Southerners were terrified about slave rebellions. With the example of the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 on every front page in America, they were concerned that similar uprising could happen on their own plantations. At least 100,000 Europeans and slaves were killed during the revolution with a similar number of military deaths.
In many rural areas of the South, slaves outnumbered their white masters by large numbers. Numerous slave rebellions had taken place in North America from the colonization until the American Civil War. Some have achieved a measure of notoriety while others are just a footnote in history. There is documentary evidence of more than 250 uprisings or attempted uprisings involving ten or more slaves.
The first major slave rebellion took place in Gloucester County, Virginia in 1663. The plot was a conspiracy of slaves and indentured servants who planned “to destroy their masters and afterwards to set up for themselves.” The informant, an indentured servant named Berkenhead, received a reward of five thousand pounds of tobacco plus his freedom. Several bloody heads dangled from local chimney tops as a gruesome warning to others.
Over the course of the 1700s, there were minor uprisings in locations as diverse as New York, South Carolina and aboard a slave ship in the Atlantic. In fact, the ship uprising, on the Lord Ligonier,was led by Kunta Kinte, who was Alex Haley of Roots fame’s African ancestor.
In many cases, the planned slave rebellions were betrayed by other slaves who were rewarded, in some cases, with their freedom and other monetary rewards. The Pointe Coupee Conspiracy, an abortive slave revolt, in 1795 in Louisiana was betrayed by two Indian women. The plot was broken up. There were other slave conspiracies in Spanish (later French) Louisiana throughout the 1790s.
Gabriel Prosser, an enslaved blacksmith in Richmond, Virginia, plotted a large slave rebellion in the summer of 1800. His plot was betrayed and authorities captured Prosser and 25 of his followers. They were hung as a punishment and an example to the slaves of Virginia. In reaction to the planned rebellion, Virginia and other state legislatures passed restrictions on free blacks, as well as prohibiting the education, assembly and hiring out of slaves, to restrict their chances to learn and to plan similar rebellions.
Many of the slave rebellions of the early 1800s were small and in many cases confined to a single plantation or geographic location. Some were betrayed by other slaves and some were suppressed after brief acts of violence. In all cases, the perpetrators were executed for their rebellions.
In August 1831, Nat Turner led a group of rebellious slaves on a murderous rampage through Southampton County, Virginia. Turner was an enslaved American who had lived his entire life in Southampton County, Virginia, an area with predominantly more blacks than whites. It is believed that Turner and his fellow slaves killed between 55-65 whites, the highest number of fatalities caused by slave uprisings in the South.
The uprising was suppressed within a few days but Turner himself was able to avoid capture for about two months. We have a description of Nat Turner from his reward notice.
“5 feet 6 or 8 inches high, weighs between 150 and 160 pounds, rather “bright” [light-colored] complexion, but not a mulatto, broad shoulders, larger flat nose, large eyes, broad flat feet, rather knockneed, walks brisk and active, hair on the top of the head very thin, no beard, except on the upper lip and the top of the chin, a scar on one of his temples, also one on the back of his neck, a large knot on one of the bones of his right arm, near the wrist, produced by a blow.”
In the aftermath of the slave rebellion, white militias carried out widespread retaliation against blacks. At least 100 blacks, and perhaps as many as 200, were killed by mobs and the militia. The state of Virginia tried and executed 57 slaves, including Nat Turner. Southern state legislatures passed new laws prohibiting education of slaves and free blacks, restricting rights of assembly and other civil rights for free blacks, and requiring white ministers to be present at black worship services.
The largest slave rebellion took place From 1835-1838 in Florida. It was here that African slaves who were allied to the Seminole Indians joined them in fighting the U.S. Army. At the height of the revolt, at least 385 slaves fought alongside their Seminole allies, helping them destroy more than twenty-one sugar plantations in central Florida, at the time one of the most highly developed agricultural regions in North America.
The rebellion of Africans on board the Spanish schooner Amistad in 1839 is known more for the court fight waged by the Africans for their freedom. They were represented by former President John Quincy Adams. The case was a long and complicated one since it involved a foreign ship that had been taken over on the Atlantic. The Supreme Court found for the Africans and freed them.
The last and most famous antebellum uprising took place at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. It was here on October 16-18, 1859 that John Brown attempted to seize the U.S. Arsenal and arm slaves in rebellion. His unsuccessful attack led to the deaths of himself and most of his followers. However, it did ignite the spark that within 6 years was to see the end of slavery in the United States.