From the perspective of a contemporary scholar of slavery and the resulting slave revolts, it is hard to imagine the nature of the violence that came with slavery. The slaves were fearful of the violence they faced from the masters while the masters dreaded the possibility of a slave revolt. The White slave masters were well aware that the slightest provocation would ignite a spark (Horsmanden, 1810). The topic on slave revolts is however overlooked in a majority of cases in American history due to the insufficient documentation on the revolts. It is easy to assume that the revolts were few and small scale. However, it is important to note that from the earliest days of the slavery, resistance was a constant feature. The resistance took many forms from individual acts of sabotage, feigning illness, poor work, or committing crimes such as poisoning, escaping, and arson (Horsmanden, 1810). There were also a group of fugitive slaves referred to as the “Maroons” that formed independent communities in areas that were inaccessible such as the Dismal Swamp in Virginia and the Florida Everglades (Allen, 913). The slave revolts were small in magnitude and amassed a small number of people because the slave population in the United States was relatively smaller as compared to the White masters. They were also less frequent revolts than the case with Brazil and the West Indies that had a large number of slaves. One of the biggest revolutions outside the United States was the one that occurred in 1790 leading to overthrowing of slavery and the French rule in Saint Domingue establishing the nation of Haiti. Nevertheless, Herbert Aptheker has counted over two hundred plots, conspiracies, and actual uprisings before the Civil War (Horsmanden, 1810). The slave revolts despite their size had profound legislative, cultural and economic impact on the slave system. The two revolts that had tremendous impact and significance were the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina and the rebellion by Nat Turner in Virginia which are the primary focus of this paper (Allen,1913).
The Stono Rebellion took place in South Carolina in 1739 and led by a slave called “Jemmy.” The rebellion was incited by some Spanish individuals that offered freedom to all those that ran away from the British colony. The Spanish incitement as documented by an anonymous white official later charged with recording about the revolt for the Colonial records of State of Georgia. He wrote, “there was a Proclamation published at Augustine, in which the King of Spain (then at Peace with Great Britain) promised Protection and Freedom to all Negroes Slaves that would resort thither.” The revolt was therefore fueled by the promise of freedom for the slaves by the Spanish and it is further emphasized by some records in the South Carolina House of Commons Assembly Committee indicating some rewards given to the slaves that engaged in the revolt. A documentation by Works Progress Administration in 1937 further provides evidence of the cause and progress of the revolution as with George Cato an alleged great-grandson of the leader of the Stono Rebellion says, “Commander Cato speak for the de crowd. He says: ‘We don’t lack slavery. We start to jine de Spanish in Florida. We surrender but we not whipped yet and we are not converted.” De other 43 men say: ‘Amen.’” (Cato & Smith, 1937).
Starting with just 20 slaves, the Stono Rebellion grew, and popularity was increasing its number to 90 slaves who matched across the countryside. A group of militiamen however confronted the rebels, and a battle ensues leading to the scattering of the rebels. A week later, there was another battle between the slave rebels and the militants of which the rebels lost once again, and the revolt was considered as having been crushed (Allen,1913). It was the largest rebellion before the United States had its independence from the British and had significant economic, political, and social impact on the life of South Carolina. It led to massive political and economic reforms including the slave manumission and heavy taxation on the importation of any new slaves from Africa. The revolt also experienced cultural impact with the White newspapers fearing that the rebellion would start again, decided not to write or report about it (Brown, 1863).
Nat Turner's Rebellion is also called the Southampton Insurrection. It took place in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831 led by Nat Turner. The revolt resulted in the highest fatalities of any other slave revolts in the Southern United States at the time as they killed between 55 to 65 people. The suppression of the revolt took place in a few days but Turner escapade and survived capture for over two months (Turner & Gray, 1831). The suppression of the revolt was at Belmont Plantation, and it led to massive fear in the aftermath. The European-American militias organized a retaliating attack against the slaves, and they executed 56 slaves accused of supporting or being part of the rebellion. In the frenzy, there were over 100 African Americans murdered by the militia and the mobs hence punishing even the non-participants in the revolt. Because of the uprising, the state legislators responded harshly passing laws that prohibited education for both the free and enslaved black people and restricted the rights of assembly among other civil rights of the people. It was because; Turner was a well-known educated man and was able to read and write at a young age. This led the legislators to assume that it is his education that enabled him to inspire the revolt. The brutality that Turner turned to by killing every white person that he and his group came across inculcated the culture of fear regarding any form of the revolt of the slaves in the United States. According to Turner in “The Confessions of Nat Turner”, that was dictated by Turner while awaiting his trial as his lawyer Thomas Gray made the account (1831), he is depicted as being ruthless and that he believed that he was chosen by God to lead the slaves to freedom through the death of their masters. Despite the attempts of portraying Turner as a religious fanatic and a ruthless killer, he was still perceived as a hero. William Wells Brown in his book The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievement in 1863 says, “the right of man to the enjoyment of freedom is a settled point; and where he is deprived of this, without any criminal act of his own, it is his duty to regain his liberty at every cost… Every eye is now turned towards the south, looking for another Nat Turner.” It was an indication of the fame and support that Turner commanded the slaves.
In as much as the paper above focused on the major revolts, which are the Stono Rebellion, and the Nat Turner Revolt, several other uprisings led to a significant impact in North America and beyond. Such an example is that of John Brown, who was a white abolitionist and led a group of 20 men both white and black seizing a US arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (Brown,1863). They intended to start a massive slave revolution. The group held out for two days and later surrounded with John Brown being charged with treason, murder, and conspiracy and was executed. His heroism is indicated in a "Battle Hymn of the Republic," whose first verse and chorus went like:
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
But his soul goes marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
His soul goes marching on.
In conclusion, the slave revolts were of limited nature and usually lasted for short periods of time. However, they had significant social, economic, and political impact sparking widespread fear and terror among the whites that dreaded its occurrence. The revolts led to both positive and negative consequences to the slaves. The revolts leaders were also taken in heroic terms and were praised for being such great heroes. Many revolts took place throughout the existence of slavery, but the most significant revolts were the Stono Rebellion and the Nat Turner Revolts.