Text    Click for small text size. Click for medium text size. Click for large text size.         Click to share this page.     Click to print the page.   GO »

Slave Rebellions

Slavery was based in large part on the systematic dehumanization of African Americans. To that end, the tensions and antagonisms between African Americans and whites sometimes culminated in conflict. Although there were no successful revolts in the United States, open defiance, or even a rumor of revolt had residual effects that increased planter paranoia.

Through all of this, African Americans and masters continued to live together in a social structure marked, above all, by distrust. Slaveowners organized patrols, restricted African American travel and gatherings, controlled African American access to weapons and information and inspected the enslaveds quarters. Slaveholding elites also regulated white behavior in attempts to increase security. One example among many occurred in 1739, when the South Carolina legislature passed the Security Act. A response to white fear of insurrection, the act required that all white men carry firearms to church on Sundays. Whites caught ignoring the law were subject to fines.

Enslaved African Americans protested the burdensome demands of continuous forced labor by committing various day-to-day acts of resistance. These ranged from breaking, hiding or stealing tools to burning crops and structures, running away, feigning illness, killing domestic animals and deliberate work slowdowns. However, the most explosive examples of resistance can be found in the rebellions of the enslaved. There were hundreds of conspiracies whereby enslaved Africans met to plan escapes or attacks on whites. Most of these conspiracies never led to action, often because Africans lost the will, or were betrayed by others bondspeople. Severe reprisals were a consequence of betrayal, including mass executions of suspected leaders, the break up of families or social groups through sale, even the random killing of innocent African Americans, all in an effort to terrorize African Americans into submissiveness.

Suspected rebellions often triggered violent reactions from slaveholders. The "Texas Troubles"occured in the intense political climate of 1860 and demonstrated the impact suspected revolts had on both African American and planter society. An unexplained series of fires in north Texas encouraged slaveholders to form vigilance committees in preparation for insurrection. These groups conducted interrogations that spread terror through quarters occupied by the enslaved and implicated itinerant African American ministers as insurrection leaders. The general rebellion expected on Election Day did not occur, but many suspected abolitionists and African Amercians died at the hands of proslavery vigilantes.

Rebellions outside of North America

It was, however, large-scale and bloody rebellions that frightened slaveowners and brought into greater focus the anger and frustration of the enslaved to Northerners. Only a few organized revolts, in which the enslaved threatened white lives and property, ever actually took place. Latin American and Caribbean African Americans challenged their masters more often than their North American counterparts. Weaker military control, easier escape to rugged interior areas, greater imbalance of Africans to European plantation owners, and the continued dependence of Latin American slaveholders on newly imported African males--- the most difficult of the enslaved to control--help explain this pattern. The Haitian Slave Rebellion of 1791 was the most spectacular of the Western Hemisphere rebellions. Predated by years of attacks by maroons on plantation owners, the 1791 revolt represented the culmination of conspiracy among African American leaders. The carnage wrought by attacking freedom seekers devastated white settlements and revealed the fury of an oppressed people. 10,000 African Americans were killed in the uprising, and eventually the rebellion was put down at a cost of 2,000 whites killed and over 1,000 plantations burned. Though it failed, the rebellion set in motion events that culminated in the Haitian Revolution.

Rebellion in North America begins in the South

The first known large revolt in North America occurred in 1739, when approximately twenty African Americans killed two warehouse guards in Stono, South Carolina. Shouting "Liberty" as they marched, the band was led southward by an Angolan named Jemmy, gathering freedom seekers as they went. The revolutionaries stole arms and ammunition and headed south to freedom in St. Augustine, Florida, killing whites whenever encountered. About ten hours after the insurrection began, eighty white militiamen encountered the freedom seekers and opened fire. Thirty-four African Americans were killed and forty taken prisoner, many of who were later hung or shot. Twenty-five whites died as a result of the uprising.

In August of 1800, a young African American named Gabriel Prosser hatched an ambitious plan for the freedom of enslaved Africans. Gabriel, a freeman, his brother Solomon, and numerous free African Americans planned to take over the city of Richmond, Virginia. Their goal was to gain strength to negotiate over deplorable conditions endured by the enslaved. Two enslaved Africans, however, divulged Prosser's plot to whites at the last moment. Prosser was hanged with many co-conspirators shipped to the West Indies. The fear of insurrection now hovered ominously over the South, even as northern states ended their ties to slavery.

Denmark Vessey was an African American who had bought his freedom and settled in Charleston, South Carolina. He was accused of masterminding an alleged revolt. Betrayal by an enslaved African resulted in arrests, trials, deportations, and 35 executions. It resulted in the passing of the Negro Seaman's Act, intended to prevent entrance into Charleston by African American sailors who might stir up unrest among enslaved African Americans.

Nat Turner

The most famous African American revolt was Nat Turner's rebellion of 1832. Set again in Virginia, Turner and five other enslaved cohorts began with the murder of Turner's master's family. As they traveled through the countryside, their numbers grew to nearly sixty, and they left behind them at least fifty murdered whites. After several days, Turner's band was hunted down and destroyed. Turner was captured and later hung, though not before he described divine inspiration as his motive for rebellion.

Turner's rebellion demonstrated to the North the level of anger held by the enslaved, as well as the lengths freedom seekers were prepared to go for liberty. Southerners, meanwhile, saw their own vulnerability in the most shocking way possible. Southerners, then, asserted more control over the enslaved by further restricting African American gatherings and travel. A feeling of paranoia and fear descended over Southern slaveholders as never before.