Slave Rebellions

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Slave rebellions in the United States will probably always be impossible to enumerate exactly for the period 1820 to 1870. Slave owners tried whenever possible to conceal the uprisings and their extent, both to deter other slaves and to maintain, for northerners' benefit, the "happy plantation" myth. It is even difficult to define exactly what constituted such a rebellion. For example, the historian Herbert Aptheker's definition of slave insurrection requires a minimum involvement of ten slaves, freedom as their objective, and contemporaneous references to the incident as a seditious event; according to this definition he finds approximately 250 rebellions to have taken place (p. 162). Other scholars argue that this figure is inflated, or they employ different definitions, according to which one must then claim that many additional rebellions on a much smaller scale took place. Two things were clear: slaves lived in a state of constant restiveness, and the happy plantation was indeed a myth.

Resistance to slavery took many forms. Some slaves rebelled on an individual basis and ran north, sometimes with spouses or other family members. Despite the iconic status of Harriet Tubman (c. 1820–1913), the Underground Railroad's most famous escapee and conductor, the vast majority of these fugitives were men. Women and men alike, however, engaged in smaller, everyday acts of rebellion calculated to destabilize and infuriate, such as petty theft, arson, strikes, and temporary truancy. For some indeed, the truancy was more than temporary, as communities of runaway slaves, often allied with Native Americans, established themselves in then-obscure regions (such as Virginia's Great Dismal Swamp or the Florida Everglades) within slave states. When survival made it necessary, they conducted raids, sometimes violent, on white settlements. These fugitives, known as "outlyers" or maroons, lived in a kind of tenuous freedom within slavery that was common in the Caribbean, whence the term "maroon" originates.


The Caribbean in fact had recently been the site of an event that profoundly affected the way both slaves and slaveholders in the United States came to view their "peculiar institution." Between 1791 and 1803 a massive rebellion in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) had brought about the rise of the black leaders Toussaint L'Ouverture (c. 1743–1803) and Jean-Jacques Dessalines (c. 1758–1806) followed by the overthrow of slavery and the declaration of Haiti's independence as a black republic. Not surprisingly the success of this revolt (itself spurred by the French Revolution) horrified U.S. slave owners and brought hope to their slaves, despite attempts by southern authorities to suppress the news. Almost immediately, as the nineteenth century began, the revolutionary fervor seemed to have spread to U.S. slaves: in 1800 a potential rebellion in Virginia led by Gabriel Prosser (c. 1776–1800) was betrayed but if effected could have involved as many as a thousand slaves, all prepared to use violence if necessary. After Haiti's rebellion, such U.S. slave rebellions were increasingly aimed, as the historian Eugene D. Genovese puts it, "not at secession from the dominant society but at joining it on equal terms" (From Rebellion to Revolution, p. xx). Haiti had raised the potential stakes. As many scholars note, however, there were still far fewer rebellions in the United States than in the Caribbean and Latin America for various reasons, including the relative black-white ratio, the difference between owners' absenteeism and paternalism as methods of control, and the availability of arms.

The Haitian revolution, followed so soon by Prosser's conspiracy and the general concept of chattel property demanding societal equality and freedom, alarmed slave owners into adopting the self-defeating pattern of repression that they would enforce ever more harshly after subsequent rebellions. Slaves' freedom of movement and assembly were further restricted; the Fugitive Slave Law was reworked and tightened; by 1850 literacy was forbidden to slaves in every southern state, to prevent the transmission of notions of freedom; free blacks were "encouraged" to leave their states, and preferably the South, lest they give ideas to the unfree; the American Colonization Society, established in 1816, attempted to remove the free black population to Liberia.


Such constantly reinforced repressive measures almost guaranteed that slaves would continue to rebel. The next major insurrection was that organized by Denmark Vesey (c. 1767–1822) in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822. Vesey himself was free, having bought his freedom with lottery winnings. For him, a deeply religious man, the incitement of slave insurrection was largely a matter of principle, and like many of his successors, he invoked the Founding Fathers, appealing to the rights of man. His plan relied on secrecy, with a small group of lieutenants—none of whom knew the plot in its entirety—responsible for recruitment. Jack Pritchard, known as Gullah Jack, was responsible for recruiting maroons, for instance; Peter Poyas, a capable organizer, was Vesey's deputy. There was no difficulty in enlisting recruits, especially as rumors were circulating that the 1821 Missouri Compromise debate in Congress had ended by making all the slaves free, and it was also the beginning of a decade when the African American population was rapidly increasing and the economy as a whole weakening. Although the total number of recruits ascribed to Vesey may have included many slaves whose eventual participation the leaders merely assumed, nevertheless as many as nine thousand slaves are said finally to have been involved in what the abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823–1911) described as "the most elaborate insurrectionary project ever formed by American slaves" (p. 107).

The uprising was first scheduled for July 1822 (on the French revolutionary holiday Bastille Day, as Genovese points out) with the apparent aim of taking Charleston by force, then sailing to freedom in the Caribbean. Betrayal by a house slave caused the date to be advanced, but then additional betrayal led to the revelation of the plot, the arrest of more than three hundred people, including free blacks, and the hanging of Vesey and his lieutenants. Yet their plan had come so close to fruition that Charleston and the South in general remained for some time in a state of terror, which was followed by a new wave of repression. In this case repression included the outlawing in South Carolina of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which had been regarded with suspicion since its founding: any place that encouraged slave assembly was suspect, but the fact that the legislature took the extreme measure of banning the church entirely underlines the increasingly important part that religion was playing in slave rebellions.


This religious factor was clear in one of the most influential texts of the abolitionist movement, David Walker's (1785–1830) Walker's Appeal, in Four Articles: Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America, September 28, 1829, usually known as Walker's Appeal. This militant work written by a free black warned of God's vengeance if slavery was not ended, invoked the Declaration of Independence and the rights of man, denounced plans for colonization, and called upon people of color to take their fate into their own hands. Walker's Appeal was widely disseminated throughout the country and was viewed with alarm even by major northern abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879). Its incendiary ideas spread among slaves, even those who were unable to read it, and although there is no known direct link between Walker's Appeal and the most successful and famous slave rebellion in U.S. history two years later, there is no doubt that Walker's Appeal helped to shape the spirit of the times and to foment all the smaller rebellions that continued unabated. It was in this turbulent context that Nat Turner's rebellion took place.

The slave Nat Turner (1800–1831) of Southampton County, Virginia, has been variously described as a prophet, a lunatic, a hero, and a religious fanatic; he was certainly a deeply religious man, who, like the Puritans before him, read the "signs" of the world. He interpreted them to mean that he was destined to lead his people in revolt, which he did in August 1831, relying like Vesey on a small number of initial associates. His strategy was to begin by killing all the white people at a series of farms, starting with his own home farm, and to gather followers along the way, with a view to taking the county seat of Jerusalem. By the height of the revolt, Turner had seventy to eighty followers, and approximately fifty-seven white people had been killed (although many historians and contemporary commentators alike, including Higginson, were at pains to point out that no rapes had been perpetrated). However, encounters with the local militia caused Turner's supporters to become disorganized, and they were all except Turner captured or killed the next day. Turner hid out in the immediate vicinity for two months until he was finally captured and executed. The whole of the South had been traumatized by Turner's insurrection, especially as it was better-documented than most, thanks to a series of jailhouse confessions dictated to and published by a local lawyer; the extent of the bloodshed was also unprecedented. The usual repressions followed, notably including restrictions on religious practices: Virginia law banned blacks, whether slave or free, from practicing religious observances without their white families. As Kenneth S. Greenberg notes, Nat Turner had "personified the threat of an independent African American religion" (Turner, Confessions of Nat Turner, p. 23).

Rebellions continued, however. John Brown's (1800–1859) raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859 (which included a number of African Americans among the insurgents) indicated that, right up to the eve of the Civil War, Americans of all races were willing to shed blood to end slavery and frequently did so out of a religious belief in a higher order of freedom. Although it is impossible to be sure when these rebellions finally ended, Herbert Aptheker lists an unfulfilled plot in Troy, Alabama, in 1864 as the last slave conspiracy in the United States. By this time slaves were also able to express resistance by joining the Union army.

Nat Turner was for a time the most feared man in the South. This extract from the Norfolk Herald, Norfolk, Virginia, for 4 November 1831 illustrates both slave owners' relief at recapturing Turner before his revolt escalated and their contempt that he should even contemplate seizing the personal freedom that they felt the Founding Fathers had clearly earmarked for white Americans only:

He is said to be very free in his confessions, which, however, are no further important than as shewing that he was instigated by the wildest superstition and fanaticism, and was not connected with any organized plan of conspiracy beyond the circle of the few ignorant wretches whom he had seduced by his artifices to join him. He still pretends that he is a prophet, and relates a number of revelations which he says he has had, from which he was induced to believe that he could succeed in conquoring the county of Southampton! (what miserable ignorance!) as the white people did in the revolution.

Turner, Confessions of Nat Turner, pp. 88–89.


Not all slave conspiracies took place on U.S. soil, however. Mutinies took place on ships carrying Africans destined to become slaves in the Americas or carrying slaves from one location to another. Often these rebellions, like those on land, took the form of minor acts of individual resistance, although it was also not uncommon for a potential slave to commit suicide by deliberate self-starvation. The two most noteworthy organized mutinies of the period were those aboard the Amistad in 1839 and the Creole in 1841. The Amistad was a Spanish-owned ship bound for a port in Cuba when the slaves, Africans mostly from Mende, took over the ship under the leadership of Joseph Cinqué (c. 1814–c. 1879). It was eventually recaptured in August 1839 by U.S. forces made suspicious of what contemporaneous media accounts called "the Long, Low Black Schooner" by the fact that it appeared to be manned by armed black sailors. The ship was brought into port in Connecticut. The ensuing three trials made the case notorious, especially when former president John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) became involved, arguing for the Africans before the Supreme Court. They were finally freed after two and a half years on the grounds that the laws of Spain did not permit any legal property claims to the captives. The trials forced discussions of the legality of slavery and its role in international relations, making the Mendians valuable to the abolitionist cause.

The circumstances of the Creole rebellion, about which Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) wrote his only work of fiction, The Heroic Slave (1853), were different. The Creole was a U.S.–owned ship on its way from Richmond, Virginia, to New Orleans in November 1841, when the slaves—led by Madison Washington, a name whose evocation of the Founding Fathers Douglass emphasized—took over the ship. They sailed to British-controlled Nassau in the Bahamas, and Britain by then having outlawed the slave trade, they were ultimately released after initial detention. The case of the Creole was not nearly as celebrated as that of the Amistad, but it did cause diplomatic problems with Britain and provoked considerable comment in the press.


Douglass's The Heroic Slave was, as the title perhaps suggests, basically a fictionalized general biography of Madison Washington, including other acts of rebellion, such as his flight to Canada in 1840 and his subsequent recapture when trying to rescue his wife; the account of the Creole mutiny is in fact the novel's climax. As a writer, though, Douglass was and is even more well-known for his autobiography recounting his own acts of rebellion and escape from slavery, published as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself in 1845, revised as My Bondage and My Freedom in 1855 and as Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in 1881 and 1892. The last part of the initial title is telling: many slaves told their stories of resistance and escape to white abolitionists, who shaped the accounts into an "as-told-to" format, but Douglass and Harriet Jacobs (1813–1897), author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), were among the few to write their own stories in their own words. These nonfiction narratives were the form in which individual slave rebellions most often entered literature at this time, organized rebellions entering via newspapers; most fictional accounts emerged after the Civil War era. However, in 1853 the fugitive slave William Wells Brown (c. 1814–1884) published the first version of the novel then titled Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States. This first African American novel deals with the flight from slavery of the title character and incorporates Nat Turner's rebellion, a veteran of which the heroine's daughter marries. Martin Robison Delany (1812–1885), whose family escaped slavery in 1822 and who became (among other achievements) a newspaper editor, a political activist, and an explorer, finally published his only novel in complete form in 1861–1862, although the ending is now lost. Blake; or, the Huts of America argues the necessity of militant slave resistance, taking a nationalist stance that envisions ultimate freedom in a free black Cuba. In this latter respect, it ironically uses many of David Walker's arguments to promote opposite viewpoints.

White American authors who addressed slave rebellions include Herman Melville (1819–1891), whose "Benito Cereno" (1856), another tale of shipboard slave mutiny, was based on the experiences of Captain Amasa Delano (1763–1823), who published his account in 1817. Delano had encountered a Spanish slave ship that the slaves had taken over, but the slaves forced the remaining Spanish crew to feign continued control for Delano's benefit. In Melville's hands, the story becomes a nuanced tale of subversion and imposture, which has led to considerable critical debate over whether it reinforces or undermines racial stereotypes and abolitionist positions. Critics have also frequently commented on the physical similarity of the Spanish ship in the tale (the Tryal, renamed by Melville the San Dominick) to the Amistad. Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811–1896) best-selling Uncle Tom's Cabin, published serially in 1851 and 1852, addressed slave rebellion mostly in the form of the escape North of the light-skinned George and Eliza Harris and their son, with their imminent departure for Liberia forming the "happy ending." More controversial and much less popular was Stowe's next novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856). The title character is the son of Denmark Vesey, whose story the novel incorporates; he is also based on Nat Turner and as such is described as resembling "one of the wild old warrior prophets of the heroic ages" (p. 241). An "intensely black" (p. 240), powerful, and passionate man, he and his form of rebellion, hiding out in the swamp, were inevitably found by readers to be much more unsettling than George Harris.


Over the last fifty years of the twentieth century much scholarly work on slave rebellions, sometimes controversial in nature, appeared. Herbert Aptheker's American Negro Slave Revolts, which first appeared in 1943, was and still is an immensely useful resource, countering the earlier notion of the happy plantation full of contented slaves. Aptheker perhaps stresses the opposite position too strongly in fact. Other scholars have often accused him of exaggerating the extent of slave resistance, but his scholarship is nevertheless valuable. Also valuable is the work of Eugene D. Genovese, especially From Rebellion to Revolution (1979) and Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974), and earlier C. L. R. James's The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938). These historians situate U.S. slave revolts in the broader context of the Caribbean and Latin America. Their Marxist stance must be taken into account, as must Aptheker's, but the broad perspective is productive. Thomas Wentworth Higginson's collection of studies of slave rebellions, originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in the 1850s and 1860s, is the closest to being contemporaneous with the rebellions themselves and is based on primary sources. The Slumbering Volcano: American Slave Ship Revolts and the Production of Rebellious Masculinity by Maggie Montesinos Sale (1997) contains useful analysis of both mutinies and the rhetoric of mutiny. Rebels against Slavery by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack (1996) is an accurate, clearly written book for young adults that covers most aspects of slave rebellion and would also be a suitable introduction for the general reader.

See alsoAbolitionist Writing; An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans;"Benito Cereno"; Blake;Clotel;Compromise of 1850 and Fugitive Slave Law; The Confessions of Nat Turner;Harpers Ferry; Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl;Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass;Slave Narratives; Slavery


Primary Works

Brown, William Wells. Clotel; or, the President's Daughter. 1853. In Three Classic African-American Novels, edited by William L. Andrews, pp. 71–283. New York: Mentor, 1990.

Delany, Martin Robison. Blake; or, the Huts of America. 1861–1862. Introduction by Floyd J. Miller. Boston: Beacon, 1970.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of FrederickDouglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. 1845. Edited with an introduction by Houston A. Baker Jr. New York: Penguin, 1982.

Hendrick, George, and Willene Hendrick, eds. Two SlaveRebellions at Sea. New York: Brandywine, 2000. Contains commentary and the texts of "Benito Cereno," The Heroic Slave, and chapter 18 of A Narrative of Voyages and Travels by Amasa Delano.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Black Rebellion: Five SlaveRevolts. c. 1860. Introduction by James M. McPherson. New York: Da Capo, 1998. Republication of 1969 Arno edition, consisting of last five chapters of Travellers and Outlaws.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. 1861. Edited by Lydia Maria Child. Introduction by Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Dred: A Tale of the Great DismalSwamp. 1856. 2 vols. Grosse Pointe, Mich.: Scholarly Press, 1968.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. 1852. Introduction by Alfred Kazin. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Turner, Nat. The Confessions of Nat Turner and Related Documents. Edited and with an introduction by Kenneth S. Greenberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1996.

Walker, David. Walker's Appeal. 1829. In The IdeologicalOrigins of Black Nationalism, compiled by Sterling Stuckey, pp. 39–117. Boston: Beacon, 1972.

Secondary Works

Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts. 1943. 50th anniversary edition. Foreword by John H. Bracey. New York: International, 1993.

Camp, Stephanie M. H. Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

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

Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon, 1974.

James, C. L. R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. 1938. New York: Vintage, 1963.

McKissack, Patricia C., and Fredrick L. McKissack. Rebels against Slavery: American Slave Revolts. New York: Scholastic, 1996.

Sale, Maggie Montesinos. The Slumbering Volcano: AmericanSlave Ship Revolts and the Production of Rebellious Masculinity. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997.

Helen Lock