1800: Prosser’s Gabriel, slave rebel

Add comment October 10th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1800,** the Virginia slave Gabriel — sometimes remembered as Gabriel Prosser after his owner’s surname, although that wasn’t what his contemporaries called him — was hanged in Richmond, along with a number of his confederates in a planned slave rising.

Decades before Virginia’s more famed Nat Turner rebellion, Gabriel was plenty frightening for the growing little burg of Richmond in 1800. (The incident would result in a clampdown on education and mobility for slave and free blacks alike.)

Gabriel and company conceived a daring revolution to seize the city of Richmond, take hostage Governor (and future U.S. President) James Monroe, and rearrange the state’s power structure.

This scheme, in which the rebels actually stay in Virginia, depended on an optimistic assessment for the prospects of a multiracial alliance — with Richmond’s own poor whites, and also, according to testimony given by conspirators, with Indians and with the French in opposition to a pro-British American policy tilt.

But if ever the time might have been right for such a plot, it was in 1800. A bitter presidential contest adjudicating the Republic’s most fundamental issues was unfolding; there were rumors that the governing Federalists would not voluntarily relinquish power, and the matter might fall to civil war between by the factions.

Gabriel unabashedly attempted to leverage this division between whites; working as he and many other urban blacks did side-by-side with white Republican laborers — whose own interests vis-a-vis Federalist merchants were being so bitterly contested — he must have had a good vibe about the situation on the ground to gamble his life on it. Though the hope was that the white working class would join the revolt after it broke out, there were at least a few whites already initiated into the conspiracy beforehand.

Alas, what broke out was not rebellion but a storm: a downpour that rained out the first planned rising, washing out bridges and roads that the conspirators were counting on to assemble. Before the makeup date could be scheduled, some slaves taking a care for their own necks had betrayed it.

The public mind has been much involved in dangerous apprehensions, concerning an insurrection of the negroes in several of the adjacent counties. Such a thing has been in agitation among the blacks, principally instigated by an ambitious and insidious fellow, a slave, by the name of GABRIEL, the property of Mr. Thomas Prosser, of the county of Henrico. This villain, assuming to himself the appellation of General, through his artfulness, has caused some disturbance, having induced many poor, ignorant, and unfortunate creatures to share in his nefarious and horrid design.

The plot has been entirely exploded, which was shallow; and had the attempt even been made to carry it into execution, but little resistance would have been required, to render their scheme entirely abortive. Thirty or forty of the party have been arrested and confined in jail for trial. Yesterday a called court was held for that purpose, at the court house in this city when six of them were convicted and condemned to suffer death this day at 12 o’clock. It is said that the evidence which has been procured, will go to prove nearly this whole of them guilty. To-day the court will proceed to go thro’ with the rest of the trials.

[The Governor has issued his Proclamation, offering a reward of THREE HUNDRED DOLLARS† for the apprehension of the above “GENERAL,” who has thought proper to take himself off. Exclusive of this sum, he likewise promises “to any number not exceeding five of the said accomplices, who shall apprehend the said GABRIEL, and deliver him up so that he be brought to justice, a FULL PARDON for their offences.” ]

Columbian Mirror, Tuesday, Sep. 16, 1800, quoting “a Richmond paper”

It would be interesting counterfactual history to know the world in which the insurrection was actually launched — whether “but little resistance” would have sufficed to put it down. Gabriel might have reckoned naively on the prospective balance of forces,‡ but his read of the fractious alliance against him was spot-on. Maybe with a modern communications infrastructure, the affair could have become a full-blown October Surprise.

The Jeffersonian party, desperate not to give its plantation supporters cause to rethink its partisan alignment, took pains to downplay what was really quite a bold conspiracy. Not for the last time, wealthy merchants (here backing the Federalists) sought their own advantage pressing the racial wedge issue — for the slaves’ prospective lower-class white allies were also part of Jefferson’s coalition.

“If any thing will correct & bring to repentance old hardened sinners in Jacobinism, it must be an insurrection of their slaves,” editorialized the Boston Gazetteex cathedra, as it were, from 18th century America’s very temple of Mammon. (The quote comes from this tome.)

One thing all right-thinking whites could agree on was a heaping serving of scorn for “General” Gabriel.


Columbian Mirror, Saturday, October 4, 1800.

But then, that personal interview with Monroe also gives a lie to Gabriel’s insignificance. (Gabriel told Monroe nothing of any use to the latter; Monroe sent him away with orders to keep him nearly incommunicado from the sort of working stiffs who would figure to be his jailers.)

A few years later, an English visitor captured at second hand this indefatigable portrait of the doomed slave in his masters’ courts.

I passed by a field in which several poor slaves had lately been executed, on the charge of having an intention to rise against their masters. A lawyer who was present at their trials at Richmond, informed me that on one of them being asked, what he had to say to the court in his defence, he replied, in a manly tone of voice: “I have nothing more to offer than what General Washington would have had to offer, had he been taken by the British and put to trial by them. I have adventured my life in endeavouring to obtain the liberty of my countrymen, and am a willing sacrifice to their cause: and I beg, as a favour, 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?”

In 2007, James Monroe’s (distant) successor as governor of the Old Dominion (informally) posthumously pardoned Prosser’s Gabriel. Gov. Tim Kaine’s statement on the occasion validated Gabriel’s own defense of himself.

“Gabriel and his colleagues were freedom fighters and deserve their rightful place in history as women and men of integrity who fought for freedom.”

And the site of his martyrdom? Well, it’s … a good place to park.

* Some sources give Oct. 7 as the date of execution; this apparently was the initial sentence of the court but delayed a few days to hang the ringleader along with others in a variety of spots around town.


Virginia Argus, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 1800.

** A pregnant year in the history of slave rebellion: Denmark Vesey bought his freedom in 1800; Nat Turner and John Brown were both born in 1800. (Noted here.)

† It was a slave who eventually turned in Prosser’s Gabriel … but Virginia stiffed him on the reward, handing over only $50 instead of the promised $300.

‡ Or maybe that’s just hindsight talking. In 1800, the Haitian Revolution was underway — so who could blame slaves for thinking big?

On this day..

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1775: Thomas Jeremiah, Charleston’s wealthiest free black

3 comments August 18th, 2010 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1775, Thomas Jeremiah, a free black man in the then-colony of South Carolina, was hung after being convicted of attempting to a slave insurrection.

The case against him was extremely weak, but he was tried/framed under the Negro Act of 1740 (in a slave court, although he was not a slave), wherein the defendant was considered guilty until proven innocent. South Carolina’s own royal governor, William Campbell, called it a case of “judicial murder.”

Very little is known about Jeremiah. He left no diary or letters behind, and most of his trial records have been lost. We know he was married but we know nothing about his wife, whether she was a slave or a free black like himself, or whether they had any children. We don’t know how he became free or how he learned his trade. He is, in fact, so obscure that he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia entry.

What little we do know, however, suggests that he was a most extraordinary man: a fisherman and ship’s pilot, one of less than 500 free blacks in the city of Charles Town (now called Charleston), Jeremiah had somehow managed to claw his way up and amassed a net worth of £1,000, or about $200,000 in today’s money. He was one of the wealthiest free black men in North America, and certainly the wealthiest self-made one.

Himself a slaveowner, he had no reason to start a slave rebellion, but this didn’t matter to those who convicted him. Jeremiah’s life, trial and death are discussed in detail in J. William Harris’s 2009 book, The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah: A Free Black Man’s Encounter with Liberty. (This book review provides a good summary.)

2010 saw the publication of a second book, The World of Thomas Jeremiah: Charles Town on the Eve of the American Revolution.

Jeremiah was basically a victim of his own success. He had risen too high; he made the local white elites uncomfortable. As Harris noted, Jeremiah “did not need to gather arms or preach revolution to undermine slavery, because his whole life was a refutation of whites’ basic justification for slavery.”

Henry Laurens, a wealthy businessman, future Continental Congressman, slaveowner, and contemporary of Jeremiah’s, stated he was “a forward fellow, puffed up by prosperity, ruined by Luxury & debauchery & grown to amazing pitch of vanity & ambition.” He needed to be smacked down and he was, most severely.

In the spring and summer of 1775, revolution was fomenting everywhere. White “Patriots” wanted an opportunity to get out from under England, but they feared their slaves would use the conflict to try and get out from under them.

Nat Turner and Charleston’s own Denmark Vesey — these immortal rebels lay years into the future, but their very prospect made slave rebellions an omnipresent fear among the white populace. It was jumpy. And when two slaves accused Jeremiah of trying to persuade them to rebel, it jumped.

Only a few months passed between Jeremiah’s arrest and his execution. By that time he was a broken man, welcoming death. After he was hung, his body was cut down and burned to ashes.

Books about Thomas Jeremiah

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71 B.C.E.: The followers of Spartacus

1 comment May 15th, 2010 Headsman

… a Thracian of Nomadic stock, possessed not only of great courage and strength, but also in sagacity and culture superior to his fortune, and more Hellenic than Thracian. It is said that when he was first brought to Rome to be sold, a serpent was seen coiled about his face as he slept, and his wife, who was of the same tribe as Spartacus, a prophetess, and subject to visitations of the Dionysiac frenzy, declared it the sign of a great and formidable power which would attend him to a fortunate issue.

-Plutarch, The Life of Crassus

On an uncertain date roughly around this time in 71 B.C.E., some 6,000 survivors of the shattered rebel slave army of Spartacus in Rome’s Third Servile War were crucified along the Appian Way.

The specific chronology of this legendary warrior, leader of the last major slave revolt against Rome, is necessarily foggy, but in fine, he broke out of a gladiators’ camp in 73 B.C.E. and went on to lead a slave army some 100,000 strong up and down the Italian peninsula for two solid years, repeatedly stomping Roman forces sent to suppress him.

His motivations remain mysterious; if one likes, one can project back on him an anachronistic anti-slavery project, but it’s more likely he was just trying to get by day by day as the greatest empire* on the planet harried his every move and internal divisions tore at the rebel camp.

Nevertheless, Spartacus and army prospered, and plundered, in the very heart of that empire, and gave Senators reason to fret the security of their capital even as their legions carried Roman arms from Spain to Palestine.

The army (for the gladiators organized it with military discipline, realizing a mob would be easy prey for Rome) was trapped, at last, at the toe of the Italian boot by Roman plutocrat Crassus, later to become a patron of, and fellow triumvir with, Julius Caesar. Abandoned by pirates with whom the slave army attempted to negotiate passage, it was a desperate situation. Spartacus, writes Appian, “crucified a Roman prisoner in no-man’s land to demonstrate to his own troops the fate awaiting them if they were defeated.”

Duly inspired, Spartacus and his army broke out of the Roman circumvallation around February of 71 B.C.E. Hemmed in by a second Roman force, the slaves turned to fight their pursuer, Spartacus dramatically sticking a blade into his own warhorse before the fight as another one of those conquer-or-die pregame speeches.

In The Spartacus War, Barry Strauss estimates April of 71 B.C.E. for that decisive battle. The slaves lost it; Spartacus died in combat, and his ancient calumniators vied to sing his heroism on the field.

But 6,000 survivors did not go down fighting to the death. These, Crassus staked out along one of Rome’s principal highways, the carcasses left to disintegrate there for months or years.


Cursed field. The place of execution in ancient Rome. Crucified slave. (Fyodor Bronnikov, 1878)

He’s easy to admire now,** but slave revolts scare the bejeezus out of slave societies, and the Spartacus rising would keep generations — centuries — of Romans sweating about a potential repeat. (At least, elite Romans, the ones whose voices remain for us.)

Their pejorative take on Spartacus (aside from his personal valor and martial excellence, for which even hostile writers gave him credit) was long the received wisdom on this upsetter of divinely established social order. “From a small and contemptible band of robbers,” sniffed Saint Augustine of the gladiators, “they attained to a kingdom.” They “enjoyed whatever pleasures they wished, and did what their lust suggested.”

The present-day reader’s readiest association is likely the much more admiring — and famously homoerotic, which is now yet another connotation for the gladiator’s name — Stanley Kubrick classic Spartacus, which turns 50 this year and gave to the cinematic canon the stirring “I’m Spartacus!” scene as the captured slave army defiantly embraces death.

This episode is completely ahistorical, but so what? One of the wildest things about this sword-and-sandal production is how much of it isn’t made-up. Like the premise: in the lifetime of Julius Caesar, a few guys busting out of gladiator school using nothing but kitchen utensils threatened for two years to turn the Eternal City and its far-flung realms upside-down.

* Okay, still a republic, if you like. But those days were fast coming to a close.

** Especially for modern leftist radicals; Marx and Che Guevara were both big fans; German communists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht named their movement for Spartacus, and it was during Berlin’s “Spartacus Week” that they were murdered.

A number of sports clubs in the former Soviet bloc also carry the Spartacus name, including Russian football power Spartak Moscow as well as several clubs in Bulgaria, which currently governs most of the rebel slave’s ancestral homeland of Thrace.

A few books about Spartacus

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1832: Samuel Sharpe, “I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live in slavery”

4 comments May 23rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1832, Jamaican national hero Samuel Sharpe died upon the gallows for instigating the slave revolt that would (help to) end slavery.

Samuel Sharpe, an educated slave who was also a Baptist deacon, was the moving spirit behind the attempted general strike that became the Christmas Rebellion.

That time of year was less than festive for Jamaica’s enormous slave population, for Saint Nick opened the short window for harvesting the island’s sugar cane.

Samuel Sharpe and collaborators had the wit to realize that being depended upon to bring in the cash crop that made life comfortable for their owners put the slaves’ hands upon a potent economic lever. In the last few days of 1831, they pressed it.

The “passive resistance” thing didn’t last long, however, and the “strike” transmuted into a rebellion — the cause swiftly taken up by thousands of slaves around the island who torched crops. Given the small (less than 20) white body count,* the “violence” appears to have been directed against the instruments, rather than the perpetrators, of their enslavement.

Not so the reprisals.

The rebellion was suppressed within days, and over 300 put to death for it (in addition to 200 slave casualties during the pacification itself). There’s an absorbing BBC Witness episode about this affair available as a podcast here.

Sharpe was the last of those executed.

But his revolt is widely thought to have given impetus to the British parliament’s deliberations over the ensuing months that ultimately led to the Slavery Abolition Act (1833).

What [abolitionist MP William] Wilberforce was endeavoring to win from the British senate by his magic eloquence the slaves themselves were endeavoring to gain by outbreaks and violence. The combined action of one and the other wrought out the final result. While one showed that slavery was wrong, the other showed that it was dangerous as well as wrong. Mr. Wilberforce, peace man though he was, and a model of piety, availed himself of this element to strengthen his case before the British Parliament, and warned the British government of the danger of continuing slavery in the West Indies. There is no doubt that the fear of the consequences, acting with a sense of the moral evil of slavery, led to its abolition. The spirit of freedom was abroad in the Islands. Insurrection for freedom kept the planters in a constant state of alarm and trepidation. A standing army was necessary to keep the slaves in their chains. This state of facts could not be without weight in deciding the question of freedom in these countries … I am aware that the insurrectionary movements of the slaves were held by many to be prejudicial to their cause. This is said now of such movements at the South. The answer is that abolition followed close on the heels of insurrection in the West Indies, and Virginia was never nearer emancipation than when General Turner kindled the fires of insurrection at Southampton.

Frederick Douglass

Sharpe, today, is an official national hero of Jamaica. The place in Montego Bay that he hanged is known as Sam Sharpe Square, and his face adorns the currency.

* Contrast with the much smaller, much bloodier rebellion of Nat Turner in the U.S., which preceded the Christmas Rebellion by a few months.

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1758: Francois Macandal, forgotten black messiah

6 comments January 20th, 2009 Headsman

(Thanks to Mark Davis of macandal.org for the guest post on a remarkable historical parallel to today’s inauguration of Barack Obama. -ed.)

The world was astounded when Barack Obama was elected to the Presidency in 2008 knowing the cultural barriers minorities have faced for hundreds of years. The date of inauguration, January 20, also happens to be the anniversary of the burning at the stake of a virtually unknown man, Francois Macandal,* whose epic war against cultural barriers has been buried for centuries.

Read some of his story and judge if the historic election of Barack Obama could have occurred without the man they called “Macandal.”

The parallels with Barack Obama’s journey are numerous, but the life of Macandal was perhaps even more remarkable, reaching great heights and falling into the darkest chasms of despair, yet succeeding in spite of staggering odds. Macandal’s travails may be about finding one’s purpose and dreaming of victory even when condemned by a majority, as he was relentlessly pursued by soldiers and hounded by countless naysayers.

251 years ago on January 20, 1758, Macandal was chained to a post on a platform before thousands of slaves brought together to witness his brutal torture and execution. Because of his importance, the French gathered slaves from hundreds of plantations throughout the colony of St. Domingue (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). They believed such a horrific spectacle would quash Macandal’s Revolution, which he began to end French rule and abolish slavery, 12 years before.

Around 1746 Macandal escaped his plantation, united thousands of escaped slaves along with many still enslaved, and proclaimed that he would lead them all to independence and freedom. This declaration, from someone who had only six years before been taken from his home in the Congo, was unprecedented, since no slave colony had ever defeated a European nation. Then Macandal mobilized tens of thousands and may have inspired millions to end slavery and defeat colonial hegemony in the Haitian Revolution consummated decades after his death.

But ironically even the famous, black Marxist writer C.L.R. James, attributed one of the greatest revolutions in history to something akin to ‘spontaneous rioting’ by 500,000 black slaves in 1791. Since 1791 almost every historian has reduced the “Haitian Revolution,” the only successful overthrow of a colonial power by black slaves, to a ‘collective rage,’ inspired by the whites of the “French Revolution.” Yet it may have been Macandal’s Revolution, not the starving peasants of France, that inspired their uprising in 1789.

The true story of Macandal represents obscure but recorded testimonies about his life and explains why the slave revolt of 1791 was in fact, “Macandal’s Revolution,” almost 50 years in the making. Macandal foretold the end of slavery, then planned it, plotted it and began it. His story shatters a myth that has gone unchallenged for over 200 years: that the Haitian Revolution of 1791 was a spontaneous slave uprising inspired by the French peasants who had charged the Bastille Prison in Paris two years earlier.

The Haitian Revolution ultimately ousted the French, defeating Napoleon and numerous French generals. It also succeeded against the vaunted British army and established a new government run by former slaves. It was the first domino in a series of colonial defeats and changes in law that led to the end of institutional slavery; and Macandal started it all.

Correcting the Historical Record

Macandal is rarely the focus of historians and when mentioned only his insignificance is noted. But the popular version of his story was immortalized by the original French writers themselves, in the interest of bolstering a self-image of innate superiority as a nation and a race. To have recognized Macandal’s brilliance would have acknowledged slavery’s illegitimacy, so Macandal’s real story had to be trivialized and buried.

This telling of Macandal’s journey from a free child in Africa to slavery and then revolution, relies less on popular writings and more on a review of all of the records in context. For example French writers claimed Macandal broke free because he was tied with ropes and the post was made of rotted wood that fell apart when he was set ablaze. Historians have repeated this without scrutiny. The French on St. Domingue regularly burned slaves to death at the town square of the capital, “Cap Francais.” At Macandal’s execution they gathered thousands of slaves as witnesses, to insure a humiliating defeat and halt his widely supported rebellion. Yet, despite this grandiose staging, we are supposed to believe Macandal was insignificant. And we must accept that the French military was so inept they forgot how to execute and did not know that ropes burn and untreated, rotted wood is flammable. Many such dubious “facts,” are still repeated blithely about Macandal and few Westerners grant him his bravery, genius or impact.

Interestingly, the U.S. Bill of Rights guaranteeing equality for all was also adopted in 1791, but it would be more than seven decades before slavery was outlawed in the U.S. and almost two centuries before equal opportunity laws were passed and enforced. For one tiny nation, Macandal enabled this to occur over 200 years ago.

Background

I began researching the life of Macandal 20 years ago, startled and inspired by one chapter in Wade Davis’ popular book The Serpent and the Rainbow, which focused on secret societies, Voodoo and Zombification. His version of Macandal’s story was dictated to him by Rachel Bouvoir-Dominique, a Haitian Anthropologist I interviewed in 1997, at her office in Cap Haitien. Working under the tutelage of well-known author and expert on Haitian history Michel Laguerre, a professor at U.C. Berkeley, I received grants for a field study and documentary on the subject of Macandal.

Anthropologists often allocate greater weight to oral history, informal observer accounts, burial remains, maps and gravures, re-evaluating more accepted published works historians rely on, and so this account reflects my perspective and research as an Anthropologist. I examined European gravures (illustrations) and colonial records cited commonly more skeptically, because they were clearly burdened by religious, sexist and racial paradigms of the day. For example illustrations portrayed slaves with happy smiles and sanguine facades, enjoying their lives in idyllic settings on the plantations. Yet slaves faced torture, rape, separation of family and death from over-work, every day. Blacks were often drawn with monkey features (toes, ears etc.) and other demeaning caricatures.

Western writers were fiercely loyal to provincial rhetoric, including the gender and racial bias then considered crucial foundations of Christian theology. Western scholars dehumanized natives and women to rationalize slavery, prejudice and justify the infamous “hierarchy of being,” which granted “white men” a closeness to God that no one else could approach. This endowed them with the right to use others as they saw fit.

There were many reasons colonial authorities destroyed or buried the noteworthy exploits of slaves. Few accounts of courageous acts from among the ranks of millions of Africans during 400 years of slavery were recorded and preserved, primarily to maintain the perception that slavery was justified, necessary and Nubian Africans were not truly human but beasts of burden. There are literally thousands of articles, books and films about individuals among the six million Jews who died during the holocaust but only a scant few from among the 100-200 million indigenous peoples killed during the colonial expansion; all the more reason to re-evaluate slaves like Macandal.

A Brief History of Macandal

During the early 18th century, around the age of 12, Macandal was taken from the west coast of Africa, probably the Loango Kingdom in the Congo. I claim the date of his birth was 1728 primarily because oral historians in Haiti I interviewed believed him to be 30 when he was fastened to a post before thousands and set on fire in 1758.

The French called him Macandal which may derive from a city in the Congo called “Makanda.” The town of Makanda no longer exists due to civil war but could have ancient roots and slaves were often named after the places they came from. His name may have been taken from the term makanda (plural form of “kanda”) referring to African societal groups. Some written accounts report that Macandal claimed to be descended from a ranking societal group and the son of a Chief or King.

Amazingly, Macandal could speak, read and write Arabic fluently. Some believe this is because he was raised Muslim, yet the Congo was Christianized long before Macandal was born. Portuguese mercenaries, missionaries and armies had combed every square inch of the Congo beginning in the late 1400’s, searching for gold, diamonds and slaves, forcing conversion to Christianity. However Macandal’s words and actions reveal a unique knowledge of both Christianity and Islam. His ancestors may have emigrated from the east coast where Muslims and Asians had allied with Swahilis to build beautiful cities and schools before the Portuguese invasion. His family may have then hidden themselves for centuries.

Conversion to Christianity was also a requirement for slaves on colony plantations but Macandal defied the French by learning the underpinnings of Christianity, to understand the roots of slavery and challenge newly acquired doctrines. Despite many influences the adult Macandal claimed no affiliation with Christianity, Islam, Voodoo or Animism.

As a child Macandal was educated and known to be accomplished in both music and art, including painting and sculpture. His dedication to learning was apparent throughout his life. He displayed a vast knowledge of plants, became a doctor on the plantation he was taken to and was sought by even the French themselves for treatment of diseases and ailments. Yet the vegetation on St. Domingue was completely different from that of the Congo; therefore, Macandal had to study his new environment and learn the properties of perhaps hundreds of plants. He secretly taught himself French and became so eloquent that the French aristocrats remarked that he could speak it better than they themselves, though education was strictly forbidden for slaves.

Based on historical records and interviews, it appears that Macandal was first sentenced to death on his plantation, around 1746 at the age of 18, for falling in love with the plantation owner’s favorite lover, a young and beautiful house slave. He underwent a scene of heinous torture intended to culminate in his death in front of many witnesses, but escaped mysteriously and fled into the hills. The French replaced this account with a tale about Macandal becoming handicapped from losing a hand in a sugar mill and then being left unguarded. His escapes were always attributed to poor guard oversight.

Though Macandal probably began his new life of freedom with the intention of bringing vengeance to his former owner Lenormand de Mezy and rescuing his true love, for some reason his objective evolved. Perhaps because of the totality of his traumatic experiences or because of the influence of Maroons (ex-slaves already living in the distant mountains) Macandal met after escaping, he began working for a new goal of freedom for all.

Macandal led a sweeping and unwavering revolution during the 12 years after his escape from the plantation. Unlike other escaped slaves, Macandal actually made the end of slavery his stated mission. He became the first to unite thousands of disparate Maroons who were living free but divided by tribal affiliation and known to be ardently dedicated to the destruction of each other. His uniting of these groups was an extraordinary accomplishment and he is the first known black leader and ex-slave to do so.

He began calling himself the “Black Messiah” and gave rousing speeches in secret locations to recruit slaves. He made dangerous and daring appearances on plantations during the night to urge loyalty and inspire hope. The name “Black Messiah” had great meaning to Macandal as evidenced by one of his famous speeches at a secret recruitment meeting. The words exposed Macandal’s understanding of Islam and Christianity and their link to institutional slavery. The term was a powerful catalyst he used to preempt religious and ethical indoctrination of blacks and free them from the ideological bonds of slavery. He had to usurp the authority of the Church and French government to convince slaves they deserved equality, freedom, family sanctity, education and self-government.

Macandal became a brilliant strategist and had a large, organized camp with lieutenants, captains and other ranks. He led countless attacks and escaped capture mysteriously many times. His tactics were unique and devastating. They were known to be carried on after his disappearance despite the brutal efforts of the French to extinguish illegal grassroots activity. During his reign as a Maroon leader he may have recruited half or more of the 100,000 slaves living on the plantations as secret agents of his revolution.

Maroons and slaves apparently employed his tactics for decades after his disappearance in 1758. During the decade before the final thrust for overthrow in 1791, and despite harsh measures to thwart rebellion, Maroon activity greatly increased. This activity was so secret that virtually nothing is known about this period and is one reason historians assume the war for independence was unplanned, even though the first massive attack was led by Boukman Dutty, formerly a cruel black overseer who was a contemporary of Macandal. His gathering, which launched the war, was convened at a hidden location where Macandal formerly gave his speeches, the symbolism of which cannot be denied.

Generals that followed Boukman used ingenuity and unique strategies to win the 13-year war and Toussaint L’Ouverture is given most of the credit for the victory. But Toussaint refused to support the war until after it had begun; its inevitability certain. He was 13 when Macandal was sentenced to death in 1758. A voracious reader and student of warfare he was well aware of Macandal but content as a slave under a liberal planter.

It is my thesis the “Macandal Revolution” continued through the three decades preceding the Haitian Revolution. No other slave is known to have prophesied and promised the end of slavery yet Macandal predicted that blacks would defeat the French, become free and independent of colonial rule and control the colony of St. Domingue. His rally cry and pronouncement repeatedly rang throughout the colony despite opposition and betrayal from many slaves who greatly feared the French and did not believe victory was possible.

The Haitian Revolution remains the only successful movement by black slaves to defeat a colonial power and achieve complete independence. It stands alone as a towering victory against incalculable odds. Though it is characterized as a ‘riot’ that generated its own momentum, 500,000 slaves and free blacks mysteriously rose up in unison, using sticks and stones, against over 50,000 heavily armed soldiers, landowners and henchmen.

The Fall of Colonialism

As Macandal’s victories mounted I propose that word of his revolution spread to Europe and bolstered many anti-colonial movements. For example one of his closest secret allies was a French Jesuit priest and the Jesuits along with other religious leaders in Europe began fomenting rebellion during this period. Before news of Macandal’s revolt spread, many in Europe believed the slave trade was not only profitable but philanthropic. It had long been heard in the churches that slaves were heathens being brought to Christ and treated well in the process. His uprising no doubt made many Europeans aware that slaves were not being treated well and were desperate. Macandal’s shocking victories may have provoked Europeans to finally condemn colonialism and slavery. His fearless attacks and disregard for colonial might may have also seeded the French Revolution.

What really happened on January 20, 1758? Macandal endured great agony during an intense and excruciating punishment. He did this so that slaves everywhere might become free. The French claim Macandal was burned alive at the town square in Cap Francais.** Admitting he broke free and leaped out of the fire, they wrote that soldiers reclaimed Macandal and threw him back in. However some observers claimed Macandal broke his chains and fled, never to be seen again. How he broke free during any of his escapes despite being surrounded by guards and soldiers, is not known. It is interesting to note that his remains were never found and there is no burial site. Given the French proclivity for making examples of slaves to increase fear and enforce discipline, a successful execution should have been commemorated by another French monument.

For most historians, January 20, 1758, came and went with barely a mention in official memorandums. Yet a detailed search of documents reveals a massive cover-up, confusion and consternation. Macandal’s Revolution was not quashed or even slowed; instead it was impelled and sent wildly rumbling down a path of manifest destiny. Plantation owners later discovered their most trusted slaves were working for the revolution. New restrictions were put on all blacks throughout the colony and 4-5 rebels were burned at the town square every month to strike fear into the rest. Intense interrogation and torture revealed ever more depth to the conspiracy. Macandal’s execution day inflamed slaves and intensified their commitment to him and they became more united and fervently bent on winning freedom. Jesuits were banned from St. Domingue five years later.

As the first U.S. President with African roots is inaugurated on January 20, no one will speak of Macandal or Macandal’s Revolution, which led to equal rights in 1804 for one small nation. January 20, 1758, the day the French sought to secure colonialism and slavery in perpetuity, became a day of victory for Macandal and a watershed event which brought colonialism down. Though Macandal has been denied his place, his actions may have ended slavery and paved the way for people like Barack Obama to make history.

Mark Davis received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology from U.C. Berkeley and a Master’s in Anthropology from the University of Hawaii. He is the foremost authority on Macandal and his one hour documentary The Black Messiah was broadcast on PBS in 1997. He publishes information through his website at www.macandal.org.

* The man’s true name is lost to us; the one he was given by the French can be alternately spelled “Mackandal” or “Makandal” or “Mackendal”.

** Renamed Cap Haitien after Haiti won its independence.

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1796: Jose Leonardo Chirino, Venezuelan slave revolt leader

1 comment December 10th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1796, insurrectionary Jose Leonardo Chirino was hanged in Caracas for leading a slave revolt in Spain’s oppressive New World sugar plantations.

Nearly all the information readily available online about Chirino is in Spanish, and all the links in this post are to Spanish pages.

The influence of the Haitian Revolution, and the philosophical precepts of the French Revolution that had helped spawn it, sent waves through the Caribbean washing up on every shore it touched.

Most of those lands had a ready audience under the lash of European colonial masters; the eastern Venezuelan city of Coro, home to the sugar aristocracy and the groaning underclass that crop implied, must have had one of the readiest.

On May 10, 1795, Chirino — a Zambo of mixed African and Amerindian blood who was himself a free farmer — led an uprising of the Congolese slaves in the area who worked the sugarcane and declared a Republic under the “Law of the French,” with slavery and white privilege abolished.

Forcibly.

The rebellion’s attempt on Coro itself failed, and it was swiftly put down by the colonial authorities. Though many involved were killed summarily, the Spanish took their sweet time after capturing Chirino in August 1795: only the following year was he transferred to Caracas for execution, after which his body was dismembered and his head set in an iron cage displayed on the road to Coro. (For good measure, they sold his family into slavery.)

[flv:http://www.executedtoday.com/video/Jose_Leonardo_Chirino.flv 440 330]

(Video from here)

Of course, Chirino was on the right side of history. The city square in Caracas where Chirino hung is now Plaza Bolivar, named for Latin America’s eponymous liberator.

Coro itself is today served by Jose Leonardo Chirino airport, and for the African diaspora in Venezuela, Chirino is a special inspiration.

[audio:Jose_Leonardo.mp3]

Like any worthwhile symbol, he’s also contested territory — claimed as a forerunner (if a questionable one) of socialism by the “Bolivarian Republic” now governed by Hugo Chavez.

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1859: John Brown’s body starts a-moulderin’ in the grave

11 comments December 2nd, 2008 Sarah Owocki

That line between “martyr” and “terrorist” is often a matter of historical perspective or even accident.

Were the person’s actions justified?

If not justified, were they at least historically significant?

If not historically significant, did they at least inspire some really great songs?

Or, movies?

John Brown, abolitionist, father of 20 children, advocate of armed insurrection as a direct means of ending slavery, is just such a figure. Before looking at how his actions influenced history, however, it is instructive to consider how history influenced him.

Born into a devout family opposed to slavery on religious and moral grounds, Brown grew up in a vehemently anti-slavery district of Ohio and, as a young man, began training in New England to become a Congregationalist minister.

When money ran out, he returned to Ohio and began a series of variously successful business ventures and married his first wife, with whom he would have seven children. When his businesses failed, he moved to Pennsylvania, buried his wife, married his second, and started a tannery, which began to founder as one of his sons died and Brown fell ill. He moved his family –- now with more than a dozen children –- back to Ohio, where he was hit hard by the economic crisis of 1839 (PDF link). In 1842, he was declared bankrupt; the following year, four more of his children died of dysentery.

In spite of these setbacks, Brown remained dogged in his pursuit of ventures to get himself out of debt, becoming a seasoned expert among small sheep farmers and acting as a self-appointed crusader for their empowerment against the encroaching interests of manufacturers. While this backfired and Brown remained impoverished into the 1850s (thought not as much as when he was declared bankrupt), it solidified his interest in helping the underdog.

Bleeding Kansas

Moral and religious interest in the abolition of slavery had been part of Brown’s upbringing, but it wasn’t until 1855, when five of Brown’s adult sons began sending word of often violent pro-slavery machinations in the Kansas territory, that Brown first became committed to drastic action on behalf of the cause. His strategy wasn’t at first overtly violent, but was rather convinced that the anti-slavery cause could win by the ballot box; over the course of the next year, however, he became convinced that the only sure way of preserve Kansas as a free territory was by “fighting fire with fire” (historical opinion as to the precise extent of the pro-slavery violence in relation to Brown’s later actions is divided).

In 1856, with tensions reaching a boiling point, Brown, four of his sons, and a band of other abolitionists killed five pro-slavery settlers in Franklin County, Kansas in what became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre. No legal retribution was possible or likely; Brown and his party escaped handily (although one of his sons was killed the following August), and Brown spent the next three years using various aliases to travel among abolitionists raising funds to launch an all-out assault on slaveowners back East.

“The crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

That he chose the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) for his historic attack was no accident; it “evinced federal power stained by slavery.”

Brown believed his actions would be the start of a lasting insurrection in which slaves would rise up against their owners in an insurrection that would quickly spread to neighboring counties and throughout the South. While violence was expected, it was to be minimized, and, after the initial raid, used only in self-defense.

Twenty-one men, in total, took part in the raid; Brown’s expected hundreds of recruits never materialized. The slave population never got a chance to rise up against their masters, as townspeople promptly began firing on the raiders; by the morning after the start of the raid, the invaders were surrounded by a company of US Marines.* Brown was captured, along with seven of his men; ten were killed, and four escaped.

Tried in Virginia for murder, treason and conspiracy, Brown was convicted on November 2, just weeks after his failed insurrection, and sentenced to be hanged within a month. His often-cited speech in Court in response to this sentence would become a rallying cry for the abolitionist movement:

This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction… Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!

“Make the gallows glorious like the Cross.”

During his last month on Earth, Brown seemed well-aware that he was on his way to be a martyr. Refusing rescue by a supporter who had managed to infiltrate the prison, he wrote letters of valor and conviction which were increasingly picked up by the Northern abolitionst press, and attracted pleas of clemency from sources as removed as Victor Hugo.


Christ-like: The Last Moments of John Brown, by Thomas Hovdenden.

John Brown hanged at Charles Town, Virginia (present-day West Virginia — another thing Virginia lost during the Civil War). This 19th-century drawing is from the Virginia Military Institute archive of the event, which includes eyewitness accounts of soldiers who attended the hanging, including Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Hanged in the mid-morning of December 2, 1859, Brown stated ominously: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”

Brown’s dramatic enactment of an attempted armed insurrection –- even an abortive one –- stoked longstanding Southern fears of slave rebellions, leading the South to reorganize and equip its outdated militias, and the Union to increasingly valorize a man who held, with sheer and utter clarity, the very convictions in which they must needs believe to fight and win the coming War Between the States.

Called a “misguided fanatic” by the man who would lead that war, Brown’s actions nonetheless both hastened the inevitable schism already drawn so dramatically across a nation in which one out of every ten human beings was held in legal bondage, as well as gave moral and spiritual courage to those who would ultimately rise to eradicate it.

“His soul goes marching on…”

Or in the words of Frederick Douglass:

Did John Brown draw his sword against slavery and thereby lose his life in vain? And to this I answer ten thousand times, No! No man fails, or can fail, who so grandly gives himself and all he has to a righteous cause. No man, who in his hour of extremest need, when on his way to meet an ignominious death, could so forget himself as to stop and kiss a little child, one of the hated race for whom he was about to die, could by any possibility fail.

Did John Brown fail? Ask Henry A. Wise in whose house less than two years after, a school for the emancipated slaves was taught.

Did John Brown fail? Ask James M. Mason, the author of the inhuman fugitive slave bill, who was cooped up in Fort Warren, as a traitor less than two years from the time that he stood over the prostrate body of John Brown.

Did John Brown fail? Ask Clement C. Vallandingham, one other of the inquisitorial party; for he too went down in the tremendous whirlpool created by the powerful hand of this bold invader. If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery. If we look over the dates, places and men for which this honor is claimed, we shall find that not Carolina, but Virginia, not Fort Sumter, but Harpers Ferry, and the arsenal, not Col. Anderson, but John Brown, began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic. Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy and uncertain. The irrepressible conflict was one of words, votes and compromises.

When John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky was cleared. The time for compromises was gone – the armed hosts of freedom stood face to face over the chasm of a broken Union – and the clash of arms was at hand. The South staked all upon getting possession of the Federal Government, and failing to do that, drew the sword of rebellion and thus made her own, and not Brown’s, the lost cause of the century.

For more John Brown:

* Under the command of future Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

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1795: Tula, Curacao’s Nat Turner

1 comment October 3rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1795, the slave whose rebellion had shaken the Dutch Caribbean colony of Curaçao was publicly tortured to death with his chief confederates.

The Landhuis Knip commands the plantation where Tula’s revolt began — the dark history behind the Dutch Antilles’ charming facade.

On August 17, 1795 Tula (English Wikipedia page | Dutch) launched a well-planned insurrection on the island, one of the major transit points in the Atlantic slave trade.

Inspired by the Haitian Revolution — and reasoning that, since France occupied the Netherlands, that whole Declaration of the Rights of Man thing ought to be trickling down to Dutch colonies — the rebels freed slaves plantation to plantation and quickly swelled near 1,000.

Of course, Jean-Jacques Rousseau aside, the slaves were also irate that they were damn slaves.

Although the outside forces of international geopolitics played a role in inspiring the 1795 revolt, slaves could find sufficient justification for insurrection in the domestic policies that Dutch planters employed to keep their slaves laboring in Curacao. The planters maintained a harsh regime in which many privileges that had traditionally been bestowed upon slaves had been removed in order to heighten productivity and increase plantation profitability. By 1795, most slaves were being forced to work on Sundays, which had generally been a day of rest in the past, and many planters hired their slaves out to maximize profits by exploiting their labor. It had also become customary for all of the slaves on a plantation to be punished in response to the offense that an individual slave among them had committed. (Source)

A priest was sent as envoy from the worried white community to the rebel encampment, with an offer of amnesty for submission.

Tula (sometimes surnamed as Tula Rigaud) and fellow leaders Bastiaan Karpata (or Carpata), Pedro Wakao (or Wacao) and Louis Mercier received him politely, hosted him overnight, and told him to get lost. This is Tula:

Father, do not all the persons spring from Adam and Eve? Was I wrong in liberating twenty-two of my brothers who were unjustly imprisoned? Father, French liberty was a disaster for us. Each time one of us is punished, we are told: “Are you also looking for your freedom?” One day I was arrested, and I begged mercy for a poor slave; when I was liberated, my mouth was bleeding. I fell on my knees and I cried to God: “O Divine Majesty, O Most Pure Spirit, is it Your will that we are ill-treated? Father, they take better care of an animal.”

And subhuman was the torture Tula, Karpata and Wakao* bore for their insistence on freedom when a fellow slave finally — inevitably? — betrayed them.

At a spot now commemorated by a beachfront monument, the three had their bones systematically shattered with an iron rod, their heads lopped off, and their bodies tossed into the sea. (Despite the metadata on this post, it wasn’t precisely “breaking on the wheel” — but the bone-shattering was pretty much the same idea.)

Curacao remains today a Dutch possession; slavery was abolished there in 1863. August 17, the dawn of these Dutch slaves’ inspiring and fatal revolt for freedom, is now honored on the island — and off it.

* It’s unclear to me whether Mercier, who was captured earlier, was also executed with the others, or whether Mercier’s sentence had already been carried out by this time.

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1822: The audacious Denmark Vesey

5 comments July 2nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1822, white South Carolinians hanged the most terrifying slave insurrectionary who never rose — and breathed a sigh of relief as they clamped the shackles ever tighter upon their groaning servile class.

Inspired by slave revolts shaking the Caribbean, the Denmark Vesey plot was the South’s worst nightmare: Nat Turner, multiplied by about nine thousand.

That’s the size of the slave and free black network Vesey is said to have recruited — ready to undertake a coordinated uprising to seize Charleston, slaughter the white populace, and possibly then to sail for a Haiti whose own slave revolt had recently established it a black-governed republic. The mind boggles at such a scheme’s bravado … but in an age when horseshoes and mizzenmasts could outrun information, Vesey’s plot could have been past any prospect of obstruction before anyone in a position to obstruct it even knew what happened. Had they not flown but defended Charleston, the event would have ignited a conflagration to outshine every other slave uprising.

The weak point, of course, were those 9,000 — or however many — slaves who had to act ruthlessly and in unison, and keep their peace until they struck. It is incredible enough that such a secret kept among so many for up to four years.

The plot finally leaked mere days before it was to have been attempted when a middling player attempted the unnecessary freelance recruitment of a house slave — a class Vesey had intentionally (and rightly, events would prove) excluded for dangerously excessive personal loyalty to their masters’ families.*

Melancholy Dane

A well-educated and well-traveled man on account of his years as the personal property of a slaver — Joseph Vesey, who bequeathed his purchase both a surname and the given name Telemaque, subsequently corrupted into “Denmark” by Charlestonians — the plot’s signature hero/villain had managed to purchase his freedom and establish himself in the anomalous position of free black artisan/entrepreneur in the slaveholding South.

His successful carpentry business (apt choice, for a martyr) had given him the prestige and the werewithal to start an independent African Methodist Episcopal church where he poured out a hatred of chattel slavery undiminished by his own liberty.

For several years before he disclosed his intentions to any one, he appears to have been constantly and assiduously engaged in endeavoring to imbitter [sic] the minds of the colored population against the whites. He rendered himself perfectly familiar with those parts of the Scriptures which he could use to show that slavery was contrary to the laws of God; that slaves were bound to attempt their emancipation, however shocking and bloody might be the consequences … (Source)

His judges were later incredulous that he’d be so hung up about it:

It is difficult to imagine, what infatuation could have prompted you to attempt an enterprise so wild and visionary. You were a free man, comely, wealthy, and enjoyed every comfort compatible with your situation. You had, therefore, much to risk and little to gain.

An American Spartacus?

Denmark Vesey blurs into myth as he approaches his end, together with lieutenants: among them, Peter Poyas, the organizational maven of the operation who was hanged along with Vesey and four others; and Gullah Jack, an African priest among the 29 more who would die in the weeks ahead.

Most of the principals held their tongues before interrogators; the tribunals were held secretly; their records were censored against the apprehension by other slaves of the potential for such designs as “a bottle with poison to put into my master’s pump & into as many pumps he could about town.”

But there was enough known to shatter forever any illusion of paternal congeniality more liberal masters might have fancied. One planter was incredulous that his agreeable charge might be involved in such nefarious doings until he asked the man directly and was astonished to hear from his trusted coachman’s lips the frank intention “to kill you, rip open your belly and throw your guts in your face.” (Both quotes are from this book review.)

Whites were scared. “I have never heard in my life, of more deep laid plots or plots more likely to succeed,” wrote Anna Haynes Johnson, niece to Gov. Thomas Bennett. (Source) Another concluded that “our NEGROES are truly the Jacobins of the country.” (Source)

But as initial panic (and federal troop deployments) gave way to a more pervasive undertow of security paranoia, the affair was self-consciously downplayed and records intentionally destroyed for fear that too-careful documentation of its particulars could map the way for a revival. An 1861 piece in The Atlantic — an excellent read on the progress of the conspiracy — grapples with what was even then a gaping evidentiary vacuum.

The intense avidity which at first grasped at every incident of the great insurrectionary plot was succeeded by a distaste for the memory of the tale; and the official reports which told what slaves had once planned and dared have now come to be among the rarest of American historical documents. In 1841, a friend of the writer, then visiting South Carolina, heard from her hostess for the first time the events which are recounted here. On asking to see the reports of the trials, she was cautiously told that the only copy in the house, after being carefully kept for years under lock and key, had been burnt at last, lest it should reach the dangerous eyes of the slaves. The same thing had happened, it was added, in many other families. This partially accounts for the great difficulty now to be found in obtaining a single copy of either publication; and this is why, to the readers of American history, Denmark Vesey and Peter Poyas have been heretofore but the shadows of names.

Antebellum September 11

Even as a nonstarter, the insurrection was an antebellum 9/11 that spurred a reactionary crackdown on perceived liberalities in the system — most vividly symbolized by the construction of the fortress that became the still-extant military academy The Citadel, but more systematically impinging blacks’ everyday freedom to assemble and worship, and even requiring (until the Supreme Court overruled the law) free black sailors be detained whenever a northern ship called at port. Pro-slavery southerners blamed open disapprobation for slavery voiced in Congress during the recent Missouri Compromise wrangling, and even similar sentiments expressed in the British parliament, for emboldening the terrorists.

All this yielded a rich political harvest from the fruit of the gallows — like Charleston mayor James “there is nothing they are bad enough to do, that we are not powerful enough to punish” Hamilton, who rode his timely suppression of the plot to Congress later that year.

Such political profiteering, combined with the sketchiness of primary sources, has licensed a revisionist take on the orthodox history — that there was never any conspiracy, but that reactionary white elites concocted the plot from a tissue of loose liberation talk, false confessions, and latent white fear in order to win political power. This contested minority interpretation has been a recent topic of academic dispute, since Michael P. Johnson floated it in 2001 (an account is required to read Johnson’s original essay; here’s a synoptic article that appeared subsequently in The Nation).

Markers of historiography around these competing versions of Vesey, bearing directly on the question current in today’s Charleston of whether and how to memorialize this episode, are ripe with controversial modern-day implications.

Consider: if Vesey is a rebel indeed, the silence of (most of) the plotters is a noble acceptance of torture to protect their confederates; if they’re framed, they’re silent because there’s nothing to confess. Either way, the modern reader’s sympathies are likely to lie with the blacks, but Johnson’s interpretation removes the locus of action from them to white elites. If he’s right, would that derogate an entire narrative of black resistance to slavery, drain the martyrdom from their deaths? Or would it correct an overstated romantic mythology of armed resistance, and color this day’s hanging with a different heroism: refusing to purchase their lives with a false accusation?

* For his timely betrayal, Peter Desverneys received his liberty and a state pension; he later became a slaveholder himself. See Black Slaveowners.

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1831: Nat Turner

12 comments November 11th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1831, the slave Nat — remembered to history as Nat Turner after the surname of his original owner — was hanged, flayed and dismembered for leading the most notorious slave rebellion in antebellum America.

A deeply religious man known to other slaves as “The Prophet”, Nat followed what he took to be divine directive to launch a bloody uprising on the night of August 21-22 in Southampton County, Virginia. Using (at first) axes, knives and clubs to avoid attracting attention to gunfire, Nat’s band slaughtered whites from house to house, freeing slaves as they went. At least 55 whites were killed, and a like number of slaves by white militias that mobilized to put down the revolt … and then hundreds more slaves as far away as North Carolina suspected of some tangential involvement or simmering disloyalty.

The uprising was suppressed within two days, but it rooted so deeply in the conscience of the South that it persists to this day.

“I have not slept without anxiety in three months. Our nights are sometimes spent listening to noises.”
-Slaveowner after the rebellion

Nat Turner embodied slaveowners’ terror of the subject population living about them, outnumbering them, resentfully supporting Southern gentility at the end of a whip — the conundrum Jefferson had described barely a decade before as “we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” Arguably, the revolt hardened southern whites against moderating slavery; some legislatures tightened restrictions against teaching slaves to read, thinking that literate slaves like Nat were more liable to uprisings.

Conversely, he was a powerful martyr of resistance in the slave quarters, a symbol of scores of other lesser-known uprisings and of the countless more that lurked in dreams and fantasies, awaiting some spark of outrage, some sudden opportunity, some wild carelessness of death.

He was a figure of literature even before his death — The Confessions of Nat Turner, dictated to a white interrogator, left Nat’s own riveting testimony from the shadow of the gallows; the Virginia-born white novelist William Styron used the same title for a controversial 1967 historical novel which earned a Pulitzer but drew a critical rebuttal from many black writers. (Nat Turner also stalks the memory of Styron’s semi-autobiographical narrator in Sophie’s Choice.) More recently, Nat has received graphic novel treatment.

Historians of every stripe, meanwhile, have struggled over the meaning of the man’s deeds and — especially — his paradoxical legacy as symbol.

Update: The occasion received a tribute in Alabama about the time this post went up.

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