SLAVE REVOLTS

Resistance to slavery occasionally moved beyond such individual and group acts of defiance to outright rebellion. The four largest conspiracies in American history occurred within the space of thirty-one years in the early nineteenth century. The first, organized by the Virginia slave Gabriel in 1800, was discussed in Chapter 8. It was followed eleven years later by an uprising on sugar plantations upriver from New Orleans. Somewhere between 200 and 500 men and women, armed with sugarcane knives, axes, clubs, and a few guns, marched toward the city, destroying property as they proceeded. The white population along the route fled in panic to New Orleans. Within two days, the militia and regular army troops met the rebels and dispersed them in a pitched battle, killing sixty-six. Soon afterwards, the principal leaders were executed. Captured rebels offered little explanation for their revolt other than the desire, as one put it, “to kill the white.” But they seem to have been inspired by the recent success of the slave revolution in Haiti.

A lithograph depicting Joseph Cinque', leader of the slave revolt on the Spanish ship Amistad off the coast of Cuba in 1839. The ship was eventually seized near Long Island. After a long legal battle, the Supreme Court allowed the slaves to return to Africa.

The next major conspiracy was organized in 1822 by Denmark Vesey, a slave carpenter in Charleston, South Carolina, who had purchased his freedom after winning a local lottery. An outspoken, charismatic leader, Vesey rebuked blacks who stepped off the city’s sidewalks to allow whites to pass and took a leading role in the local African Methodist Church. His conspiracy reflected the combination of American and African influences then circulating in the Atlantic world and coming together in black culture. “He studied the Bible a great deal,” recalled one of his followers, “and tried to prove from it that slavery and bondage is against the Bible.” Vesey also quoted the Declaration of Independence, pored over newspaper reports of the debates in Congress regarding the Missouri Compromise, and made pronouncements like “all men had equal rights, blacks as well as whites.” And he read to his coconspirators accounts of the successful slave revolution in Haiti. The African heritage was present in the person of Vesey’s lieutenant Gullah Jack, a religious “conjurer” from Angola who claimed to be able to protect the rebels against injury or death. The plot was discovered before it could reach fruition.

As in the case of many slave conspiracies, evidence about the Vesey plot is contradictory and disputed. Much of it comes from a series of trials in which the court operated in secret and failed to allow the accused to confront those who testified against them. South Carolina’s governor, Thomas Bennett Jr., a number of whose slaves were among the accused, complained to Robert Y. Hayne, the state’s attorney general, that the court proceedings violated “the rules which universally obtain among civilized nations.” Hayne replied that to try a “free white man” under such circumstances would clearly violate his fundamental rights. But, he added, “slaves are not entitled to these rights,” since “all the provisions of our constitution in favor of liberty are intended for freemen only.” In the end, thirty dive slaves and free blacks, among them Vesey and three slaves belonging to the governor, were executed and an equal number banished from the state.

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