Slave rebellions were a continuous source of fear in the American South, especially since black slaves accounted for more than one-third of the region’s population in the 18th century. Laws dictating when, where and how slaves could congregate were enacted to prevent insurrection and quell white paranoia. It’s estimated there were at least 250 slave rebellions in America before slavery was abolished in 1865.
Because plantations in the South were smaller than those in other parts of the Americas—and because whites often outnumbered slaves—slave rebellions in the South were less frequent than in the Caribbean and South America.
Additionally, slavery in America was rigorously policed to a degree that made rebellion a near-impossibility. Most slave revolts occurred outside the plantation system, in larger cities or areas of small farms. In these locales, slave controls were more lax and rebellious slaves could move about more freely.
The largest slave rebellion outside the United States was the successful insurrection of black slaves that overthrew French rule and abolished slavery in Saint Domingue, thereby establishing the independent nation of Haiti.
SLAVE REVOLTS BEGIN
The first recorded slave revolt in the United States happened in Gloucester, Virginia, in 1663, an event involving white indentured servants as well as black slaves.
In 1672, there were reports of fugitive slaves forming groups to harass plantation owners. The first recorded all-black slave revolt occurred in Virginia in 1687.
Virginia was the host of several thwarted uprisings, including one in Richmond in 1800 and Spotsylvania County in 1815, but the state was also the scene of the most notorious slave rebellion in American history: Nat Turner’s Revolt.
Slave Nat Turner was self-educated and prone to religious visions, which fueled his belief that a Day of Judgment was coming. In 1831, he enlisted the help of several other men to rebel.
In the morning hours of August 22, Nat Turner and his group murdered their master and his family. After swelling in size to about 60 slaves by afternoon, with more killing and a face-off with a white posse, the group scattered, and Virginia prepared for war. In the aftermath, about 60 slaves were executed.
Turner hid in a hole for a month and a half before discovery. Brought to trial, he was hanged a week later. John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859 was inspired in part by Nat Turner’s rebellion.
One of the bloodiest slave rebellions, known as the Stono Rebellion or Cato’s Conspiracy, started in South Carolina in 1739, at the Stono River Bridge near Charleston.
One September morning, 20 slaves broke into a store, stole weapons and supplies and headed for the refuge of Spanish-ruled Florida, leaving 23 murder victims in their path.
Growing into a group of 100 upon arriving in Florida, the rebels stopped in an open field and made a ruckus in hopes other slaves would hear them and join. A local militia confronted the group, with most of the escaped slaves caught and executed.
Charleston had 19 years earlier been the center of a plotted revolt by 14 slaves planning to destroy plantations and attack Charleston. Betrayed, they fled, attempted to convince Creek Indians to join their uprising and were captured in Savannah, Georgia. All were executed upon return to Charleston.
In 1816 in Camden, slaves planned to set fire to the town and kill the white population. Seventeen slaves were arrested and seven executed. In 1829, a more successful attempt saw 85 buildings torched and razed to the ground.
NEW YORK SLAVE REVOLTS
In the 18th century, slaves comprised 20 percent of the population in New York City, and 1712 saw the city as host to a significant revolt centering on enslaved warriors from Africa’s Gold Coast.
Earlier in the year, some slaves planned an uprising in April with local Indians. Armed with guns, swords, knives, and axes, 23 men gathered in an orchard at the northern tip of the city before setting fire to a slave owner’s home.
A group of white men arrived to put out the fire and were ambushed—nine of them were killed. Soldiers were dispatched, and the rebels had fled to the forest, where they were eventually captured, though six committed suicide. After trials, 27 slaves were convicted, with 21 of them killed in public executions.
In 1708, a slave uprising in Long Island resulted in the death of seven whites and the execution of four slaves.
In 1741 in New York City, after a robbery in February and several arsons over the next few months, police believed a revolt was brewing and rounded up black men, both slaves and free. A series of trials followed with resulting executions and deportations, though the alleged conspiracy is now considered a fabrication by the judge and some witnesses, fueled by hysteria.
Albany was also the scene of several alleged plots that were foiled, including one in 1793 in which a group of slaves burned down several buildings.
GERMAN COAST UPRISING
The 1811 German Coast uprising was the largest slave revolt in American history, given the numbers of people involved.
Taking place along the Mississippi River north of New Orleans, in an area known as the German Coast, the ultimate plan was to destroy sugar cane plantations, free every slave in the state and take control of New Orleans.
On January 8 about 30 slaves entered their owner’s mansion, killing the master’s son while the master fled to warn other plantation owners, which sent mobs of frantic whites fleeing to New Orleans.
The rebels armed themselves and left to destroy the nearest plantation, joined by other slaves and eventually numbering more than 100 people. Abandoning their march to New Orleans, they slipped away from soldiers and retraced their steps north.
A group of nearly 100 planters confronted the slaves, who had taken refuge in a plantation. About 40 slaves were killed. Some were captured and forced to watch injured rebels get tortured. Others escaped into the swamp, only to be tracked down and killed.
The majority of the German Coast slaves put on trial for rebellion were found guilty and executed, with their mutilated corpses put on public display for other slaves to see.
AMISTAD SHIP REVOLT
Shipboard slave revolts weren’t uncommon in the 18th century. In 1764 the slave ship Hope erupted in rebellion, with men in the hold forcing their way on deck twice and killing nine crew members before eventually being seized by Spanish forces.
The most famous revolt at sea took place on the Spanish slave ship Amistad in 1839, involving Africans being shipped out of Cuba. The 53 men seized control of the vessel and spared the lives of two Cubans who promised to maneuver the boat back to Africa.
After wandering the seas for two months, the ship docked in Long Island, where the Africans were taken into custody and endured a two-year-long court battle for their freedom. In January 1842, they were able to return to West Africa.
The only successful slave revolt on an American ship happened in November 1841 when the Creole left Richmond for New Orleans to sell a cargo of tobacco and 135 slaves.
A fight between guards and slaves turned into a full rampage onboard. Once the slaves seized control, they set course for the Bahamas, where all 135 slaves were given their freedom.
CIVIL WAR-ERA SLAVE REVOLTS
Just before the outbreak of the Civil War, there were numerous attempted insurgencies. In 1859, on the plantation of former President James K. Polk in Mississippi, his widow watched as armed slaves barricaded themselves in protest.
In 1860, 14 cities in north Texas faced arson via a plot between slaves and white co-conspirators. There were multiple repeated eruptions in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and other Southern states.
In 1861, heartened by the attack on Fort Sumter, a group of slaves in Adams County, Mississippi, tried to time an uprising with the arrival of Union troops. Word got out about the plot through a child, which resulted in the execution of as many as 40 slaves. This scenario also involved several white co-conspirators.
Throughout the Civil War, there were reports of conspiracies and unrest among slaves all over the South, coming to an end only with the defeat of the Confederate States of America and finally, in 1865, emancipation.
Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion. Junius P. Rodriguez, ed.
American Negro Slave Revolts. Hebert Aptheker.
Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors.
American Slave Revolts and Conspiracies. Kerry Walters.