Very few, if any, African-Americans accepted their status as slaves.
Most, if not all, slave owneres were completely aware of this and, in general, they lived in fear of the African-Americans under the control. Not only did slaveowners expect slaves to run away, letters and diaries give strong evidence that slaveowners (and even non-slaveowners) in the south believed that rebellion was imminent. They had lived with this fear since 1792 when the Haitian Revolution proved unambiguously that slaves were ready to revolt and could do so with a passion that was awe-inspiring. Added to this mix was the fiery rhetoric of abolitionists, both black and white. The most frightening, to the slave owners, of these abolitionists was Henry Highland Garnet who had escaped from slavery at the age of ten. In 1843 he called for a slave strike and suggested that it escalate to a slave revolt. By this point, the south had been rocked by three slave revolts which had struck fear to the very hearts of slaveowners.
Slave owners lived in fear of slave revolts, a fear which was far from unfounded: from the Amistad mutiny to the Underground Railroad, American slaves%u2014led by themselves or with the help of abolitionists%u2014staged many instances of revolt and resistance. Read the timeline below to learn more about the history of slave rebellions.
1663: First serious slave conspiracy in Colonial America
White servants and black slaves conspire to revolt in Gloucester County, VA, but are betrayed by a fellow servant.
1712: Slave revolt, New York, April 7. Nine Whites killed. Twenty-one slaves executed.
1730: Slave conspiracy discovered in Norfolk and Princess Anne counties, Va.
1739: The Stono Rebellion
The deadliest revolt in Colonial America takes place in Stono, SC. Armed slaves start marching to Florida and towards freedom, but the insurrection is put down and at least 20 whites and more than 40 blacks are killed.
1741: Series of suspicious fires and reports of slave conspiracy led to general hysteria in New York City, March and April. Thirty-one slaves, five Whites executed.
1773: Massachusetts slaves petitioned legislature for freedom, Jan. 6. There is a record of 8 petitions during Revolutionary War period.
1791: Haiti slave revolt
Former slave Toussaint L'Ouverture leads a slave revolt in Haiti, West Indies. He is captured in 1802, but the revolt continues and Haitian independence is declared. Southerners are terrified by these events as they discourage the importation of slaves into the United States.
1800: Gabriel Prosser's rebellion
In the spring of 1800, Prosser, a deeply religious man, begins plotting an invasion of Richmond, Virginia and an attack on its armory. By summer he has enlisted more than 1,000 slaves and collected an armory of weapons, organizing the first large-scale slave revolt in the U.S. On the day of the revolt, the bridges leading to Richmond are destroyed in a flood, and Prosser is betrayed. The state militia attacks, and Prosser and 35 of his men are hanged.
1811: Louisiana revolt
Louisiana slaves revolt in two parishes near New Orleans. The revolt is suppressed by U.S. troops.
1816: Fort Blount revolt
Three hundred slaves and about 20 Native American allies hold Fort Blount on Apalachicola Bay, Florida for several days before being attacked by U.S. troops.
1822: Denmark Vesey's revolt
A freed man, Vesey had won a lottery and purchased his emancipation in 1800. He is working as a carpenter in Charleston, South Carolina when he starts to plan a massive slave rebellion%u2014one of the most elaborate plots in American history%u2014involving thousands of slaves on surrounding plantations, organized into cells. They would start a major fire at night, and then kill the slave owners and their families. Vesey is betrayed and hanged, but the cell structure prevents officials from identifying other leaders.
1829: Race riot, Cincinnati, Ohio, August 10. More than 1,000 Negroes left the city for Canada.
1831: Nat Turner's revolt
Nat Turner plans a slave revolt revolt in Southampton County, Virginia, the only effective, sustained slave rebellion in U.S. history. Sixty whites are killed before Turner and his followers are captured and hanged.
1831%u20131862: The Underground Railroad
Approximately 75,000 slaves escape to the North and to freedom via the Underground Railroad, a system in which free African American and white "conductors," abolitionists and sympathizers help guide and shelter the escapees.
1838: Frederick Douglass escapes
Frederick Douglass escapes from slavery in Baltimore. He later publishes his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, and becomes a leading abolitionist.
1839: The Amistad mutiny
Led by a West African named Cinque, slaves transported aboard the Spanish ship Amistad stage a mutiny, killing the entire crew except for the captain and first mate and demanding to be sailed back to Africa. Instead, the captain sails to New York. The rebels eventually win their freedom in a landmark Supreme Court case in which they are defended by former president John Quincy Adams.
1841: Creole revolt
Slaves revolt on the Creole, a slave trading ship sailing from Virginia to Louisiana. The rebels overpower the crew and successfully sail to the Bahamas, where they are granted asylum and freedom.
1848: Ellen Craft impersonated a slave holder, William Craft acted as her servant in one of the most dramatic slave escapes--this one from slavery in Georgia, Dec 26.
1849: Harriet Tubman escapes
Harriet Tubman escapes from slavery in Maryland. She becomes one of the best-known "conductors" on the Underground Railroad, returning to the South 19 times and helping more than 300 slaves escape to freedom.
1851: Negro abolitionist crashed into courtroom in Boston and rescued a fugitive slave, Feb 15.
1859: Harper's Ferry Attack
Led by abolitionist John Brown, a group of slaves and white abolitionists stage an attack on Harper's Ferry, Virginia. They capture the federal armory and arsenal before the insurrection is halted by local militia. Brown and the other captives are tried and executed. The raid hastens the advent of the Civil War, which starts two years later.
If slave rebellions in North America correspond to any single model, it is that they proliferated during times when the white majority was divided against itself. Colonial insurgents in South Carolina and New York City turned to violence at a time when their masters were at war with France and Spain. Gabriel, the most politicized of all the slave rebels, formulated his plans during the divisive election of 1800, when Federalists and Republicans threatened to take up arms against one another. The rebels in the Tidewater area of Virginia, despite the memory of the repression that followed Gabriel's death, began to organize again during the chaos of the War of 1812. Having read of the Missouri debates in Charleston newspapers, Vesey prayed that Northern whites would prove tardy in riding to the rescue of the estranged Southerners. Slaves near Natchez, Mississippi, began to plan for their freedom in 1861, following the outbreak of the Civil War.
Most of all, slaves, who well knew what they were up against and rarely contemplated suicidal ventures, plotted for their freedom only when safer avenues had been closed to them. For most of the seventeenth century, for example, when the high death rate in the southern colonies made inexpensive white indentured servants far more numerous than costly African slaves, enterprising bondpersons relied more on self-purchase than the sword. It was only after landless whites and hard-used white indentured workers under the command of Nathaniel Bacon burned Jamestown in 1676 that southern planters made a concerted effort to replace white servants with African slaves. The comprehensive Virginia Slave Code of 1705, the first of its kind in colonial North America, crushed the hope of industrious slaves that they might be upwardly mobile. Only then, as North American racial walls rapidly hardened, did desperate slaves turn to physically hazardous paths toward freedom. In April 1712 twenty-five Coromantee Africans burned several buildings in New York City and killed nine whites. Several rebels committed suicide before they could be captured, but those taken alive were broken on the wheel and hanged in chains as a warning to future rebels.
In the early eighteenth century, mainland revolts rarely posed much real danger to the slaveholding regime. Because the Atlantic slave trade was at its peak, every colony included large numbers of native Africans who sought to escape from bondage by building isolated Maroon communities in remote areas. There they tried to re-create the African communities they had lost. Even the two most significant rebellions of the period%u2014the 1739 Stono River uprising and Varick's 1741 plan to torch New York City%u2014were led by Africans who dreamed only of ending their own bondage, not of ending unfree labor in general. The price of failure was high. New York authorities ordered Varick and twelve of his followers burned alive; eighteen others were hanged and seventy more bondmen were banished from the colony.
The American Revolution alternately discouraged and stimulated slave rebellions. Although the British invasion and the animosity between Patriots and Loyalists presented slaves with a unique opportunity to organize, most slaves chose instead to take advantage of the dislocation of war to escape with their families into the growing cities or behind British lines. (The Revolution was the one time in North American history when equal numbers of female and male slaves ran away.) The aggressive bondmen who cast their lots with the military forces of King George were precisely the sort of bold, determined slaves who tended to organize slave conspiracies; thus the bloody fighting in the southern states after 1778 actually diminished the prospect that a mainland counterpart of Toussaint Louverture, the Haitian liberator, would rise out of the tobacco plantations.
In several cases, bondmen who had been carried from revolutionary Saint Domingue by their masters participated in North American slave revolts. In 1792 slaves on Virginia's Eastern Shore proposed to "blow up the magazine in Norfolk, and massacre its inhabitants." Although the rebel leader Caleb, a favored servant and driver, was evidently Americanborn, several of his recruits were Haitian refugees, and all%u2014according to trial testimony%u2014had been inspired by the example of Saint Domingue. Two decades later, in 1811, one of the most extensive conspiracies in the history of the United States erupted in southern Louisiana, only a few miles upriver from New Orleans. Slaves led by a mulatto driver named Charles Deslondes, reputedly aware of events in Saint Domingue, announced their intention of marching on the city "to kill whites." Eyewitness accounts placed the number of rebels at 180 to 500.
After Gabriel's execution and the death of twenty-five of his followers in the fall of 1800, slave rebellions on the eastern seaboard became both less common and less politically conscious. Slaves who worked along the rivers in southern Virginia and Halifax County, North Carolina, under the leadership of Sancho, a ferryman, formed a loosely connected scheme to rise on Easter Monday of 1802. But Sancho, despite having been involved in Gabriel's plot, shared little of Gabriel's dream of a multiracial republic. Even when the dislocations of the War of 1812 and a second British invasion of the Chesapeake once more gave bondmen in Virginia an opportunity to rise for their liberty, an ideological dimension was lacking. Gloucester County authorities jailed ten slaves in March 1813, and the following month found rebels in Williamsburg "condemned on a charge of conspiracy and insurrection." By the late summer and early fall, rumors of revolt unnerved inhabitants of Norfolk and Richmond as well.
White authorities crushed these isolated rebellions with relative ease, reminding leaders in the slave community that the determined white majority in the American South posed a formidable obstacle to insurgents. Denmark Vesey of Charleston, perhaps the most pragmatic of all the rebel leaders, realized that Gabriel's dream of forcing mainland elites to accommodate blacks' aspirations to freedom and economic justice was impossible. Vesey plotted, therefore, not to end slavery in South Carolina, but instead to lead a mass escape from Charleston to the Caribbean, where he had lived and worked as a boy. Hoping to take control of the city on the night of 14 July 1822, Vesey's recruits%u2014many of them Africans%u2014intended to slaughter the inhabitants of the city and seize bank reserves before fleeing to Haiti, an embattled black republic sorely in need of capital and skilled labor.
Despite the overwhelming amount of evidence testifying to black rebelliousness, some historians attribute servile conspiracies to white paranoia, or even to Machiavellian plots on the part of white authorities to eliminate potential black leaders. One scholar suggests that insurgents never planned for their freedom in New York City in 1741, Antigua in 1736, the Chesapeake in the 1790s, and southern Virginia in 1802. Another historian, Michael Johnson, argues that "the evidence cannot sustain a credible interpretation that the Stono Revolt was a slave rebellion," and he also doubts that Gabriel's conspiracy and Vesey's plot constituted "incipient rebellion[s]."
No modern scholar, however, has challenged the reality of Nat Turner's bloody revolt. Fifty-seven dead white Virginians are hard to explain away. Yet the Southampton uprising of-1831 stands as the least practical of the nineteenth-century revolts. Unlike Gabriel, who believed it possible to fight his way into Richmond's political society, or Vesey, who simply planned to flee the country, the isolated geography of southern Virginia raises questions as to what the black general planned to do with his soldiers. Quite possibly, Turner hoped to march east and establish a Maroon colony in the Dismal Swamp. Equally possible is the prospect that the evangelical Turner avoided careful planning and preparation as he expected to leave the aftermath of rebellion in the hands of God.
More than four decades later, by the end of the Civil War, 180,000 African Americans (one out of every five males in the Republic) had served in Union forces. Those former slaves who marched back toward the plantations of their birth singing "General Gabriel's Jig" rightly understood themselves to be a part of the largest slave rebellion in the history of the United States.
Timeline: From Before the Mayflower, by Lerone Bennett