Nat Turner grew up a slave on the Turner plantation in Southampton County Virginia. Turner was deeply religious from an early age, claiming to sometimes receive visions from God, and he also offered religious teaching to other slaves on the plantation. His visions convinced him that God had chosen him as an instrument, he said, to “fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.” In February 1831 there was a solar eclipse, which Turner took as a sign to prepare for an uprising. That August there was another eclipse, and Turner concluded that God had told him it was time to act.
On August 21, 1831, Turner and a handful of his followers escaped and began to move from plantation to plantation, killing any white person that they came across and recruiting new followers from amongst the slaves they found. Turner’s rebels, who numbered seventy at their height, were extremely brutal. They slaughtered sixty men, women, and children using edged weapons and clubs. Their violence precipitated a strong reaction from white militia and the U.S. military, who suppressed the rebellion over the course of two days.
During the course of the fighting 100 slaves were killed, many of whom had not actually been involved, and 56 of the rebels would be executed after they were subdued. Rumors of further uprisings wound through the south, prompting indiscriminate attacks on slaves across the region that claimed another 120 lives.
Turner himself managed to evade capture for two months before being found and sentenced to death. Before his execution he commented “was Christ not crucified?” In the wake of the rebellion, Virginia passed new regulations outlawing teaching slaves to read and further curtailed the rights of even free blacks.
By 1831 a potent abolitionist movement had developed in Britain and had already achieved a victory in outlawing the international slave trade. Still, the British held a slave colony of their own in Jamaica. Aware of the shifting political winds, the slaves in Jamaica had real hope that they would soon receive their freedom. Particularly high hopes had been placed on abolitionist missionary Thomas Burchell, who traveled to England in 1831 to make the case for ending slavery. Many expected that he would return with news of emancipation, so when he came back to the island empty-handed unrest began to brew amongst the slaves.
One Jamaican slave and Baptist preacher, Samuel Sharpe, believed that the slaves of Jamaica might achieve their goal, which seemed so close, nonviolently. Consequently, in late December 1831, he organized strikes by the slaves, demanding that they be given their freedom and pay amounting to at least half a white man’s wage. 60,000 slaves answered Sharpe’s call, a full twenty percent of the total slave population of the island. Despite Sharpe’s intentions, the strikes did turn violent in places and seventeen whites were killed by rebel slaves.
The British managed to put down the rebellion over the course of eleven days, killing 207 slaves in the subsequent fighting. Following the suppression of the rebellion at least 300 of the uprising’s leaders, including Sharpe, were sentenced to death in British courts. Sharpe’s last words were “I would rather die among yonder gallows than live in slavery.” Though the rebels were defeated, in the end, they did achieve their aim. The year after the “Baptist War” the British parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act, outlawing slavery in British possession in the western hemisphere. By 1838 slavery was illegal in all places flying the Union Jack.
Though the rebels were defeated, in the end they did achieve their aim. The year after the “Baptist War” the British parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act, outlawing slavery in British possession in the western hemisphere. By 1838 slavery was illegal in all places flying the Union Jack.
In 1839 the Spanish ship Amistad was at sea off the coast of Cuba, transporting 49 Africans who had recently been kidnapped in Sierra Leone to slavery in Cuba. As the ship was low on provisions and the voyage was taking longer than expected, the ship’s cook had been taunting the Africans that they would be eaten when supplies of food ran out. On July 2, 1839, one of the captives by the name of Cinque managed to free himself from his shackles by using a file that another one of the Africans had smuggled aboard.
Having slipped his chains, Cinque released the remaining Africans, and together they rose up, killing the cook and driving two other members of the crew into lifeboats. Using the captain’s personal slave as an interpreter, they demanded that the two remaining crew members take them back to Africa. Rather than pointing the Amistad towards Africa, though, the crew sailed it up the eastern seaboard of the United States, laying anchor off of Long Island. There they were spotted by the USS Washington, which captured the Amistad.
The Captain of Washington then filed a lawsuit claiming that under salvage law he was the rightful owner of the Africans found aboard the Amistad. The two crew members of the Amistad made similar claims to the Africans, while the Africans themselves contended that they belonged to no one. In February 1841 the Amistad case came before the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court ruled that because international slave trade was illegal, the Africans could not have been legally enslaved in Sierra Leone in the first place, and were therefore free. In 1842 the Africans returned to their homes in Sierra Leone.
In late 1841 the slave ship Creole departed Virginia headed for New Orleans. Onboard were 135 slaves that were slated for sale in Louisiana. Though the United States had joined with the British in outlawing the international trade of slaves in 1808, the sale of slaves over state lines remained legal within the United States. One of the slaves on board was Madison Washington, an unfortunate who had previously escaped from slavery into Canada but had been recaptured when he came back to Virginia to free his wife.
While at sea on November 7 1841, Washington noticed that one of the ship’s crew had failed to secure the hold, and he seized the opportunity to storm the deck along with eighteen of the other slaves. In a brief fight, the slaves killed one of the crew members and wounded several more before taking the ship.
In a stroke of insight, one of the slaves demanded that the captain of the Creole sail for the Bahamas, a British possession where slavery had become illegal in the aftermath of the slave revolt in Jamaica. When they arrived local authorities informed the slaves that under British law they were now free.
Though the British authorities arrested those slaves implicated in the violent capture of the ship, they allowed the remainder to reside in the Bahamas. Five slaves refused, and would eventually return to New Orleans and slavery with the Creole. The British court also soon ruled that the participants in the uprising had not committed a crime, as they were free and were just in using force to escape unlawful captivity. In all 128 former slaves gained their freedom in the Bahamas, making the uprising on the Creole the most successful US slave revolt in terms of the number of slaves freed.