside. Word of the Charleston plot probably reached several thousand slaveswhich is not to say that even half that number committed themselves to the struggleand there was always a danger that a black Judas would hear the whispers and inform the master class. White authorities had long ago perfected the art of dividing the slave community by offering a tempting rewardfreedomto those who would turn their coats. Like Jemmy and Gabriel before him, Vesey, whose army had more officers than soldiers, planned to rise quickly and present the low countrys black majority with a fait accompli. The victorious armies would not be recruited or armed in advance but raised by the captains as they marched.

Ironically, the bloodiest slave revolt in the United States took place in the decade after Veseys failure, at a time when rebellionas opposed to other forms of resistancehad become virtually suicidal. The slaves in Southampton County, Virginia, who rose with Nat Turner in 1831 shared neither Gabriels trust in a second American Revolution nor Veseys hope of fleeing to the Caribbean. Although Turner may have expected to establish a maroon colony in the vast Dismal Swamp, his plot gave little evidence of planning or rational preparation. Most likely, the messianic Turner hoped that God would protect and guide his army as the Lord had guided the Israelites. At least fifty-seven whites perished in the revolt, but local militiamen easily routed the ill-equipped rebels; three companies of federal artillery, together with seamen from two warships in the Chesapeake, reached Southampton only three days after the insurrection began.

Although the secession of the Southern states in the winter of 1860-1861 presented militant blacks with precisely the sort of division that rebel leaders typically tried to take advantage of, the Civil War channeled black resistance into patterns acceptable to the politicians of the free states. During the first year of the conflict, as Confederate soldiers repulsed northern invasions, militant slaves across the cotton-growing South saw few options but to pull down the rebel government from within. The plot in Natchez, Mississippi, still shrouded in mystery, stands as but one example of collective resistance during the months before the Confederate debacle at Antietam Creek. Rumors of black resistance spread in New Orleans and Columbia, South Carolina. Seven slaves swung from the gibbet in Charleston in April 1861. The Confederate brigadier general R. F. Floyd urged the governor of Florida to declare martial law in the hope of eradicating a nest of traitors and lawless negroes (Aptheker, 301).

Most slaves, however, understood, as Herbert Aptheker suggested in his definitive work on American Negro Slave Revolts (1943), that the Army of Lincoln was to be the Army of Liberation (p. 84). Aged slaves with long memories counseled patience and waited for the arrival of Northern forces. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, Northern freemen and Southern runaways, eager and willing to fight, donned blue uniforms in the name of liberty for blacks. Despite the Confederates threat to execute black soldiers as slave insurgents, thousands of bondmen fled the countryside, planning to return and liberate their families. By the end of the war, 180,000 African Americans (one out of every five males in the republic) had served in Union forces. Those former slaves who marched back toward the plantations of their birth singing General Gabriels Jig rightly understood themselves to be a part of the largest slave rebellion in the history of the United States.

SEE ALSO American Revolution; Gabriel (Prosser); Haitian Revolution; Toussaint Louverture; Turner, Nat; U.S. Civil War; Vesey, Denmark


Aptheker, Herbert. 1943. American Negro Slave Revolts. New York: Columbia University Press.

Dubois, Laurent. 2004. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Egerton, Douglas R. 1993. Gabriels Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Egerton, Douglas R. 1999. He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Frey, Sylvia R. 1991. Water From the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Genovese, Eugene D. 1979. From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Hoffer, Peter Charles. 2003. The Great New York Conspiracy of 1741: Slavery, Crime, and Colonial Law. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press.

Rucker, Walter C. 2005. The River Flows On: Black Resistance, Culture, and Identity Formation in Early America. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Douglas R. Egerton

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Slave Insurrections


SLAVE INSURRECTIONS. For enslaved people in America, protest against the injustice of chattel slavery took many forms. Most subtle were the individual acts of resistance against a cruel master or overseer, including theft, sabatoge, feigned sickness, work slowdowns, and escape. The privacy of the slave quarters nurtured a culture of endurance, even defiance, in slave song, folktale, and religion. The most dramatic acts of resistance, however, were the organized conspiracies and rebellions against the system of slavery. They involved careful planning, collective action, and bravery. Indeed, few struggles for individual freedom and human dignity in America have ever entailed more personal risk.

Until well into the twentieth century, historians tended to play down unrest among slaves and to picture insurrections as aberrant. The mythology of the "happy slave" reflected a continuing paternalism in racial attitudes and helped to justify the Jim Crow practices that followed emancipation. Since World War II historians critical of racial injustice approached the issue with a new sympathy to the plight of enslaved people.

More than 250 cases have been identified that can be classified as insurrections. Such numbers are bound to be imprecise. Among the factors thwarting the quest for statistical certainty are the policy of silence, the bias of the records, the difficulty of distinguishing between personal crimes and organized revolts, and the quick spread of rumors. However, it is clear that insurrection was more frequent than earlier historians had acknowledged. According to a unique record of slave convictions in the state of Virginia for the period 1780–1864, of 1,418 convictions, 91 were for insurrection and 346 for murder. When this is added to the several recorded examples of plots and revolts in the state in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the record for that state alone is impressive.

The first slave revolt in territory now part of the United States took place in 1526 in a Spanish settlement near the mouth of the Pee Dee River in what is now South Carolina. Several slaves rebelled and fled to live with Indians of the area. The following year the colonists left the area without having recaptured the slaves. Insurrection in the British colonies began with the development of slavery and continued into the American Revolution. The most serious occurred in New York and in South Carolina. In 1712 a slave conspiracy in New York City led to the death of nine whites and the wounding of five or six others. Six of the rebels killed themselves to avoid capture. Of those taken into custody, twenty-one were executed in a variety of ways. Some were hanged, others burned, one broken on the wheel, and one hanged in chains as an example to other would-be insurrectionists. In 1739 Cato's Revolt (also known as the Stono Rebellion)

took place at Stono, South Carolina, near Charleston. Blacks seized guns and ammunition and fought the militia before being defeated. Approximately twenty-five whites and fifty blacks were killed. In 1741 a conspiracy among slaves and white servants in New York City led to the execution of thirty-one blacks and four whites. These events set a gruesome precedent—the retributions were usually far bloodier than the actual uprisings.

The successful slave revolt in Haiti during the French Revolution led to a series of plots in the South. Others followed up to the Civil War. Of these Gabriel's Insurrection, the plot of Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner's Rebellion were the most significant.

In 1800 Gabriel Prosser, a blacksmith, and Jack Bowler planned a revolt to involve thousands of slaves in the Richmond area. Authorities became aware that something was afoot, and James Monroe, then governor of Virginia, ordered that precautions be taken. Nevertheless, the leaders planned to proceed on Saturday, 30 August. It rained heavily, and when more than a thousand armed slaves gathered, they found that a bridge over which they had to pass had been washed away. On the same day, an informer gave specifics of the plot to authorities. Many rebels were arrested, including Prosser and Bowler. Thirty-six slaves, including the leaders, were executed.

In 1822 Denmark Vesey, a black carpenter who had purchased his freedom in 1800, planned an uprising in the area of Charleston. An active churchgoer in Charleston, Vesey was convinced that slavery violated the principles of the Bible. With able assistance from such leaders as Peter Poyas and Mingo Harth, many slaves over a large area were involved. The plan was to attack Charleston on the second Sunday in July, Sunday being a day on which it was customary for many blacks to be in the city and July being a time when many whites were vacationing outside the city. Weapons were made and information secured as to the location where arms and ammunition were stored. However, betrayal led Vesey to move the date ahead one month; before action could be taken, further information led to the arrest of the leaders. Vesey and thirty-four others were found guilty and hanged.

In August 1831 Nat Turner led the most famous revolt ever in Southampton County, Virginia. Turner and five others, with no clear plan of action, embarked on a killing spree. Turner's marauding army swelled to approximately seventy-five. They killed over seventy whites, many women and children, and caused panic over a wide area. Soldiers defeated the rebels, and Turner, his accomplices, and scores of innocent blacks were executed. The Virginia legislature tightened the slave codes in response. Thereafter, black preachers could not conduct religious services without the presence of a white.

These insurrections involved mainly slaves, with occasional participation by free blacks and rare involvement of whites. Usually the leaders, notably Prosser, Vesey, and Turner, were better educated than their peers. Many rebels were inspired by religious beliefs and borrowed biblical language and imagery to help unify their followers behind the cause. They were also stimulated by factors and events external to the local situation—such as the revolution in Haiti—and each uprising brought a new crop of repressive laws. From Turner's uprising in 1831 through the Civil War, slave owners curtailed slave rebellions by tightening the surveillance over black religion, travel, and expression.


Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts. New York: International Publishers, 1983.

Genovese, Eugene D. From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press 1992.

Katz, William L. Breaking the Chains: African-American Slave Resistance. New York: Macmillan, 1990.

Oates, Stephen B. The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.

Wood, Peter H. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion. New York: Knopf, 1974.

Henry N.Drewry/a. r.

See alsoAfrican American Religions and Sects ; Education, African American ; Insurrections, Domestic ; South, the: The Antebellum South ; Vesey Rebellion ; Virginia ; andvol. 9:John Brown's Last Speech ; The Nat Turner Insurrection .

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