Nat Turner -- and the Others Like Him
Custom, & the Ports
Nat Turner, & Others
The Southern Slopes
The Mission Coasts
Mills & Planters
Silver & opium
Alamán & Calhoun
Rancheros & Pilots
The War of the South
Siege & Contagion
A Note on Then and Now
What They Called "Civil War"
Outcomes, and Vision
|There are those who would say that the Denmark Vesey conspiracy, in
the South Carolina of 1822, worked mostly in the paranoid imagination of
slaveholders like Joel Roberts Poinsett.
And some would say that the conspiracy of La
Escalera, in the Cuba of 1844, was just talked up by the authorities
to justify repression.
The same logic would have it that Nat Turner, who really did rebel in the Virginia of 1831, acted in a vacuum: But:
The slaves of Virginia and the Carolinas enjoyed an extended personal network. They shared news and reactions, even if their own network was no hierarchy that could command them into action. News could be picked up from whites -- or passed on to whites. Because the slave network operated well for transmitting information, but poorly for maintaining organization, any action by the network as a whole was likely to result from some "sporadic" increase in local anger, which then aroused echoes and repeats through the area.Nat Turner was not alone. There were others, in three directions:
There was an obvious difference between the larger tropical colonies, like Guyana or Jamaica, and the 19th-century North American continent. In Carolina and Virginia, slaves could and did rebel. But they had little in the way of a backcountry where they might establish communities of their own.Exclusive attention to Turner as hero or martyr is one of the stranger forms taken by U.S. cultural nationalism. The concentration on one individual, there, ignores the breadth of conflict in other parts of the continent.
- When fugitives hid in the Great Dismal Swamp, between North Carolina and Virginia, they were not finding there an area where they could use either African or American techniques of subsistence agriculture -- let alone establish a safe refuge.
- The Gabriel Prosser rebellion in Virginia, at the beginning of the century, demonstrated that slaves who worked in the river traffic could use that role to organize; but, when they failed, one result was a tightening of regulations against the employment of slaves as boatmen or printers -- that is, in any job that would help them build networks of communication.
- The Denmark Vesey conspiracy, in Charleston in 1822, could frighten slaveowners. Short of an unlikely cataclysm, it could not "win," because there was nothing to win, no base of military operations that could evolve into a territorial community.
Turner's individual charisma and individual failure were less important than the responsiveness, the organic aliveness of the slave network in his area. Even when potential activists were isolated within the whole slave population, they could observe how individuals reacted to the reports that drifted in, about attacks on slavery in other areas. The outbreak of 1831 was less an actual rebellion, than it was a confrontation between two networks: between the main body of the criollo network on the one hand, equipped with elaborate physical resources, and a diffuse personal network of slaves, whose equipment consisted of words and labor power.
The individual slaves and free blacks who built up systems of trade and farm operations, and the individual preachers who built up systems of prophecy, were working out different aspects of the same thing, a network for possessing as much as they could of their own universe.
The slaves' sense of connectedness reflected the way discipline was exerted over them. They, and their family members, were in constant danger that slaveowners would use them as marketable items, to be separated, moved at will from one part of the continent to another. This threat helped to keep them under discipline. When the younger sons of plantation owners left the area, taking some of the slaves and joining the land boom in Mississippi and Texas, this move reinforced the convergence between liberal speculation and conservative discipline. Sensitive to the effects of this nation-building combination, slaves were already building up their own systems of connection.
Turner described how, several years before the rebellion, his visions leapt beyond what slaves around him understood. In the words reported by a white who took them down:
About this time I was placed under an overseer, from whom I ranaway -- and after remaining in the woods thirty days, I returned, to the astonishment of the negroes on the plantation. who thought I had made my escape to some other part of the country, as my father had done before. But the reason of my return was, that the Spirit appeared to me and said that I had my wishes directed to the things of this world, and not to the kingdom of Heaven, and that I should return to the service of my earthly master. ... And the negroes found fault, and murmured against me, and said that if they had my sense they would not serve any master in the world. And about this time I had a vision -- and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened -- the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams -- and I heard a voice saying, "Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bare it."
The elements Turner envisioned had their practical counterpart in the way slaves around there dealt with life. On one plantation in Washington County, North Carolina, hardly a hundred miles from Turner's ground, slaves were quick to pick up on any slackening in the overseer's control. Early in 1836, while their owner was off in Washington as a member of Congress, it was the drivers who led the crew in taking over for a great celebration and holiday. One ring-leader, Henry, got a hundred lashes for his pains, and the congressman came scurrying back to re-order things. As the years went on, Henry would go off to the swamps for a time, then return. He was on the property a quarter of a century later when the U.S. Army brought emancipation. He claimed the plantation as his own for several months, giving orders to other ex-slaves. Then he went off to establish a small farm. All along, he paid attention to what he heard from the world, but pushed for what he could get.
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