What were the major United States slave revolts?
Slavery represented the opposite of freedom. In the period of human history variously known as the modern era or the Age of Discovery, this form of unfree labor would mark the landscape in critical ways. It is believed that slavery not only provided the economic foundations of the modern world, it helped establish the limits of freedom. In other words, slavery was required to remind citizens what freedom actually meant.
The United States is a creature of this world. It provides interesting support to this notion, as the idea of “slavery” was used to describe the colonies’ relationship to Great Britain as they ironically practiced slavery themselves within the boundaries of colonialism. Like all enslaved people, those people of African descent who were enslaved in the colonies and then the United States sought to undo the shackles that restricted them. Because the colonial legal system that underpinned the system did not recognize them as full persons or citizens, those shackles were often undone by revolts.
The Practice of Marronage
In order to fully appreciate the idea of revolt among enslaved Africans in the United States, we must first understand the practice of marronage. Marronage encompassed the idea of creating levels of separation from the slave society and the creation of alternative modes of living. In order to accomplish the creation of these societies, enslaved Africans had to run away—hence the term, “marronage,” an English derivation of the Spanish term for runaway cattle, cimarrones.
In creating alternative communities in the mountains and in the swamps of the New World, enslaved Africans practiced freedom on their own terms, liquidating the relationships of master-slave that defined their existence in the world of the enslavers. Historian Robin D.G. Kelley calls this “the first principle of African resistance.” It represented the most immediate and available form of recreating the life interrupted by the experience of the Middle Passage and chattel slavery. Flight was not easy, but it perfectly captured the intent behind Black resistance to slavery: to live on one’s own terms.
Slavery in the Western hemisphere did not begin in what is now considered the continental United States. There were earlier instances of Africans being manacled and brought to places like Nueva Espana (Mexico), Central America, Brazil, and the islands in the Caribbean Sea. In those places we see the consistency of maroon communities. However, it is only recently that we have begun to learn a great deal about the existence of maroon communities in what became the continental United States. In places like the Great Dismal Swamp, which covers Southeastern Virginia and Northeastern North Carolina, the swamplands of South Carolina and Georgia, the Bas du Flueve in Louisiana, and the Florida territory, peoples of African descent established maroon communities that offered a place to live as free peoples in the midst of a slave society.
Throughout the 17th-18th centuries, these provided viable alternatives to not only slavery but represented a better option for securing freedom than outright revolt. Though revolts were often launched from these settlements, the point was not the overthrow of the system but the creation of another kind way of living that was available to all. However, in the United States as in all places in the New World, maroon communities were thereafter attacked as they became threats to the slave regime. This intensified the propensity to revolt.
The Colonial Period
There were a number of major conspiracies involving enslaved Africans during the colonial era. Prior to the creation of the United States, they realized that their best option lay with alliances with the other domestic enemy: the indigenous population. There is evidence of such collaboration throughout the histories of early America. In addition, New York City witnessed two major conspiracies, in 1712 and 1741. Both involved attempts to lay siege to the city. This, is of course, notable as popular imaginations do not easily see this Northern city as a place where slavery even occurred, let alone the setting of two major slave revolts. But New York City was a nerve center for chattel slavery, and thus revolt was always a major concern. There were approximately 1,000 enslaved Africans in New York in 1712, and the conspiracy involved 23 of them. In 1741, a plot was uncovered that intended to burn the city to the ground; it was a recognition of the city’s commercial importance to slavery.
The other major colonial revolt that deserves attention is the Stono rebellion of 1739. This rebellion occurred in South Carolina, perhaps the most important colony that had practiced slavery during this period. It involved about one hundred Africans who decided to liquidate their masters, marching on major plantations and inducing others to join the rebellion. There is some evidence that they were headed to Florida, then under the control of the Spanish who offered enslaved Africans owned by the British freedom as a way to increase their territorial advantages in the region. These territorial disputes are important in understanding the political shifts that led directly to the creation of the United States. In an ironic twist that became true all across the New World, it was the prevalence of slave revolt that shifted relations between colonial powers. This is evidenced by Thomas Jefferson’s statement about incitements to revolt in the Declaration of Independence.
During the Revolutionary War, enslaved Africans “revolted” by siding with the British against their masters. Many of them were induced to “betray” the Patriots by promises of freedom that were fulfilled by their removal to regions like Nova Scotia, Sierra Leone, and, Trinidad and Tobago.
The Gabriel Prosser Conspiracy
Slave revolts continued into the nineteenth century as the slave regime intensified after the establishment of the United States, founded on a constitution that protected that regime. Though gradual emancipation laws transformed the experience in the North, slavery actually expanded in the South and West. In 1800, a major conspiracy exemplified these changes. In Richmond, Virginia, a city that employed enslaved Africans as laborers, a conspiracy led by Gabriel Prosser sought to undermine slavery in that state.
Virginia had experienced the desiccation of the soil of the region and thus had a double problem: the declining profits of tobacco production and an unfree labor force with no work. The solution of employing them has hired hands almost proved fatal to the regime as this was the base from which Prosser recruited his fellow revolutionaries. Prosser had his compatriots were either hanged or imprisoned, once the plans for the revolt were foiled, but this event led to what would become the domestic slave trade as well as the attempt to curtail the movements of enslaved Africans in Virginia.
The Denmark Vesey Conspiracy
By 1822, the international dimensions of slave revolt were coming into the view. The United States was joined by another new country, built on revolutionary principles: Haiti. Itself a product of a slave revolt, Haiti, recognized the primacy of Black people as free citizens. It was a country premised on the principles of marronage. In Charleston, many of the enslaved Africans had heard of these events, and one who had self-emancipated himself with lottery winnings, Denmark Vesey, led a revolt that had as its aims the destruction of the city and the relocation of Black people to Haiti.
It was a plan that involved large segments of the substantial community of enslaved Africans in the city. The commercial importance of Charleston was also critical, as it was a major port of entry for enslaved Africans prior to the abolition of the slave trade in 1808, and remained critical for the shipping of slavery-produced goods like cotton. The revolt led by Vesey and his network of revolutionaries was also uncovered and the conspirators punished with hangings and banishment, but not before this conspiracy led to South Carolina tightening its grip on Black institutional life. It was recognized that the Black church was at the center of the conspiracy, which led to attacks on those critical institutions.
Eleven years prior, the largest revolt, known as the German Coast Uprising, involving perhaps five hundred enslaved Africans took place in Louisiana. Though this revolt is becoming more and more known, it long suffered from historical silence. It is important, however, because it demonstrated an international consciousness as well.
Nat Turner's Rebellion
The most well-known of all the antebellum revolts is Nat Turner’s Rebellion in Southhampton, County, Virginia. Because of the severity of the revolt as well as the taking down of Turner’s Confessions, this event often stands in as if it were the only revolt that occurred. Nevertheless, Turner and his band were responsible for approximately sixty deaths of whites in the region—a larger number when we consider the casualties of all other revolts. The roving band was subdued after two days and Turner was subsequently captured, jailed and hanged. Beyond that, Turner’s revolt reveals a number of critical historical insights. Firstly, the figure of Turner himself is quite interesting as he was saw his work as divinely inspired. It was a clear embrace of the spiritual implications of slavery and freedom. Secondly, the fact that slavery had so intensified that a revolt of this scale was saw as necessary by large segments of the Black community. Thirdly, it calls into question the nature of revolutionary violence. Whites remembered the revolt because of its brutal nature, while Blacks saw this sort of violence as necessary to undermine and undo an inherently violent system.
The questions raised by Nat Turner’s revolt energized the conversations that were being held about resistance in the abolitionist community. Free Blacks participated in these conventions where the questions was raised and debated with the likes of David Walker, Henry Highland Garnet, and Frederick Douglass. As these debates occurred, resistance continued on the ground in the South in big and small ways, leading to the repressive measures that outlawed reading and gathering for unsupervised meetings. Ultimately, as the nation debated the future of slavery, white abolitionists like John Brown came to decide that slavery had to be destroyed by force. In 1859, he led his infamous raid on Harper’s Ferry with the plan to arm and organize enslaved Africans and create a new country. Though it was destroyed by the U.S. Army, Brown’s raid and its connections to enslaved Africans, indicated that this question was likely not going to be resolved by debate and compromise. Two years later, the United States was at war with itself over that very issue.
With the over 189,000 formerly enslaved Africans that served in the war, it could also be seen as the extension of the revolutionary activities of their forbears. The histories of these revolts make clear that they are part of the same tradition, that slavery had to be destroyed and that new ways of living had to be created. Revolts were at base about freedom and the ability to be and live on one’s own terms, not the means through which it was achieved.
Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts New York: International Publishers, 1983.
Diouf, Sylviane. Slavery's Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons New York: New York University Press, 2014.
Horne, Gerald. The Counterrevolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States New York: New York University Press, 2014.
Patterson, Orlando. Freedom in the Making of Western Culture New York: Basic, 1992.
Robinson, Cedric. Black Movements in America New York: Routledge, 1997.
- Robin D.G. Kelley, "Do Black Lives Matter?," https://vimeo.com/116111740