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The Peculiar Institution

27e. Rebellions on and off the Plantation

Gabriel Prosser
Gateway Virginia, The Richmond Times Dispatch
In 1800 Gabriel Prosser conspired to lead a march on Richmond, capture the governor, and start a revolution.

Starting as early as 1663, slaves were organizing revolts to regain their freedom. Hundreds of minor uprisings occurred on American plantations during the two and a half centuries of slavery. Most of the uprisings were small in scope and were put down easily. Some were larger in ambition and sent a chill down the spines of countless Southern planters. Two of the most famous revolts were in the early nineteenth century. One was led by Denmark Vesey and the other was led by Nat Turner.

Denmark Vesey earned his freedom by winning a lottery and purchasing his freedom. He worked as a carpenter in South Carolina as a respected artisan for years and was quite satisfied with his life. He was an educated man, fluent in several languages, which he learned while he was enslaved to a widely traveled slave trader. But a profound repulsion to slavery, plus encouragement from the successful slave revolt in Haiti led him to plan to murder every white in the South, with the help of thousands of slaves and supporters. The date was set for Sunday, July 24, 1822. Before the uprising began, his plan was revealed and he was captured, tried, and hanged. Forty-seven African-Americans were condemned to death for alleged involvement in the plot. An estimated 9,000 individuals were involved.

Nat Turner
The success of Nat Turner's slave revolt lead to fear among slaveholders. Slave codes became more strict with concerns that other slaves might rebel.

Nat Turner was somewhat of a mystic. He frequently was said to have religious visions, and he claimed at times to have spoken with God. In 1831, Turner claimed to be responding to one of these visions and organized about 70 slaves who went from plantation to plantation and murdered about 75 men, women and children. As they continued on their rampage they gathered additional supporters but when their ammunition was exhausted, they were captured. Turner and about 18 of his supporters were hanged. This was even more shocking than any previous uprising. Turner had done what others had not. He actually succeeded in killing a large number of white Southerners. The South responded by increasing slave patrols and tightening their ever more repressive slave codes.

Freedom fighter monument
The Haitian slaves commemorated in this monument gained their freedom in a revolt, inpiring Denmark Vesey.

Rebellion would often find voice in less dramatic ways and more personal ways. The slave codes bear witness to the growing fear of slave insurrection and revolt. Slaves ran away in droves, following the Underground Railroad to freedom in Canada and the Northern states. They fled to the Indians and joined them in their wars against the white settlers. Some accounts tell of slaves poisoning their masters and mistresses. Some slaves banded together and stopped working, while others deliberately slowed down their pace. The history of slave resistance and revolts is the story of the desperate and sometimes successful attempt of people to gain their liberty in the face of systematic repression and bondage.

On the Web
Vesey Insurrection Trial
Designed as a "lab exercise" by Baltimore City Community College, this website offers a very brief overview of the insurrection and links to excerpts of the South Carolina Negro Law of 1740 regarding testimony, Rules of Procedure, and testimony of several slaves accused of participating in the revolt.
Read the law and review the testimony of slaves accused of participating in the Charleston, South Carolina, slave insurrection. Guilty or innocent? Check your verdict against the Court's.
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