A Black Perspective of American History
By Leon Dixon, Gerald Hynes, and Carolyn Gaines Nelson
Part Three: Slave Revolts, Insurrections, and Conspiracies
Africans rejected slavery from the day they set foot on American shores, even before for that matter. Reports show that many Africans committed suicide before they would be taken from their homeland. Many more committed suicide while crossing the Atlantic, a journey known as the "Middle Passage." Some others revolted and/or plotted revolt during the voyage.
Once subjected to American slavery, many Africans ran away, some found refuge with the Indians. Others lived in maroon camps, while many were recaptured and some went back to their masters. The presence of Black and exceptionally dark-skinned Indians reported in such encounters with whites as raids, etc., attests to this. The marooned ex-slaves raided farms, plantations, etc., looted and even conducted guerilla warfare.
There is documented evidence of conspiracies throughout the entire duration of chattel slavery. Few actually realized fruition, though most were discovered or betrayed by scared and/or "loyal" servants. Moreover, there were plenty of individual acts of rebellion, including laziness, poisoning, arson, killing, the breading of tools, faking sickness, and escape (e.g. the "Underground Railroad").
The causes of rebellion were various:
As previously stated, the slaves were often aided by Indians, but also, for various reasons, including avarice and conviction, some whites too (e.g. John Brown). However, there were those Indians who worked along with the whites in suppressing the slaves.
The fear of slave insurrections created great consternation among the white populace. Some had heart attacks and died, almost all began to sleep with arms at bedside. Many built shelters in the event they should have to escape.
Various manners of controlling the slaves were implemented, such as the slave patrols, using poor whites and sometimes Indians, to catch runaways. Militias were organized to handle revolts. White preachers were used to instill docility and the acceptance of the lot of slavery, exclaiming, "if slaves are obedient, they will be rewarded in the hereafter."
The South also resorted to censorship of the news in order to keep down fear amongst the white population and unrest amongst the slaves. They exaggerated and distorted accounts to attest to the docility of slaves and if white outsiders and foreigners would stop instigating their Negroes, everything would be under control.
The slave insurrections and conspiracies played an integral part in the suppression of the slave trade as the slave owners felt that additional wild and/or hotheaded Blacks added to the unrest.
The final revolt came during the Civil War when 500,000 Blacks rushed to the northern lines, in so doing swung the tide of the war.
Some slave insurrections and conspiracies are discussed below.
When these facts were read to Samba, upon the threat to torture him again he "confessed his complicity in a plot as charged…"
"A preachin' an' de slaves was sittin' dere sleepin' an' fannin' theyselves … an' Uncle Silas got up in de front row of de slaves pew an' halted Reverend Johnson. "is us slaves gonna be free in Heaven? Uncle Silas asked. De preacher stopped an' looked at Uncle Silas like he wanta kill him 'cause no one ain't spose to say nothin' 'cept 'amen' whilst he was preachin'. Waited a minute he did, lookin' hard at Uncle Silas standing there but didn't give no answer.
"Is God gonna free us slaves when we git to Heaven?' Uncle Silas yelled. Old white preacher pult out his handkerchief an' wiped de sweat frum his face. 'Jesus say come unto Me ye who are free from sin an' I will give you salvation'. "Gonna give us freedom 'long wid slavation?" asked Uncle Silas. "De Lawd gives and de lawd takes away, an' dat is widdout sin is gonna have life everlastin', preached de preacher. Den he wen' ahead preachin', fas-like, widdout payin' no 'tention to Uncle Silas.
"But uncle Silas wouldn't sit down; stood dere de res' of de service, he did, an' dat was de las' time he come to church' Uncle Silas died fo' 'nother preachin' time come roun'."
"Other Negroes 'Joined them' until something like seventh-five or eighty slaves were gathered, 'they called out liberty, marched on with colours displayed, and two drums beating." They were chanced upon by the Lt. Governor riding near their line of march; he immediately spread the alarm."
"Guards were posted at all ferries and roads, and the militia was assembled and set out in pursuit." When they met the Negroes they encountered resistance by the Negroes, who waged battle led by one named Cato. About thirty whites were killed, and many more Negroes. "The Negroes, though they 'behaved boldly' were defeated." However, some did manage to escape.
The Haitian Revolt
During the beginning of the last decade of the eighteenth century occurred a slave rebellion that was to induce more impact in the Americas than any other in the "New World." It was the renowned "Haitian Revolt" from which Toussaint "'Overture emerged from an obscure slave to become proclaimed "one of the great men of an age that abounds in greatness."
The demands of the rebelling slaves were for better working conditions. But, when these demands were met by intransigence, the rebels pressed for full emancipation and control of the territory.
With Toussaint at the helm, and ably assisted by his generals Jean-Jacque Dessalines and Henri Christophe, the Haitians successfully warded off the Spanish, English, and French.
This liberty achieved by the slaves is the only one acquired as a result of revolution in the Americas.
Meanwhile, "Napoleon's ambition was to build a great colonial empire" the keystone of which was the "incomparable colony" on Haiti, from which France is said to have derived more profit than all other nations derived from their combined colonies in Asia, Africa, and America. But Haiti had to depend on the United States for supplies; and the United States was "a dangerous neighbor both by its political example and its commercial and maritime rivalry with the mother country." By substituting the Louisiana Territory in its place this could be corrected.
The first step was to eliminate Toussaint. So Napoleon sent his bother-in-law, General Emanuel LeClerc, "and some 25,000 soldiers to do the job" ("the most powerful army that had ever crossed the Atlantic"). "LeClerc did not succeed. … Having lost… Napoleon lost interest in the Louisiana Territory and sold it to Jefferson" "…for four cents and acre—the biggest real estate bargain in history." Furthermore, this purchase, around $15 million, enabled the United States to double its size.
Another ramification wrought by the Haitian revolt was the repression that the North American slaves were subjected to because of the fears of rebellion induced into the slave owners. It also had its attributions toward the Act of 1807, prohibiting the slave trade. For one reason, the thought of introducing new wild slaves from South America was disheartening.
The Gabriel Prosser Planned Revolt
Gabriel, slave of Thomas H. Prosser, a 24 year old man who stood six feet two inches tall, began laying plans for a slave revolt in the spring and summer of 1800. The plan was simple: "Three columns would attack Richmond (Virginia); the right wing would grab the arsenal and seize the guns, the left wing would take the powder house; the key, central wing, would enter the town at both ends simultaneously and would cut down every white person, except Frenchmen, Methodists, and Quakers. After Richmond was secured, Gabriel planned lightning like attacks on other cities in the state. If the plan succeeded, he would 'proclaim Virginia a Negro state."
"Several thousand (estimates ranged from 2,000 to 50,000) slaves had been enlisted." The date August 30, was selected to begin the revolt. "on that very day, they were betrayed" by two slaves who informed their master, who, in turn, communicated the intelligence to the authorities."
"Gabriel unaware of the betrayal, pushed forward with his plans." That night a heavy rain fell, "making the road to Richmond impassable." The delay gave the stunned authorities an opportunity to mobilize themselves. Some forty slaves were arrested and put on trial. They revealed the names of no other participants. One of the participants of the insurrection remarked: "I have no more to offer than what General Washington would have had to offer, had he been taken by the British and put on trial by them. … I beg, as a favor, that I may be immediately led to execution. I know that you have pre-determined to shed my blood, why then all this mockery of a trial?" Gabriel tried to escape but was betrayed by two Negroes. He was convicted and, after a postponement in hopes of seeking further information, hanged.
The Denmark Vesey Conspiracy
One of the most elaborate conspiracies was led by the brilliant, hot-tempered ex-slave for twenty years to a slave trader, who bought his freedom with the winnings from a lottery he entered. Denmark Vesey, "traveled widely and learned several languages; he learned also that slavery was evil…" and developed "a deep and unquenchable hatred of slavery and slaveholders."
"For four or five years, he patiently and persistently played the role of an agitator. Men, he saw, must not only be dissatisfied, they must be so dissatisfied they will ACT." Tirelessly, seeming never to rest he was always, everywhere teaching, ridiculing (he would rebuke slaves he saw bowing down to white men, when they replied, "but we're slaves," Vesey would respond with biting sarcasm, "you deserve to be slaves"), taunting, and threatening until he "gain a vise hold on the minds of the Negroes in Charleston and surrounding areas."
"Having reached this point, Vesey switched from the role of agitator to the role of an organizer." "Around Christmas … 1821, he chose lieutenants and perfected his organization." Vesey in his fifties, vigorous, big-bodied and with a keen insight into human nature, he selected among others:
Vesey and Peter perfected a sell-like organization. … Only the leaders knew the details of the plot; … If a single recruit was arrested, he was not in a position to endanger the whole plot. … It has been estimated that some 9,000 slaves were recruited.
On Sunday, july 16, 1822, the slave army was to strike at six points, taking possession of arsenals, guardhouses, powder magazines, naval stores. All whites were to be killed.
The very thing that Peter tried to prevent happened when an unauthorized slave tried to recruit a house servant. Five days later, the authorities were aware of bare outlines of the plot, (around the end of May). A guessing game ensued; Vesey and company versus the town authorities. Peter and another leader Mingo Garth—drew suspicion. Instead of trying to escape, they went to the mayor's office. They were indignant; their honor, their fidelity had been questioned. Justice demanded that they be questioned and cleared. The authorities were confounded; guilty slaves didn't act that way. Peter and Mingo were released and the cops-and-robbers game continued. … Then, on the Friday before D-Day, another slave (who actually knew valuable information) went over to the enemy.
With inside information and the names of some leaders, the alarm spread, the guard beefed up and the militia alerted. Vesey and most of the leaders were arrested, tried and hanged. … They behaved noble, eyewitness say. Only one leader confessed; the rest remained silent in the face of abuse, threats, promises, and torture. … So cool, so carefree was Peter that he spurned last minutes pleas for additional information. "Do not open your lips,' he said to the other leaders. "Die as silent as you shall see me do."
David Walker's Appeal
One of the great abolitionist pamphlets was Walkers Appeal, published in 1828. … The "Appeal" ran through three additions in 1829, the year following publication, each containing language more militant than the preceding one. … It implores, threatens, and curses. It called for bold action; for the Blacks to assert themselves and not to passively submit to slavery.
A Georgian received fifty copies of the Appeal through the mail, became afraid and informed the police who in turn informed the governor. The legislature passed a bill making a capital offense the circulation of literature that might incite slaves to revolt … and also offered a reward for Walker's capture: $10,000 alive; $1,000 dead.
Walker, born to a slave father and free mother, therefore, legally free, died in relative obscurity (despite the Appeal's fame) in 1831, and some say "under mysterious circumstances." But within months, David Walker's name was to become a by-word throughout the nation. For on August 21, 1832, Nat Turner revolted, and the fearful predictions of white southerners who had found such a threat in the Appeal seemed borne out."
The Nat Turner Revolt
"…Nat Turner organized a small band of slaves in Virginia's Southampton County, where he lived." On August 21, 1831, Nat was to meet with his men and proceed to execute his plans. It was late in the afternoon when Nat joined them he sized up the group assembled. "Having assured himself of the steadfastness of his men, Nat outlined his plans. They would strike that night, beginning at the home of his master and proceeding from house to house, killing every an, woman, and child. In this way, he explained, they would terrorize the whites and stampede them. Then, he said, women and children would be spared and; men too how ceased to resist'."
About 10 p.m., the conspirators left … and moved to the home of Joseph Travis. Proceeding according to plans, moving quietly and swiftly through the night, the little band cut a swath of red, chopping down old, young, male, female. At almost every stop, additional slaves joined them. All through that night, men, women, and children died. No one with a white skin was spared except a family of poor whites who owned no slaves. Monday morning dawned and Nat rode on.
When the first bodies were discovered, a nameless dread seized the white citizenry. Women, children, and men fled to the swamps and hid under the leaves. Other citizens flocked to public buildings and barricaded the doors. Some whites left the country. Others left the state.
Nat rode on, picking up recruits at each stop, moving closer and closer to Jerusalem (the county seat). On Monday afternoon, he reached the Parker farm, only three miles from Jerusalem. Nat wanted to bypass the farm and push on to the city. His men, some of whom were groggy from periodic raids on cider stills, wanted to stop. Nat gave in—a fatal mistake. While waiting, he met his first opposition. A group of eighteen or twenty whites held their ground for a moment and then turned and fled. Nat gave chase, crossed a hill and discovered that the whites had been reinforced by a larger group from Jerusalem. It was now his turn to retreat. He decided to retrace his steps and recruit more men. The next day he was defeated and his men dispersed. Nat retired to Cabin Pond and waited for his disciples to regroup. After waiting for a day or so, he dug a cave and went into hiding.
By this time, soldiers were flocking to the country from all points. … A massacre followed. The enraged whites shot down innocent Negroes who smiled and innocent Negroes who did not smile. … Nat eluded capture for almost two months. While he was at large, a panic seized large parts of Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland. … The panic rolled over a large part of the South.
It was the barking of a dog that betrayed Nat. When he was finally captured guns fired all over Southampton County… At his trial he pleaded not guilty, saying that he did not FEEL guilty. Nat Turner was found guilty and sentenced to hang until he was "dead! dead! dead!"
The Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad (UR) was a network of secret routes by land and by sea, over which Black people escaped to free states and to Canada. It took its name from the then new industrial invention, the locomotive. The escaping slaves were called passengers; the people who sheltered them, station agents; and those who guided them, conductors.
The UR was most active from the 1840's to the 1869's and during that period several thousand slaves each year made successful flights to freedom. There were two main routes. One was the Middle Western Line, leading from the South through Ohio and Indiana and terminating in Canada. The other was the Eastern Line or Seaboard Route, running through Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania.
The most famous conductor was Harriet Tubman, herself a fugitive slave from Maryland. She made regular trips back and forth, bringing slaves out of the South and escorting them to Canada. Harriet Tubman made at least nineteen forays into the South, with a price on her head, and she single-handedly effected the escape of more than three hundred slaves.
Author's Note: All quotations are from the above references.