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This Day in Resistance History: Nat Turner’s Slave Revolt

August 21, 2012

On this day in 1831, a slave in Virginia named Nat Turner, led an armed rebellion against slave owners and their families.

Turner, who had been a slave nearly all his life, claimed to have had religious visions. In one of those visions, Turner was told to, “slay my enemies with their own weapons.”

Whatever one thinks about the religious visions that Turner claimed to have, the reality is that he was a slave and his lived experience of slavery certainly taught him that living under a repressive system often leads people to acts of resistance and liberation.

People who object to religion justifying his acts of violence against slave owners and their families should come to terms with the fact that most slave owners justified owning and brutalizing slaves based on religion, particularly Christianity.

Beginning on the night of August 21, 1831, Turner, along with other slaves, used axes to kill his slave owner and family. Turner and his followers then went to other slave plantations to free other slaves and attack slave owners who tries to stop them. By the next day there were some 70 slaves and free Blacks that were part of the insurrection.

Virginia authorities responded quickly by calling up the local militia and members of the US military to help put down the rebellion. On August 22nd, Turner and the rest of the rebellion were confronted by a militia. Some were killed immediately, while others escaped. Turner himself went into hiding until he was captured on October 30. The slave rebellion leader was then put on trial and sentenced to be executed on November 11, where he was hung.

It would be easy to quickly dismiss Turner’s actions as an utter failure. However, it is important that we look at these kinds of acts of resistance as part of larger movement, which led to the abolition of slavery.

Nat Turner’s rebellion was not the first by slaves in the US, nor was it the last. Some historians will note that the Haitian slave rebellion at the end of the 18th century gave birth to slave rebellions in the US. Herbert Aptheker in American Negro Slave Revolts (1943) chronicles 250 slave actions between 1526 and 1860.

The fact that slave revolts were so numerous should tell us something about the level of resistance that slaves were willing to engage in to obtain their freedom. Slaves also used other tactics to rebel against the legal system of chattel slavery, such as stealing slave owner property, sabotage, work slow downs, burning down buildings and running away. An excellent book that documents the diversity of tactics used by slaves can be found in Eugene Genovese’s book Roll, Jordan, Roll.

It is important to also note that the slave owners in Virginia and the south did not let Nat Turner’s rebellion pass without making some changes. Clearly, this action put fear into the hearts and minds of slave owners everywhere. Some states passed laws which forbid anyone to teach slaves to read and write, demonstrating the system’s fear in knowing that knowledge is power. Slave owners also began to figure out ways to tighten their control over their slaves, but the increased repression only led to more opposition.

Turner’s rebellion forced anti-slave sectors to question their own tactics and complacency and more people became more vocal and willing to take bigger risks. Just as the Haitian uprising gave birth to Nat Turner’s rebellion, Turner’s rebellion gave birth to an increase in slave revolts and the armed insurrection led by John Brown in 1859. None of these actions alone ended slavery in the US, but the collective resistance against slavery over decades is what eventually led to the abolition of slavery.

Such a view of history is not how it is often presented to us in grade school where a specific date or some great man is what brought about change in this country. It is the acts of the unknown thousands that bring about change, the men and women who joined Turner to rebel against slavery in 1831 or the thousands who were arrested during the Civil Rights era that brought about change. We might not ever know their names, but we must honor their courage by taking the same kinds of risks today and revolting against systems of oppression.

Editor’s note: For those interested in exploring the history of the abolition movement and other social justice movements in the US, GRIID is offer a class entitled, A History of US Social Movements, which begins on September 17.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Philip K. Selden permalink
    December 10, 2012 7:46 pm

    Nat Turner was hanged, not hung.

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