There were as many as 250 slave revolts in the American South during the antebellum period before the American Civil War. But it was the uprising in Southampton County, Virginia, led by Nat Turner that, by the scale of its ferocity, caused the greatest shock.
Born a slave on 2 October 1800, the young Nat delighted and astounded his fellow slaves by describing events from before he was born. He was given the surname, Turner, from his original owner. The boy, his parents exclaimed, was a prophet. The son of Nat’s master taught the young Nat to read, and he grew up a pious, God-fearing man, influenced by visions or messages from God. He devoured the bible, prayed and fasted and became convinced that God had chosen him to lead his fellow slaves out of servitude.
Listening to God
Aged 21, Turner ran away from his master but voluntarily returned after a month having received God’s instruction to ‘return to the service of my earthly master’.
In 1830, Turner was sold to a new master, Joseph Travis, whom Turner described as a kind master. But however ‘kind’ he may have been, Travis would not survive the coming bloodbath that Turner, with God’s help, was now planning.
An eclipse of the sun in February 1831 was interpreted by Turner as the hand of a black man covering the sun, a sure sign that the time had come. Having enlisted the help of four fellow salves, Turner prepared, only to fall ill. His people would have to wait and endure a while longer.
Six months later, however, he received a second Holy prompt – another solar eclipse. Again, Turner confided in his most trusted companions and again he made his plans. This time there was to be no turning back.
At 2 am on 22 August 1831, Turner and his small band of conspirators quietly broke into the Travis home and, armed with hatchets and axes, slayed the whole family as they lay asleep, including an infant. (He had decided against the use of guns because of the noise). From there, they moved from house to house silently killing whites, young and old. Along the way, they freed manacled blacks.
It took almost ten hours before the alarm was sounded, by which time 55 whites had been killed and Turner’s party numbered forty blacks. Federal troops rushed to the scene. The rebels scattered, a few were captured straight away. Turner escaped and over the next two months, moved from one hiding place to another. Finally, on 30 October, he was discovered hiding in a hole and arrested (pictured).
Whilst awaiting trial, Turner dictated his biography and confession to his assigned lawyer, Thomas R Gray, who later later had them published as The Confessions of Nat Turner.
The Southampton court had no hesitation in sentencing Nat Turner to death and on 11 November 1831, Turner was executed by being hung, skinned and beheaded. 19 others had already been hung.
Turner’s rebellion caused great shock among the white American South. Freed blacks had their privileges restricted, slaves were banned from learning to read lest education should produce another Turner, while white mobs murdered scores of defenceless blacks in a frenzy of revenge.
Twelve years later, the black abolitionist, Henry Highland Garnet, gave an impassioned speech, praising Turner, ‘The patriotic Nathaniel Turner was goaded to desperation by wrong and injustice. By despotism, his name has been recorded on the list of infamy, but future generations will number him upon the noble and brave’
Gathered together in one collection, 60 of Rupert Colley’s history articles, The Savage Years: Tales From the 20th Century, is now available.