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Nat Turner

Nat Turner (October 2, 1800 – November 11, 1831) was an African-American slave who led a slave rebellion of slaves and free blacks in Southampton County, Virginia on August 21,1831, that resulted in 60 white deaths. He led a group of other slave followers carrying farm implements on a killing spree. As they went from Plantation to Plantation they gathered horses, guns, freed other slaves along the way, and recruited other blacks that wanted to join their revolt. At the end of their rebellion they were accused of the deaths of fifty white people.[2] Virginia legislators also targeted free blacks with a colonization bill, which allocated new funding to remove them, and a police bill that denied free blacks trials by jury and made any free blacks convicted of a crime subject to sale and relocation.[3] Whites organized militias and called out regular troops to suppress the rising. In addition, mobs attacked blacks in the area killing an estimated total of 100-200, many not involved at all with the revolt.

In the aftermath, the state quickly arrested and executed 57 blacks accused of being part of Turner's slave rebellion. An estimated 200 blacks were killed by white militias and mobs, often after having been beaten.[5] Turner hid successfully for two months. When found, he was quickly tried, convicted, sentenced to death, and hanged. Across Virginia and other southern states, state legislators passed new laws to control slaves and free blacks. They prohibited education of slaves and free blacks, restricted rights of assembly for free blacks, withdrew their right to bear arms (in some states), voting, and required white ministers to be present at all black worship services.


Early years

Born into slavery on October 2, 1800, in Southampton County, Virginia, his name was recorded as "Nat" by his master Benjamin Turner, and when Benjamin Turner died in 1810 Nat became the property of Benjamin’s brother Samuel Turner.[6] By the Civil War era, sources referred to him as Nathaniel, and gave him the surname of his master in the white slaveholder custom of the time. Historians also adopted that convention. Turner knew little about the background of his father who was believed to have escaped from slavery when Turner was a young boy.

Novelist William Styron suggests that Turner remained close to his paternal grandmother, Old Bridget, who was also owned by Benjamin Turner. Further, in his Confessions of Nat Turner, Styron wrote that Old Bridget, captured at 13 and shipped to America, was of the Coromantee, also known as the Akan people from the area of present-day Ghana. The Coromantee were known to resist slavery. Robert Hanserd[7] related that through its holy men, the Coromantee participated in or even led slave revolts in the Caribbean and in New York. As Styron did not reference sources and made clear his book was a work of fiction, this depiction of Old Bridget is of unclear provenance.[8]

Turner spent his life in Southampton County, Virginia, a plantation area where enslaved laborers were the majority of the population.[9] He was identified as having "natural intelligence and quickness of apprehension, surpassed by few."[10] He learned to read and write at a young age. Deeply religious, Nat was seen fasting, praying, or immersed in reading the stories of the Bible.[11]

Turner's religious convictions manifested as frequent visions which he interpreted as messages from God. Turner's belief in the visions was such that when Turner was 22 years old he ran away from his owner but returned a month later after receiving a spiritual revelation. Turner often conducted Baptist services, preaching the Bible to his fellow slaves who dubbed him "The Prophet". Turner garnered white followers such as Ethelred T. Brantley, who Turner was credited with having convinced to "cease from his wickedness".

After the rebellion, a reward notice described Turner as:

5 feet 6 or 8 inches high, weighs between 150 and 160 pounds, rather bright complexion, but not a mulatto, broad shoulders, larger flat nose, large eyes, broad flat feet, rather knockkneed, walks brisk and active, hair on the top of the head very thin, no beard, except on the upper lip and the top of the chin, a scar on one of his temples, also one on the back of his neck, a large knot on one of the bones of his right arm, near the wrist, produced by a blow.[13]

Turner was proclaimed as a prophet by his fellow black slaves on the plantation. In early 1828, Turner was convinced that he "was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty."[14][15] While working in his owner's fields on May 12, Turner "heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first."[16]

“In connecting this vision to the motivation for his rebellion, Turner makes it clear that he sees himself as participating in the confrontation between God’s Kingdom and the anti-Kingdom that characterized his social-historical context."[17] He was convinced that God had given him the task of "slay[ing] my enemies with their own weapons."[16] Turner said, "I communicated the great work laid out for me to do, to four in whom I had the greatest confidence" – his fellow slaves Henry, Hark, Nelson, and Sam.[16]

Beginning in February 1831, Turner interpreted certain atmospheric conditions as a sign to begin preparations for a rebellion against the slave owners. On February 11, 1831, an annular solar eclipse was seen in Virginia and Turner envisioned this as a black man's hand reaching over the sun. He initially planned the rebellion to begin on July 4, Independence Day. Turner postponed it because of illness and to use the delay for additional planning and deliberation with his co-conspirators. On August 13 there was another solar eclipse in which the sun appeared bluish-green, possibly the result of lingering atmospheric debris from an eruption of Mount St. Helens. Turner interpreted this as the final signal, and about a week later, on August 21, he began the uprising. Rebellion Main article: Nat Turner's slave rebellion

Turner started with a few trusted fellow slaves. “All his initial recruits were other slaves from his neighborhood”.[18] The neighborhood had to find ways to communicate their intentions without giving up their plot. Songs may have tipped the neighborhood members on movements. “It is believed that one of the ways Turner summoned fellow conspirators to the woods was through the use of particular songs.”[19] The rebels traveled from house to house, freeing slaves and killing the white people they found. The rebels ultimately included more than 70 enslaved and free blacks.[20]

Because the rebels did not want to alert anyone to their presence as they carried out their attacks, they initially used knives, hatchets, axes, and blunt instruments instead of firearms.[21] The rebellion did not discriminate by age or sex until it was determined that the rebellion had achieved sufficient numbers. Nat Turner only confessed to killing one of the rebellion's victims, Margret Whitehead, whom he killed with a blow from a fence post.[21]

Before a white militia was able to respond, the rebels killed 60 men, women, and children.[22] They spared a few homes "because Turner believed the poor white inhabitants 'thought no better of themselves than they did of negros.'"[23][24] Turner also thought that revolutionary violence would serve to awaken the attitudes of whites to the reality of the inherent brutality in slave-holding, a concept similar to 20th-century philosopher Frantz Fanon's idea of "violence as purgatory".[25] Turner later said that he wanted to spread "terror and alarm" among whites.[26] Capture and execution Nat Turner captured by Mr. Benjamin Phipps, a local farmer

The rebellion was suppressed within two days, but Turner eluded capture by hiding in the woods until October 30, when he was discovered by a farmer named Benjamin Phipps, where he was hiding in a hole covered with fence rails. While awaiting his trial, Turner confessed his knowledge of the rebellion to attorney Thomas Ruffin Gray.[27] On November 5, 1831, he was tried for "conspiring to rebel and making insurrection", convicted and sentenced to death.[28] Turner was hanged on November 11 in Jerusalem, Virginia. His body was flayed, beheaded and quartered.[29] Turner received no formal burial; his headless remains were either buried unmarked or kept for scientific use. His skull is said to have passed through many hands, last being reported in the collection of a planned civil rights museum for Gary, Indiana, despite calls for its burial.[30]

In the aftermath of the insurrection, there were 45 slaves, including Turner, and five free blacks tried for insurrection and related crimes in Southampton. Of the 45 slaves tried, 15 were acquitted. Of the 30 convicted, 18 were hanged, while 12 were sold out of state. Of the five free blacks tried for participation in the insurrection, one was hanged, while the others were acquitted.[31]

Soon after Turner's execution, Thomas Ruffin Gray took it upon himself to publish The Confessions of Nat Turner, derived partly from research done while Turner was in hiding and partly from jailhouse conversations with Turner before trial. This work is considered the primary historical document regarding Nat Turner In total, the state executed 56 blacks suspected of having been involved in the uprising. But in the hysteria of aroused fears and anger in the days after the revolt, white militias and mobs killed an estimated 200 blacks, many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion. Slavery


Before Nat Turner's Revolt, there was a small but ineffectual antislavery movement in Virginia,[33] largely on account of economic trends that made slavery less profitable in the Old South in the 1820s and fears among whites of the rising number of blacks, especially in the Tidewater and Piedmont regions. The push for abolition in 1831 represented the interests of Herrenvolk democracy and white male suffrage. Enraged poor whites condemned the slave-owning aristocracy for endangering their families and retaining an unfair advantage in elections as a result of the 3/5 clause. Most of the movement's members, including acting governor John Floyd, supported resettlement of blacks to Africa for these reasons. The enlightenment thinking of Virginia's forefathers played little part in the Emancipation's Debates of 1831-2. Considerations of white racial and moral purity also influenced many of these anti-slavery Virginians. These concerns illustrated that Virginia position towards slavery was no longer "apologetic".

The fear caused by Nat Turner's insurrection and the concerns raised in the emancipation debates that followed resulted in politicians and writers responding by defining slavery as a "positive good".[34] Such authors included Thomas Roderick Dew, a William and Mary College professor who published a pamphlet in 1832 opposing emancipation on economic and other grounds.[35]

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