Of all of the movies and history books that highlights the slave era, including the horrific events that constituted slavery, one thing that never seems to be acknowledged is slave uprising. Most of history goes into great detail about how slaves were submissive, timid, and loyal to their slave masters out of fear of being beaten or even killed had they not. However, not all slaves were devoted to their slave masters and willing to withstand the atrocious and violent conditions that they were subjected to as slaves.
Some slaves were willing to risk everything, including their lives or even their families’ lives in order to challenge the exclusive monopoly of slavery. However, although slave rebellion existed, it was difficult to execute because whites outnumbered slaves. Slaves only maintained one-third of the U.S. population. Furthermore, slavery was so policed that it was practically impossible for conspirators to gather and plan an uprising. And in some situations where rebellion took place, it occurred in environments that were lax and slaves were able to roam around without extreme supervision.
Nevertheless, slaves found many ways to rebel against their master including, intentionally sabotaging work equipment, taking exaggerated amounts of time to complete tasks, setting fires, feigning illness, or even pretending not to understand instructions. These defying methods were simple techniques that slaves used to temporarily liberate themselves from the bondage of supremacy. However, some slaves decided to rise up against slavery, using the same violent tactics practiced by many of their slave masters.
Below are 4 of the best slave uprisings you won’t see in any Hollywood movies:
Born in 1776 on Thomas Prosser’s tobacco plantation in Henrico County, Virginia, Gabriel Prosser was a literate slave who had been known to be “extraordinarily intelligent” and leading. He and his brother, Solomon, were hired out as blacksmiths because local merchants and artisans relied heavily on the cheap labor that they could get from hiring slaves, as opposed to white tradesmen. However, the brothers used the opportunity to form an alliance with free blacks, other hired slaves, and white laborers.
In September of 1799, Gabriel, Solomon, and a fellow slave named Jupiter stole a pig. When caught by white overseer Absalom Johnson, Gabriel wrestled him to the ground and bit off most of his ear. In court, he was found guilty of maiming a white man, a capital offense, but Gabriel escaped execution through a loophole called “benefit of clergy,” that allowed him to choose public branding over execution, if he could recite a verse from the Bible. Gabriel recited his verse, and then was branded in his left hand in open court. The branding, as well as the month he spent in jail, was the last in a long chain of offenses that pushed him toward open rebellion.
Part of Prosser’s conspiracy included seizing Capitol Square in Richmond and taking Governor James Monroe as a hostage, in order to bargain with city authorities. He also planned to “persuade” the nation of Indians called Catawbas to join in to “fight the white people” and ultimately, “possess ourselves of their property.”
Prosser and his team recruited people from Richmond, Petersburg, Norfolk and Albemarle, and from the counties of Caroline and Louisa. On August 30, 1800, he’d planned to execute the mission, but had delayed it as a severe thunderstorm threatened flooding. At that point, the governor had begun hearing rumors about Prosser’s plan, and it was ultimately confirmed by two slaves who’d betrayed the revolt by informing their masters.
A white militia was then formed to capture all of the conspirators. Prosser escaped, and encountered a white captain, Richardson Taylor, of a ship who offered to help him to escape to freedom. However a slave named Billy who was also sailing on board the ship turned Prosser in, thinking he’d get the $300 reward for Prosser’s capture. In the end, the traitor only got $50.
Prosser eventually went to trial and was executed by hanging on October 10, 1800.
The 2nd slave uprising occurred in Stono, South Carolina and is referred to as Cato’s Conspiracy. The uprising was led by a native African from Kongo named Cato, or at times referred to as Jemmy, who was literate and forced into Catholicism by his slave master. Because there were ongoing civil wars in the Kongo, it is believed that Cato likely was part of a militia, captured, and sold into slavery.
Cato gathered 20 other slaves to escape to Florida on September 9, 1739. During that time, the British and Spanish were at war, and in an effort to destabilize British rule, the Spanish had promised freedom and land at St. Augustine to slaves who escaped from the British colonies. It is believed that the promise of “freedom” and “land” was the catalyst for Cato’s decision to head to Florida.
Carrying a flag that read “Liberty,” the group began their march near the Stono River. Their first mission was to raid a store, killing 2 storekeepers, in order to retrieve weaponry and ammunition. As they continued, they burned down plantations and killed whites. Eventually, more slaves joined the revolt, totaling 80.
South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor William Bull gathered roughly 20-100 white men to fight Jemmy’s group. In the end, 20 whites and 44 slaves had been killed. The whites decapitated the captured slaves, placing their heads on display to warn other slaves about the consequences of escaping. Some of the slaves that were apart of the revolt had escaped, but were later caught by hired Indians and Africans. Those slaves were eventually killed.
This particular rebellion resulted in passing of the Negro Act of 1740, which restricted slave assembly, education, and movement.
Denmark Vesey was a slave from St. Thomas who was originally sold to a slave master, but was returned because of his supposed “epileptic fits.” Therefore, Vesey remained with the original slave trader, Captain Joseph Vesey, until he retired to Charleston.
Ultimately, Vesey won the East Bay lottery for $1500 and purchased his freedom for $600. Unfortunately, he was unable to purchase the freedom of his wife and kids, which is believed to have set the stage for his decision to plan a revolt.
Vesey became a preacher at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1817. Because of whites continual disruption of church services and arrest of members, Vesey became fed up and decided to initiate the plan to rebel. He partnered with an East African priest named Gullah Jack. Together, they inspired others to join their revolt by preaching scripture from the Old Testament, especially Exodus, and proclaiming that “that they were the New Israelites, the chosen people whose enslavement God would punish with death.”
It is believed that nearly 3000 men joined the revolt. Vesey and his team planned to seize Charleston’s arsenals and guard houses, kill the Governor, set fire to the city, and kill every white man they saw on July 14. However, several slaves decided to betray the mission and inform their masters of what the plans were. Eventually, Vesey, Gullah Jack, and 33 others were all killed.
In the aftermath of the Vesey rebellion, the African Church was burned down and authorities passed a series of laws further restricting the rights of Charleston slaves. Vesey became a martyr for African-Americans and a symbol for the abolitionist movement, while the increasingly militant politics of white America dragged the country toward Civil War.
The most “celebrated” slave uprising occurred in Southampton County, Virginia and was led by slave preacher Nat Turner in 1831. He was born on October 2, 1800 in Southampton County, Virginia. Because he was extremely intelligent, and able to recite events that had occurred prior to his birth, he was viewed as a prophet. Ultimately, he primarily focused on studying the words of God and fasting.
Turner claimed to have had several “visions,” which ultimately led him to believing they were signs from God, instructing him to fight back against oppression and slavery.
On August 13, there was an atmospheric disturbance in which the sun appeared bluish-green. This was the final sign, and a week later, on August 21, Turner and six of his men met in the woods to eat a dinner and make their plans. At 2:00 that morning, they set out to the Travis household, where they killed the entire family as they lay sleeping. They continued on, from house to house, killing all of the white people they encountered. Turner’s force eventually consisted of more than 40 slaves, most on horseback.
A white militia was formed and eventually disorganized the revolt. Turner escaped, but was ultimately captured on October 30. His “Confession,” dictated to physician Thomas R. Gray, was taken while he was imprisoned in the County Jail. On November 5, Nat Turner was tried in the Southampton County Court and sentenced to execution. He was hanged, and then skinned, on November 11.
Spreading terror throughout the white South, his action set off a new wave of oppressive legislation prohibiting the education, movement, and assembly of slaves and stiffened proslavery, anti-abolitionist convictions that persisted in that region until the American Civil War (1861–65).