From their earliest years of bondage in North America, Africans resisted their captors. Armed rebellion was the most militant option in a wide spectrum of resistance — the only option that stood a chance of abolishing the whole relation of master and slave.

Slave rebels adapted their plans and tactics to their specific circumstances, but when we look at several rebellions together, we can begin to make out the outlines of a single, complex revolutionary tradition. This article is an introduction to the specifics of some major revolts along with some notes on what tied them together.

The text is based on a talk I gave on July 2 at the Socialism 2016 conference in Chicago.

Nat_Turner_captured mod

“Nat Turner captured by Benjamin Phipps, a local farmer” — caption from Wikipedia. Engraving by William Henry Shelton, from Bettman Archive via Wikipedia. The image appears in A Popular History of the United States, 1882.

Let’s start with the Stono Rebellion, which broke out in 1739 in South Carolina.[1] Jumping right in will help me introduce some themes for the rest of the talk.

The Stono Rebellion took place in a decade that included many other slave revolts in North America, but also in the Bahamas, Antigua and Jamaica. Many places had experienced poor harvests, famine conditions and epidemic disease. The decade in South Carolina also marked the transition to genuine plantation agriculture, as West Africans brought their skills for rice culture to the New World (Wood, 39-40).

1739 was a better year for farming in South Carolina, but that meant intensive overwork to bring in the harvest. The workforce was hungry and clothed in rags, and the slave drivers pushed them forward with the threat of torture.

On September 9, some number of Black men — probably fewer than 20 — met at the Stono River about 20 miles down the coast from Charleston. They stole some guns from a local store, killed five white people, burned a house, and marched south with drums and a banner.

It’s likely that the core of the group was born in Africa and gained some experience as soldiers in a civil war in Kongo.

They came to a tavern and spared the life of the owner, apparently because he treated his slaves humanely — but the rebels killed the neighbors and burned some more houses.

In all, they killed about 21 white people. They cut off the heads of the first couple people and displayed them as a warning to those who might try to stop them. In doing so, it’s possible that the rebels were emulating the methods of African war, but public beheading was also a favorite form of punishment that South Carolina’s master class inflicted on rebellious slaves.

By coincidence, the Lieutenant Governor of the colony was riding north toward Charleston and saw the crowd of rebels, which had grown to somewhere between 60 and 100 people. A few rebels chased the lieutenant governor and his four companions, but they escaped and alerted the local militia.

On the second day, the militia caught up with the rebels and killed a number of them in a brief battle. At least 30 of the rebels retreated, which is true to the skirmish tactics of West Africa warfare. There was a chance for these 30 to rebuild their forces, and the entire white male population was ordered under arms.

One week into the revolt, the militia won a second battle about 30 miles south of the first. Some Black prisoners were shot immediately, while others were hanged or strung up alive. Some were released.

Many slaves had held back from joining the rebels — in fact, helping their masters escape to safety. This could have been a purely pragmatic choice, considering the deadly consequences of joining a revolt that was likely to be crushed.

The whites kept killing suspected participants for months afterwards and made a final capture of one of the leaders three years later.

The Stono rebels had been headed in the direction of Spanish Florida, where the authorities offered freedom to Africans who escaped from the English colonies to the north. In the eight years leading up to the Stono rebellion, the South Carolina Gazette reported that there were already 253 slave escapes. So there’s no question that the rebels knew where they were going.

In 1740, the year after Stono, English troops from Georgia and South Carolina attacked the fort in Spanish St. Augustine, but a combined force of Spaniards, Africans and Native Americans repulsed the attack (Wasserman, 97-101). The English colonists and their American descendants would have to fight repeatedly over the next century to take full control of Florida away from the Spanish, Africans and Seminoles.

The Stono Rebellion is significant for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, it was the biggest slave revolt of the North American colonial period.

For another, the revolt forced the master class to rethink its methods of repression. In the next year they wrote the Negro Code of 1740, which influenced the practice of slavery throughout the South.

The new code sharpened the color line by establishing various legal disabilities even for free people of color. That was a small group to begin with, but in some towns it grew to become a significant middle caste between white people and black slaves. Putting things starkly in terms of color also encouraged the whole white population to identify with the master class.

The Negro Code also made it illegal for more than seven black men to gather outside the presence of a white. Slaves were forbidden from striking any white person except in defense of their master. Whites and Native Americans were offered rewards for hunting fugitive slaves, and it was illegal to teach slaves to write.

The Negro Code also made some concessions, such as limiting the workweek to six days, limiting the workday to 15 hours — some concession, right? — and requiring slaves to be provided with adequate food and clothing.

My sense is that the only enforceable part of this was the provision that slaves would get Sundays off. That’s because the slaves themselves could collectively enforce it by refusing to work. In any case, the six-day workweek became a consistent custom.

* * * * *

Now that we’ve had a quick look at Stono, I’ll lay out some themes to develop in the rest of the talk. I’ll be taking up four more revolts, which I’ve chosen either for their magnitude or their historical significance.

I should say that none of them reached the scale of revolts in the Caribbean, including the most famous and only successful one — the Haitian Revolution. Several of the slave colonies of the Caribbean, however, were more than 90 percent Black, which made a difference.

In North America, only some of the rebellions occurred in areas that were majority Black, but even where Blacks outnumbered whites, the white minorities were big enough to discourage revolts or put down the ones that did break out.

Even so, there were lots of uprisings. Herbert Aptheker published a pathbreaking book in 1943 claiming that there were 250 revolts in North America — a revolt being ten or more slaves collectively taking up arms to win their freedom (Aptheker, 162).

Others have said that this number is too high, but we should remember that the accounts of slave revolts are almost entirely in the voices of panicked white people who didn’t want to spread the news that this kind of thing was going on.

It’s also hard to get a good count because this white panic sometimes broke out in the absence of a real conspiracy.

So the exact number — we don’t know, but we do know that the possibility of revolt shaped the customs, the consciousness and the institutions of the whole society.

That brings me to another point. Armed revolt was only one option in a whole spectrum of slave resistance, and we need to see the armed outbreaks in the context of the day-to-day smaller acts of fighting back. These included:

— sabotage…

— refusing to work…

— arson…

— poisoning…

And slaves could run away.

Running away could mean different things depending on the context. Some of it was just absenteeism during the heaviest periods of work — it was a way of going on strike. Many absentees, perhaps most, skipped out for a time to visit friends or loved ones. Absentees would generally return, sometimes with a whipping, but also sometimes also with concessions from the masters. (Olwell, 205; Franklin & Schweninger, 98-109)

Some escaped to the cities and got wage jobs from bosses who didn’t care where their workers came from (Franklin and Schweninger, 134-36).

Some ran away in groups and set up all-Black colonies. These folks would be known as maroons. Some maroon groups were all men, but others set themselves up as families who supported themselves with farming and hunting.

Other maroon groups raided the existing plantations, or they acted as an armed force promoting revolt among slaves who had stayed behind.

This leads to another major theme: the mental geography of slaves.

Our own mental map tends to depict a nation-state that controls all the spaces “from sea to shining sea.” In contrast, the North America of the 18th and 19th centuries contained many “ungoverned spaces,” to use today’s national-security language; many areas were as yet uncontrolled by the armed force of the national (or local) American state.

The Southern slave regime actually slowed down the development of state power, because the ruling class made its living through the private despotism of the plantations. In the words of slavemaster and founding father George Mason, each master was a “born a petty tyrant (quoted in J. Kelly, 121),” and the master class was leery of a strong state that might encroach on its prerogatives.

Rural systems of slave patrols were mandated by the state, but their limited reach and small size allowed escaped slaves to find places to congregate — and even to build up sufficient armed force to scare off the “negro hunters” for some periods of time (Franklin and Schweninger, 89).

Escapees sometimes formed their maroon colonies within a few days’ walking distance of the plantations they escaped from, although they had to seek out places like swamps that were both inaccessible and unattractive to the masters as profitable land.

This practice gave Black folks a mental map of where freedom was possible.

Just as the master class was always ready for war against rebel slaves, they periodically went to war against maroons. For the masters, it just wasn’t good to have former slaves living nearby and providing an example to the ones who were still captive.

The sense of geography that we pick up in school is the story of how the US nation-state ended up in its current shape. Depending on the curriculum, the story may include some account of the violent seizure of those “ungoverned spaces” from the peoples who occupied them. Even so, the national framework exerts a distorting influence on the account of slavery, including an outsized emphasis on an Underground Railroad that slaves followed to reach freedom in the North (Kly, 21). Blacks and their white allies did build this path of escape — many such paths, really — but most runaways actually stayed in the South.

And if they did look for a place of refuge outside the South, they were just as likely to look outside the United States — to their own south or west. I’ve already mentioned Florida as a magnet for slaves who wanted to escape.

For the Southern master class, the Mason-Dixon line was the most secure border. The North was often not the slaves’ best hope for freedom, especially since the Constitution gave the masters the right to recapture Blacks who escaped into the North. Later, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 added federal muscle to slave-catching operations that previously had been private affairs.

In general, we should note that the masters tried to keep their slaves in ignorance of the rest of the world. They seem to have succeeded best during the later colonization of the deep South with enormous, isolated cotton plantations in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana.

But we should also realize that Black people often had ways to become aware of what was going on in the world. As we saw in the case of the Stono rebellion, the leaders of the revolt were born into a varied experience in Africa, not into a lifetime of slave labor on a single plantation. It’s possible that some of them knew how to read, and it’s certain that some knew two or more languages.

In fact, as the cities grew into major export towns of Southern commodity crops, slaves and free people of color learned to read by the thousands. In 1791, they could read about the outbreak of revolt in Haiti in the same newspapers that the white folks were reading.

Those who could not read would hear the news from those who could read. What’s more, daily commerce put these urban Blacks in contact with slaves on nearby plantations, and news could travel a hundred miles in a couple weeks along the so-called “Negro telegraph” that connected farm to farm. The news could become garbled along this telegraph, but often the truth got through just fine.

* * * * *

I’ll pick up the sequence of revolts with Gabriel’s rebellion of 1800, but first I want to make a few points about

— Blacks in the American Revolution


— the impact of the Haitian revolution.

When the Thirteen Colonies declared independence in 1776, none of them had yet outlawed slavery, and only two of them would abolish slavery before the century was out. Some revolutionaries, even in the South, were in favor of offering Black people freedom in return for service in the war against the British.

About 9,000 black people did fight on the American side, but only a handful were emancipated because of it. The British governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, did offer freedom to slaves who fought for the British, and 300 served.

Thousands of Black people did gain their freedom during the revolution, but mostly by running away. No doubt some of them absorbed the revolutionary ideology of liberty, but I think the main thing was that war against the British was distracting their masters from the job of repressing the slaves.

That’s a general point: Black folks had a better chance of rising up and getting free when their masters faced an external enemy, whether that was Spanish, Native American or British.

In South Carolina, many Blacks responded to a rumor that the British indeed were going to free them and rushed out to the islands that the British still controlled. In response, the master class made retaliatory raids simply to kill Black people on these islands to set an example for others who might be considering rebellion or escape.

The very first blood shed in the South Carolina low country during the Revolutionary War was therefore not an attack on British soldiers but an act of cold-blooded murder committed in order to terrorize and subdue the Black “internal enemy.” (Olwell, 241)

Now just a few words about the Haitian Revolution. If people missed Michael Ehrenreich’s talk yesterday, you should check out the recording at wearemany.org.

The slaves in the French sugar colony of Saint Domingue rose up in 1791 and fought a series of wars to finally win their freedom in 1803. Many North American Blacks took courage from the news, which, coincidentally, came in the same year that a confederacy of Native Americans delivered a major defeat to the US army in Western Ohio.

The upheaval of the decade continued as white farmers in the West rose up in the Whiskey Rebellion, including some in the backcountry of North Carolina and Virginia.

* * * * *

Add to all this an economic depression in the market for Southern exports, and we have the context for Gabriel’s rebellion in Richmond, Virginia, in 1800.

Gabriel was a slave, trained as a blacksmith, who knew how to read and write. He and his wife Nanny, his two brothers and another slave named Jack Bowler, all prepared weapons and recruited co-conspirators for months.

In August, two other slaves reported the plot to the authorities. Governor James Monroe activated the state militias. Meanwhile, according to Aptheker (221), “About 1000 slaves, some mounted, armed with clubs, scythes, homemade bayonets, and a few guns [appeared] at a rendezvous six miles outside the city, … but attack was not possible” because a major rainstorm made the road into town impassable.

In the next few days, dozens of Black folks were arrested, and the authorities offered a $300 reward for anybody who turned in Gabriel. The slave who turned him in was hoping to buy his freedom, but they only gave him $50.

At least 35 were hanged. Aptheker referred to them as “conscious revolutionists,” and not one of the condemned betrayed the cause.

There are signs that Gabriel’s rebels intended to take Richmond, Virginia’s capital city, and hold it as a revolutionary outpost — not to flee someplace else for freedom. If so, this was a pretty bold plan, considering that slaves in Virginia made up less than 40 percent of the population.

Congressman John Randolph wrote that week:

The accused have exhibited a spirit, which, if it becomes general, must deluge the Southern country in blood. They manifested a sense of their rights, and contempt of danger, and a thirst for revenge which portend the most unhappy consequences. (Quoted in Aptheker, 223)

We should also take note of who the rebels planned to spare. They were not to kill Methodists, Quakers or Frenchman. Methodists and Quakers were well known as abolitionists — and Gabriel’s conspirators knew that France, at least for the moment, had granted freedom to the slaves in Haiti.

The rebels were also counting on at least some support from poor whites, some of whom might have been in on the plot.

News of the rebellion seems to have stirred up a two-year stretch of slave resistance in the rest of the Virginia.

Gabriel’s Rebellion impacted the North too. The revolt was a factor in resolutions by all the remaining Northern States to begin the gradual emancipation of Black people.

One last note on the consequences of the revolt. James Monroe created the Richmond Public Guard — in other words, the Richmond police — right after he put down Gabriel’s Rebellion (Hadden, 57).

If Gabriel’s rebellion had gotten off the ground, it would’ve been the biggest in North American history.

* * * * *

Now I’ll turn to the one that was the biggest — the New Orleans rebellion of 1811, also known as the German Coast Uprising. The rebellion came out of the sugar plantations upriver from New Orleans. [Since I gave this talk, I’ve learned of a bigger rebellion in East Florida in 1835-1836 at sugar plantations between St. Augustine and Cape Canaveral. I visited the area in November 2016 and I hope to write about it in the future. Dec 2016]

Here I should explain something about the structure of authority on plantations. On plantations of any size, there were usually two layers of sub-commanders below the master. One of them would be a paid white overseer, who served as the overall manager of the field slaves. Below the overseer would be one or more drivers, who would generally be Black.

Some drivers were free, although many were slaves. The drivers took care of the hour-by-hour discipline of the field slaves, and they would often inflict the tortures such as whipping.

These two layers of buffers between the masters the field hands allowed the master the stand majestically above these brutal relations — at least in his own mind. He might sometimes stay the hand of the overseer or the driver and dispense mercy, even though, as a profit-minded man, he was also constantly telling the overseer to push the slaves to their limit. (Olwell, 212-18)

All this is important because it was a plantation driver on the German Coast who seems to have played the key role in building a liberation army.

Charles Deslondes kept up appearances as a harsh driver, but as a driver, he was also allowed more freedom of movement than field hands were. On the pretext of visiting a wife on another plantation, Deslondes recruited revolutionaries up and down the river in 1810. Two of them — named Kook and Kwamana — had been warriors on the African Gold Coast.

Even before the Louisiana Purchase transferred the territory to American hands in 1803, slave masters had thrown investment into sugar plantations, because exports from the world’s biggest producer, Haiti, were interrupted during the revolution.

More production required the import of more slaves, so Kook and Quamana were not the only plantation workers who had experience of the broader world.

Here is Dan Rasmussen, who wrote the only book-length treatment of the German Coast uprising:

Nowhere in America was slavery as exploitative, or were profits as high, as in the cane fields of Louisiana. Slaves worked longer hours, faced more brutal punishments, and lived shorter lives than any other slave society in North America.

At the same time, many of them were also quite aware of the example of Haitian revolutionaries.

In late 1810, the governor let down his guard by dispatching the militia to support an Anglo land-grab in Spanish West Florida. At that time, Florida’s Panhandle extended all the way to the Mississippi and included Baton Rouge, a key strategic point on the river. As ever, the local master class and the federal government were trying to swallow up as much of Spanish Florida as they could. They wanted more land for plantations but also aimed to destroy Florida as a sanctuary for escaped slaves. (Rasmussen, 61-67)

On the January day appointed for revolt, the Louisiana revolutionaries began by trying to kill their own masters. One of them got away wounded, however, and was later to rally local whites to counterattack.

Meanwhile, the rebels met up with more of their supporters as they walked down the levee along the Mississippi in the direction of New Orleans.

Here again, the objective seems to have been to take New Orleans — with help from Blacks who lived there — and turn it into a fortified center that slaves throughout the region would be drawn to (Rasmussen, 110).

Over the next 24 hours, the rebel force grew to something between 200 and 500 with the addition of maroons who rose from the swamps. Many were mounted, and some were dressed in stolen militia uniforms.

The rebels set up a resting point to which they would draw the small armed force that the governor sent against them. The soldiers and sailors attacked, but the rebels were nowhere to be found. That all seems like a tactic out of African guerrilla war.

The white force that actually did catch up with the rebels was composed of the local masters that the first wounded escapee had been able to put together.

Those whites won a major battle and began reprisals against the rebels in retreat. Charles Deslondes had his hands cut off, his legs broken, and then was shot before his body was roasted on a pile of straw (Rasmussen, 142). The master class cut off the heads of 100 others and put them on pikes along the levee for miles on end. Then 29 more were hanged.

It’s possible that the men who set up the display of severed heads were thinking of the crucifixion of slaves along the Appian Way outside Rome following the Spartacus slave uprising of 73 B.C. The “genteel” master class, after all, prided itself on its Classical education and looked to previous aristocracies as inspiration for their own.

Kook and Quamana were captured and executed without implicating anyone.

The newspapers made very little of the revolt, perhaps because the small number of white deaths — two — made it easy to keep quiet. This relative silence accounts for the virtual erasure of the revolt from the historical record.

* * * * *

Before I leave off talking about the region, I should mention another significant battle that involved escaped slaves in West Florida.

In the year following the German Coast Uprising, the war of 1812 broke out, and the British sent troops into Spanish Florida. Spain was then dealing with an invasion by Napoleon, and its colonial possessions such as Florida were weakly defended. This gave the British a chance enlist the help of Native Americans and escaped Blacks to harass the Americans on their southern flank.

In the Florida Panhandle, along the Apalachicola River, the British constructed a fort before they withdrew in 1815. Here’s something from Adam Wasserman, who wrote a People’s History of Florida:

The fort grew from a strategically defensive base to a flourishing free black community….

The blacks cultivated fields and plantations extending 50 miles up the river. The blacks successfully applied their … knowledge of rice cultivation techniques from West Africa to Florida’s tropical climate.…

Runaway slaves began pouring in on a daily basis. The community grew to about 1,000 blacks in the fields surrounding the fort.

A total of 300 black men, women and children were in possession of the fort, accompanied by about 20 Choctaws and a number of Seminoles.…(168)

The place became known as Negro Fort.

At the same time, General Andrew Jackson had troops within striking distance.

He had recently taken land in Alabama and Mississippi away from the Lower Creek Indians — an area about the size of Indiana that would be perfect for cotton plantations (Baptist, 68). Then Jackson set out to destroy the free Black settlement along the Apalachicola.

Negro Fort was extremely well armed with guns and explosives. Unfortunately, that made it vulnerable to a single red-hot cannonball, which ignited the arms depot in a major explosion that killed 270 out of the fort’s 330 occupants. Then the federal soldiers set about hunting down Black people in the surrounding area — not to kill them but to return them to slavery.

The attack on Negro Fort did not put an end to resistance from the Blacks and Seminoles of Florida, but it did push the threat further south.

Along with the repression of the German Coast Uprising and the displacement of the Lower Creek Indians, the destruction of Negro Fort thus helped make the Deep South safe for slavery just when cotton was becoming “king.”

The same logic would later apply in the movement to take Texas away from Mexico.

* * * * *

In a moment, I’ll look at the Denmark Vesey conspiracy in Charleston.

Before I do that, though, I want to note some differences between city slaves and plantation field hands.

The abject conditions of field hands gave them the most reason to rise up against their masters, but they also tended to have the narrowest outlook and lowest horizon of hope. Frederick Douglass, the country’s most famous escaped slave, wrote that making a slave work eighty hours a week was a more effective method for breaking a spirit than even whipping was.

The German Coast revolt came out of the plantations, but its key leaders were a slave-driver and two men who had experienced freedom as warriors in Africa. Gabriel of Virginia was raised in the country, but he trained as a blacksmith and spent time in the city of Richmond. He could read and write, he met a great variety of people, free and slave — including free people of color — and his skilled occupation gave him a sense of his own worth.

Many urban slaves were hired out as wage laborers. Douglass himself worked as a caulker in a shipyard in Baltimore alongside white workers, and that made him think. “I was living among freeman,” he wrote,

and was in all respects equal to them by nature and attainments. Why should I be a slave?… I was now getting… A dollar and fifty cents per day. I … worked for it,… and it was rightfully my own; and yet … every Saturday night, this money… was … taken from me by [my master].… Why should he have it? I owed him nothing. (Douglass, 187)

Some masters did take all of a slave’s wages, but many found it convenient to let their slaves find their own jobs while collecting a flat fee for the time the slave spent out of the house (Wade, 48). That meant that slaves could make cash for themselves if they earned more than the fees they paid their masters.

In Charleston, hundreds of slave women were engaged in paid needlework and the trading of produce and craft goods. Hundreds of slave men worked for wages — the majority moving goods from place to place because the city was a major port.

Many African Americans could even afford to live outside their masters’ households. Slaves could marry and cohabit independently. Some skilled artisans even began hiring wage workers themselves.

Maybe most important, an unsupervised collective life of Blacks in Charleston and other cities developed in ways that were impossible on a plantation:

— Free people of color built schools for their children;

— Black churches were founded;

— everybody met out on the streets;

… and gathered in the markets on Sundays.

In the words of historian Richard Wade,

The [Southern] city had created its own kind of world, with a pace, sophistication, and environment that separated it from rural modes. In the process it transformed Negro no less than white, slave no less than free man…. [T]he city slave was often quite unlike his country brother. (27)

* * * * *

Denmark Vesey was a slave on board ship with his master in the Caribbean in the 1780s and 90s. He spent a year as a teenager in Haiti before the revolution broke out. He and his master settled and Charleston in the 1790s. Then in 1800, Vesey won the lottery and bought his freedom. He became a successful carpenter.

When a branch of the recently-founded African Methodist Episcopal Church opened up in 1818, Vesey became a Sunday school class teacher. About a third of the city’s Black population — more than 4,300 people — belonged to the church from the start (Powers, 21). The AME church was home to several strands of abolitionism, from the most gradualist to the most militant.

Four years later, in 1822, Vesey was accused of conspiring with several other members of the church to mount the biggest slave insurrection in US history. The other center of the conspiracy was the skilled tradesmen and wage workers — not the personal house slaves, who tended to be much more loyal to their masters.

One of those house slaves, in fact, informed his master that rebels had tried to recruit him. Word of the plot made its way to the mayor, who put the city on military lockdown on the supposed day of revolt.

According to some accounts, the conspiracy included thousands of slaves, including many on the plantations surrounding the city. They were to set fire to the city, acquire weapons, kill any whites who got in their way — and maybe even sail out of the harbor to Haiti.

This last was not really far-fetched, considering the number of free black sailors who came in and out of the port, and the fact that many Charleston-area Blacks knew how to pilot a boat.[2]

Another possibility was that the conspirators, like Gabriel and Charles Deslondes, aimed to take the city, fortify it, and hold it.[3]

The authorities hanged 35 of the supposed leaders and exiled another 27. The mayor approved the arson of the AME church, which became an underground congregation until the end of the Civil War. Just a ten-minute walk away from the ashes of that church, the state soon built an armory known as the Citadel, which served as quarters for a militia that specialized in harassing urban Blacks. The Citadel also became a military academy that still exists today.

From now on, free black sailors who arrived in port would go straight to jail and then be released only when their ship sailed. Other Southern states soon picked up this blatantly unconstitutional law. In general, there was a raft of new measures to repress both free people of color and Black slaves. The state, for example, prohibited free Blacks from entering the state — and even barred the re-entry of free Black residents who left the state for any reason.

There’s a problem with the story of the conspiracy, though.

It might all be a fabrication. It seems clear that Vesey and some others refused to subordinate themselves to anybody and expressed some militant ideas. Vesey was known for chastising other Blacks who bowed and scraped to the whites.

Nevertheless, the story of the conspiracy is based on secret interrogations of a handful of prisoners who were subjected to torture and solitary confinement. The exception is the point where they put two prisoners together so they could get their story straight.

It’s possible, of course, that the whole thing (or much of it) is true, and that the central figures of the conspiracy heroically went to their deaths without admitting anything. Or they might have refused to confess because they didn’t do anything.

Right now, historians are in a major controversy over the Vesey affair. The re-examination of the evidence began fifteen years ago with a 60-page article by Michael Johnson in the William and Mary Quarterly. I’ve read it, and now I’m one of the skeptics; the case does look pretty flimsy, and I’m not sure what to believe.

Like I said, it could’ve happened, but the other a possibility is important, too — the possibility that South Carolina entered into a period of mass murder and heightened repression against Black people on the basis of a white panic… and nothing else. The fact that both stories are plausible tells us a lot about what life was like in the Old South.

* * * * *

The last revolt I’ll discuss is Nat Turner’s, but first I’ll say a few words about a propagandist of Black revolt, David Walker. There is very little that we hear in the voices of Black rebels themselves — outside of the confessions they supposedly made when they were in custody. In this way, David Walker stands out.

He was born free around 1796 in Wilmington, North Carolina, and almost certainly moved to live in Charleston as a young man. There’s a good chance he was in Charleston during the crackdown in 1822, and he was already a member of the AME church (Hinks, 29-30). He might have known some of the people who were hanged.

Later, when he was living in Boston, he wrote the “Appeal to the coloured citizens of the world.” The pamphlet, published in 1829 — that is, between Vesey’s moment and Turner’s — was strongly infused with the religion of the African church and made a systematic defense of Black armed struggle.

He argued that:

— Southern slavery was the worst form of slavery in history

— that Black people are born, and should be by right, equal to white people

— and therefore they had the right to rise up and take their freedom by force of arms.

Much of what he says sounds like ideas that were also attributed to Vesey, who of course belonged to the same church.[4] Vesey and Walker both cited the Bible to claim that God was on the side of the slaves. In saying this, Walker emphasized that he did not “mean for us to wait until God shall take us by the hair of our heads and drag us out of abject wretchedness and slavery (Walker, 13n).” The official record of testimony against Vesey contained the identical message. “I know Denmark Vesey,” an anonymous slave told his interrogators:

I was one day on horseback going to market when I met him on foot; he asked me if I was satisfied with my present situation; if I remembered the fable of Hercules and the Waggoner whose waggon was stalled, and he began to pray, and Hercules said, you fool put your shoulder to the wheel, whip up the horses and your waggon will be pulled out; that if we did not put our hand to the work and deliver ourselves, we should never come out of slavery. (Kennedy and Parker, 62)

Walker’s pamphlet also makes the case for killing people in the course of insurrection. He considers one real historical instance (25-28) — and we’ve already seen a couple of others — where the rebels let somebody get away who ended up bringing reinforcements to kill the rebels.

If slaves had the right to rise up, and they knew that others would try to kill them for doing so, then, Walker argued, insurrectionary killing was really a case of self-defense. Walker wrote: “It is no more harm for you to kill a man, who was trying to kill you, than it is for you to take a drink of water when thirsty (28).”

Walker constructed these arguments and wrote these bold words for distribution in the South. It’s an appeal to colored people, not a plea to the conscience of white folks. White people could redeem themselves if they renounced this crime of slavery, but Black people shouldn’t wait around for that.

Walker’s idea was to send the Appeal into the South and develop discussion circles where one Black person would read the text out loud to others who couldn’t read. This is the kind of thing that would explain why free Black sailors were being forbidden to mix with other Black people in Southern ports. Whites had made complaints about inflammatory pamphlets imported shortly before the Vesey affair (Kennedy and Parker, 12).

Walker died in 1831, just two years after writing the Appeal, and we don’t know how much impact the pamphlet had among slaves. It certainly stoked the panic of the master class, and Walker was blamed for all manner of insubordination — including Turner’s revolt.

For us, the greatest significance of the pamphlet — and of the testimony against Vesey — may be as an indicator of the ideas that were current among a militant minority of Black people. It’s clear, from the polemical way that Walker wrote, that not all Black folks agreed with him, but it’s also clear that Blacks everywhere were having arguments about how to get free. Self-conscious Black revolutionaries were a part of this discussion many decades before the Civil War.

* * * * *

Now about Nat Turner. Born in 1800, he lived in Southampton, a rural majority-Black county in southeast Virginia. Most farms in the area had fewer than ten slaves.

White and black people alike acknowledged Turner’s unusual intelligence. He was also a preacher who had visions — including a vision of a time when “the first should be last and the last should be first (Turner and Greenburg, 48).”

One night August 1831, Turner assembled just a half-dozen committed militant slaves and started to kill men, women and children on farm after farm. The plan was to gather Black supporters as they went along, and it worked for a while, as the number of participants grew to around sixty or eighty, including at least one woman.

One witness later told the Richmond Inquirer:

Indiscriminate slaughter was not their intention after they obtained a foothold, and was resorted to in the first instance to strike terror and alarm. Women and children would afterwards have been spared, and men too who ceased to resist. (quoted Turner and Greenberg, 20)

They also spared a family of poor whites because they didn’t act superior to Black people (T & G, 20).

Turner was trying to get to the town of Jerusalem, where he believed there was a good supply of weapons. It’s not clear whether he intended to stand and fight or move east toward the Great Dismal Swamp, a place where several thousand maroons already lived (Franklin and Schweninger, 86).

In any case, he didn’t make it to Jerusalem. By the third day, hundreds of soldiers and militia members had assembled to kill and capture the rebels.

Turner escaped capture for a few weeks. Then he was tried like some of the others, and hanged — but not before a local slaveowner interviewed him in jail and produced what he called “The Confessions of Nat Turner.” It’s the report of a hostile witness — who referred to Turner as “diabolical” — but there isn’t any more reliable report of Turner’s ideas. In the Confessions, Turner admitted everything and regretted nothing. Then he pled “not guilty” in court — because he didn’t feel guilty (Turner and Greenberg, 56).

The repercussions of the revolt were huge. In Southampton County alone, whites slaughtered somewhere between 100 and 200 Blacks. Turner’s raid had killed about 57 whites.

Gabriel’s revolt in 1800 had stirred up Virginia, but Turner’s in 1831 shook the whole South. As Aptheker wrote (305):

The uprising was infectious and slaves everywhere became restless (or, at least, it was believed that they had become restless) so that the terror, momentarily localized in Virginia, spread up to Delaware and through Georgia, across to Louisiana and into Kentucky.

There were lynchings, arrests, executions, and a new round of repressive legislation throughout the region.

Turner’s rebellion was not the largest slave revolt, but historically it was the most significant. The South settled into decades of harsh repression, including stepped-up persecution of free Blacks and censorship of Southern abolitionists.

Many in those categories who could move North did so. In the 1830s, this included Charleston’s most prominent Black educator, Daniel Payne (Powers, 54), and its two most famous abolitionists, Sarah and Angelina Grimké. They all moved North and never came back.

Slave revolts did continue until emancipation, but they didn’t ramp up again to a comparable intensity until the period of the Civil War itself. [I now realize that the East Florida rebellion of 1835-1836 at the opening of the Second Seminole War really ranks as the high point of prewar slave revolt. As I noted above, I hope to write about the revolt in the future. Dec 2016]

* * * * *

I will leave off here with two reflections.

First, as I said before, the conditions for revolt were most favorable when the master class was distracted by some external threat, such as the Spanish, the English, or the Indians.

In these terms, we can see the Civil War as the moment when the North became the external threat — when the Mason-Dixon line changed from the South’s most secure border into its most threatening frontier. It was this threat that allowed the slaves of the South to come forward and finally take their freedom, using all forms of revolt, including armed combat.[5]

The fact that slavery ended this way — in the Civil War — is one reason that we’ve been taught to see slave revolt within a national framework. But we should remember that before the Civil War, slaves themselves operated with a mental geography that featured many paths to freedom, not just toward single beacon in the North.

The second reflection is based on something that David Walker wrote. He said that Southern slavery was worse than any previous cases of slavery, because places like Greece and Rome took their slaves by defeating people in war. American slavery, Walker said, was more insidious because it was racial. The masters tried to convince themselves and their captives that Black people should serve under whites forever because Black folks were less than human.

That point is well taken, but I’m stuck on his earlier point — that slavery is a product of war. I think that the history of American slave revolts, and the history of ferocious repression, do show that slavery could be sustained only through repeated campaigns of warfare. Not metaphorical warfare, as we might speak of “class war” today, but continual, organized armed struggle. It’s no wonder that the master class could only be overthrown when it finally, finally lost on the battlefield.


[1] My account of this rebellion is based mostly on documents and essays from the 2005 book edited by Mark M. Smith. See the bibliography for the full reference.

[2] During the Civil War, local deck hand Robert Smalls would steal the Confederate ship Planter and sail it past Fort Sumter to join the Union Navy (Powers, 67).

[3] Both possibilities — stay and fight, or sail to Haiti — are entertained by Kennedy and Parker in the “Official Report” of 1822, page 28.

[4] For a discussion of the concordance of Walker’s ideas with the views attributed to Vesey — and how both were imbued with the culture of the AME church — see Hinks, 30-39.

[5] For the role that Blacks played in their own emancipation, see the classic by W.E.B. Du Bois. See also the recent assessment of Du Bois’ contribution by Brian Kelly.


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

Baptist, Edward E. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. New York: Basic Books, 2014.

Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times Of Frederick Douglass. Facsimile edition. Secaucus, N.J: Citadel, 2000.

Du Bois, W. E. Burghardt. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880. New York: Free Press, 1998.

Franklin, John Hope, and Loren Schweninger. Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Hinks, Peter P. To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.

Johnson, Michael P. “Denmark Vesey and His Co-Conspirators.” The William and Mary Quarterly 58, no. 4 (2001): 915–76. Available for free viewing at jstor.org.

Kelly, Brian. “W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Agency and the Slaves’ Civil War.” International Socialist Review 100. Available at isreview.org.

Kelly, Joseph. America’s Longest Siege: Charleston, Slavery, and the Slow March Toward Civil War. New York: The Overlook Press, 2013.

Kennedy, Lionel H. and Thomas Parker, “An Official Report of the Trials of Sundry Negroes, Charged with an Attempt to Raise an Insurrection in the State of South Carolina,” Charleston, 1822. Page references are to the report as reprinted in Killens, 1970.

Killens, John Oliver, ed. The Trial Record of Denmark Vesey. 1st edition. Boston: Beacon Press, 1970.

Kly, Y. N., ed. The Invisible War: African American Anti-Slavery Resistance from the Stono Rebellion through the Seminole Wars. Atlanta, GA: Clarity Press, 2006.

Olwell, Robert. Masters, Slaves, and Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Low Country, 1740-1790. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Powers, Bernard E. Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822-1885. Fayetteville, Ark.: University of Arkansas Press, 1999.

Rasmussen, Daniel. American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt. Reprint of 2011 edition. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2012.

Schweninger, Loren. “Slave Independence and Enterprise in South Carolina, 1780-1865.” The South Carolina Historical Magazine 93, no. 2 (1992): 101–25.

Smith, Mark M., ed. Stono: Documenting and Interpreting a Southern Slave Revolt. Columbia, S.C: University of South Carolina Press, 2005.

Turner, Nat, and Kenneth S. Greenberg. The Confessions of Nat Turner: And Related Documents. First Edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996.

Wade, Richard C. Slavery in the Cities: The South 1820-1860. London: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1977.

Walker, David. David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (Boston, 1829). Peter P. Hinks, ed. University Park, Pa.: Penn State University Press, 2000.

Wasserman, Adam Edward. A People’s History of Florida 1513-1876: How Africans, Seminoles, Women, and Lower Class Whites Shaped the Sunshine State. 4th ed. Adam Wasserman, 2009.

Wood, Peter H. “’Twas a Negro who taught them: a new look at African labor in early South Carolina,” Journal of Asian and African Studies IX, 3-4 July and October 1974. Page reference is to an abridged version of the article in Kly, The Invisible War.

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