A Select Few: Leading A Successful Slave Rebellion
In a time when simply living was a struggle, only a select few were able to gather enough courage to lead their fellow slaves. The prominent individuals like Nat Turner and Denmark Vessey were able to stand up against already formed racial oppression with radical movements. Revolts like the New York Rebellion, which made large impacts for the advancement of slaves around the United States were made by similar radicals. Why is it that certain people were able to lead others and be remembered for doing so while others were forgotten in hundreds of years of texts? Few were able to harness certain abilities that helped them lead the masses. These leaders mainly took on the roles of a prophet, conjurer or doctor. Each having similar motives, they used different techniques to manipulate and lead their fellow slaves in order to complete their plans.
Nat Turner, held a position in leading as a prophet with his revolt, a prophet being a person who speaks for God or a deity, or by divine inspiration and, according to popular belief, possessing magical powers. Turner acquired a reputation of being “intelligent beyond his years,” (Kaye 705) at a young age. In Anthony E. Kaye’s, “Neighborhoods and Nat Turner: The Making of a Slave Rebel and the Unmaking of a Slave Rebellion,” Kaye states that “when [Nat] was a boy, no one had taught Nat his letters. But when his family handed him a book to stop his crying, he spelled the objects pictured, a source of wonder to all in the neighborhood” (Kaye 705). Turner was seen as “[having] a restless, observant, inquisitive mind. He preached to other slaves, counseling them to seek self-respect, to fight for justice, and to resist and rebel against the institution of slavery if they were to be free men” (Asante 1). From this, Nat achieved the title of a Prophet from his neighbors. In the beginning of Nat Turner’s prophecy to his neighborhood of Southampton, Virginia, his neighbors faith in him surpassed that in which Turner had in himself. This notion of Turner being humble to his purpose on earth seen by the neighbors, generated a following to Turner in the slave community. Turner trying to find what his real purpose was on earth, continued to pray, fast, and reflect on his scriptures;
He prayed upon it daily, even at the plow, and there “the spirit that spoke to the prophets in former days” appeared to Turner and spoke the words himself: “Seek ye the kingdom of Heaven and all things shall be added unto you.” Only after two more years of prayer did the Spirit reveal himself a second time, and only then was Turner at long last convinced of what his neighbors had known all along: His “wisdom came from God.” (Kaye 710)
Turner read his Bible daily and extracted from it what it felt was necessary for daily living. He was constantly fasting, praying, and reading up on scriptures. Once Turner received these revelations from the “Spirit”, his faith in himself surpassed that of his neighbors, and in May 1828 the spirit once again told Turner it was now time “to begin ‘the great work’ and commence the ‘fight against the serpent’” (Kaye 714). Even though Turner possessed a multitude of faith into a higher power, with every divine occurrence, his faith in himself also grew.
Nat Turner began to inform others about his purpose, and there were four in which Turner had most confidence. The four confederates were, Hark Travis, who lived on the same farm as Turner, Sam Francis, Henry Porter, and Nelson Edwards, that all lived nearby Turner. It was August 21, 1831 that Turner commenced with his four confederates for dinner at Cabin Pond, which was merely a mile north of his owner’s house. Turner added one of Sam Francis’ fellow slaves, Will, to his rebellion here and then began to discuss the details to everyone. The rebellion was initiated that very night, on the farm of Samuel Turner, Nat’s owner. Turner entered first, and was supposed to be the killer to the first victim, Joseph Travis, but with his reluctance to kill, Will Francis was the one whom killed Travis with a blow from his axe. As these rebels made it through the neighborhood, more men joined and the momentum was found in this rebellion. They hit several houses, gaining more support from fellow slaves at each house. When the number of rebels hit fifteen, they decided to break up into two forces because there were enough people to have strong enough forces in two groups. This then allowed them to hit several farms at once.
After the success of revolt in Turner’s neighborhood, they decided to go out of their neighborhood. When entering into the next neighborhood, there were forty people waiting for Turner and his rebels cheering and ready to help. With forces at nearly sixty now, Turner decided to change the strategy from a surprise attack, which they have been doing since the beginning, to an attack that would initiate more fear into the next victims of their attack. After two days of rebellion, these rebels were sought out by the military. Getting down to only two recruits, Turner returned back to his neighborhood on August 23, 1831. Most of the rebels were caught and executed, as Turner was hiding out for ten weeks. He was hiding in his neighborhood at random locations, such as a local vacant cave. It is thought that he had been obtaining help from fellow slaves, because he was able to be unseen for quite a long amount of time. Nat Turner was eventually captured by the military and executed on November 11, 1831. As demonstrated, because of the confidence that Turner held in himself, through his prophet like ruling, he was able to attain several confederates along the way to join him in his revolt.
Someone influential in slave communities, such as a prophet or conjurer, often practiced forms of medicine. With this additional knowledge, as discussed in the “Conjure, Magic and Power” article, they would be seen as “formidable and respected figure among enslaved Africans” (Rucker 84) and in turn possess a greater ability to recruit slaves to follow them. With the respect of their peers they had the ability to act as a leader and influence those around them to following them—in the context of this class, sometimes into a revolt.
One of the most common medicines conjurers practiced was called Aduru. Aduru, performed within the Akan and Obeah peoples, specifically Jamaican Obeah doctors, is the practice of any medicine in the form of liquid or powder. The aduru manipulated plants, herbs, human blood and various other substances to make benevolent medicine, malevolent medicine or poison (Rucker 89). There were several historical examples given of slaves who practiced in this manner. The first and perhaps most noted was Peter the Doctor.
Peter the Doctor was a slave who was looked at as a respected figure on the plantation. In an effort to instill enough confidence in his peers for them to agree to revolt against slave owners, he claimed to have a magic powder that was said to create invulnerability. He rubbed this powder onto his fellow slaves and together they revolted in what was the 1712 New York City slave rebellion, the most serious slave disturbance of that time (Rucker 86).
Another example of this practice was used by Gullah Jack, who, alongside Denmark Vesey, a former slave who bought his freedom with lottery earnings (Marck), was said to have assisted in the plotting of conspiracies in New York in 1741, Richmond in 1800, and Charleston in 1822 (Rucker 91). Charleston was another instance where slaves wanted the support of their peers in order to execute a successful resistance. To do this, Jack, instead of utilizing a powder substance, provided slaves with crab claws that were said to render “invincibility.” He had rebels place crab claws in their mouths the morning of the uprising to make them invulnerable (92). Together Gullah Jack and Denmark Vesey were able to organize 9,000 slaves in Charleston, after Jack had given the rebels invulnerability, only to later to have Vesey call off the revolt. (Marck 1)
It is necessary to note the true reason these people practicing forms of medicine were looked at so highly. These slaves were looked at as authoritative figures almost solely due to the fact that they possessed the ability to use their skills in a negative way, thus they were feared by masters as well as slaves (Rucker 85). Medicine could be distinguished between three categories: benevolent, malevolent as well as poison. The most influential medicines, malevolent medicine and poisons, were powerful because they could potentially be used to harm slaves, creating an even more unbearable living environment.
In the present, the “medicine” practiced by conjurers and prophets are not recognized as legitimate medicine practices but rather cultural practices. Prophets and conjurers are recognized as a cultural bridge between West African people and the Americas because they were able to transcend cultural differences between African groups (Rucker 91).
Leaders were a necessity in order to complete the slave rebellions and revolts that took place over those dreadful years. The ability to manipulate the human mind and control groups through rhetoric is a power rivaled only by force. Though the techniques used to lead the rebellions were not always the most truthful or elegant, they were needed in order to achieve the order and control necessary for a successful revolt. Though the slaves that helped the revolts were not just pawns to the leaders. They were helping because they knew that the only way they would gain their freedom was through movements such as the New York rebellion. That is why revolts continued to take place even with such a low rate of success.
The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron.
This novel gives you a first person narrative from Nat Turner, that discusses the revolt that occurred in Southampton, Virginia in 1831. It is also the 1967 Pulitzer- Prize winner.
The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion by Stephanie R. Oates.
This novel demonstrates the intensity of the revolt led by Nat Turner. It also accounts for the revolts that occurred after Nat Turner’s revolt and the eventual lead up to the civil war.
The Conjure Woman by Charles Waddell Chesnutt.
This is a collection of short stories that focus on conjure, plantation life and dehumanization as a slave.
- Given the option of being a prophet or being a conjure, which would your group find ideal when trying to lead a rebellion? Why?
- Do you believe it is more affective than the other? Why?
- How would you use your authority to engage the fellow slaves into your revolt?
- Are authoritative figures that utilize prophetic or conjured approaches present in leadership today?
Asante, Molefi. “Nathaniel Turner.” Africa Within. Web. 10 Mar. 2011. <http://www.africawithin.com/bios/nat_turner.htm>.
Kaye, Anthony E. “Neighborhoods and Nat Turner: The Making of a Slave Rebel and the Unmaking of a Slave Rebellion.” Journal of the Early Republic 27.4 (2007): 705-20. Print.
Marck, John T. “Denmark Vesey – History Celebrities.” Home Articles Author. Web. 10 Mar. 2011. <http://www.aboutfamouspeople.com/article1189.html>.
Maryland State Archives. “Nat Turner Rebellion.” Teaching American History in Maryland – Documents for the Classroom – Maryland State Archives. 13 July 2005. Web. 02 Mar. 2011. <http://teachingamericanhistorymd.net/000001/000000/000146/html/t146.html>.
“Nat Turner – Great People of Color.” Marcus Garvey – The Official Site. Web. 02 Mar. 2011.
“”Possession” Award-Winning Nat Turner Short Film.” YouTube – Broadcast Yourself. 2 Oct. 2010. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wub3XUoQAgQ>.
“Prophet | Define Prophet at Dictionary.com.” Dictionary.com | Free Online Dictionary for English Definitions. Web. 02 Mar. 2011. <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/prophet>.
Raza, Azra. “Slave Rebellions: Denmark Vesey.” 3quarksdaily. 7 Feb. 2009. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2009/02/slave-rebellions-denmark-vesey.html>.
Rucker, Walter. “Conjure, Magic, and Power: The Influence of Afro-Atlantic Religious Practices on Slave Resistance and Rebellion.” Journal of Black Studies 32.1 (2001): 84-103. Print.