Born into slavery, Gabriel Prosser grew to be a strapping man, trained as a blacksmith and learned to read. He, his brothers, and his wife hatched a plan to not only free themselves, but all enslaved people in Virginia. His plan was to gather more men, take over the capital of Richmond and kill all the white people, except the Methodists, Quakers and the French. Prosser would then rule the new Kingdom of Virginia. The plan, didn’t work. My name…
Why didn’t they rebel? The truth is simple: they did. More than one-third of the population in the South in the 18th century were enslaved. In his book “American Negro Slave Revolts” (1943), historian Herbert Aptheker estimates that over 250 rebellions of enslaved people occurred in the United States between 1619 and 1865. Some historians put the number above 300. And even if they weren’t part of an armed uprising, many enslaved people would fight back in small ways — work slow-downs, feigning injury, tainting food, damaging equipment and so forth.
The New World had slave rebellions almost as long as people were enslaved there, the first documented rebellion taking place on Santa Domingo on Christmas day, 1522. Some rebellions managed to make it into history books and pop culture, like the seizure of the Amistad in, when a boat of kidnapped Africans overthrew their captors and took control of the ship to both win their freedom and be memorialized in a film by Steven Spielberg. The first recorded slave revolt in the United States happened an hour down the road from me in Gloucester, Virginia. In 1663, white indentured servants included enslaved Africans in their plan to do away with their master and be free. Another servant betrayed them and was rewarded with *his freedom. It would be nearly 25 years, as far as we know, before the first all-black slave revolt, again in Virginia.
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. It proved unequivocally that the enslaved could defeat their captors and live free. That precedent frightened enslavers on the mainland. 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. Slave owners on plantations knew this and actively repressed any signs of revolt. Laws dictating when, where and how slaves could congregate were enacted to prevent insurrection and quell white paranoia. It’s the same reason the enslaved were forbidden from learning to read or write. Words spread ideas and your captive may develop drapetomania, the medical condition –and let this make you grateful that your doctor actually went to school — it was the mental illness that caused black slaves to run away. Yeah. That’s what these folks told themselves, in case you thought the narrative myth of the happy slave was a more recent invention. With plantation populations under tight control, insurrections came from within cities or areas with lots of small farms rather than one big one.
Naturally, we don’t have time to talk about all 300 rebellions, so we’ll just hit some of the one that will make you ask why your high school history book included between 0 and 1 slave rebellions while at the same time definitely mentioning John Brown and Harper’s Ferry. Records are a bit spotty for our first subject, the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina in 1793. History is tainted by the teller and the preconceptions of the listener, plus there was only one firsthand contemporary account. Early on a late-summer Sunday morning, 20 enslaved people gathered near the Stono River. Why Sunday morning? A recently-passed law required all white men to carry firearms to church on Sunday, so the rebels made their move when the men and at least some of the guns would be elsewhere. Their leader was a literate enslaved man named Jemmy and called Cato. He was from the Kingdom of Kongo, modern day Angola, as were many of the other men, who were believed to have been warriors back in central Africa. That region was embroiled in intense civil wars and selling POW’s to slavers was a common practice. Rebellions work better if you’re armed, so the party first set upon a gun shop, killing the owner and arming themselves.
Loaded for bear, the group then marched down a main road in St. Paul’s Parish, beating drums and singing, carrying signs that say “Freedom” as they marched south for Florida, more on why Florida later. Along the way, they liberated more enslaved people, burning plantation houses and killing nearly two dozen enslavers as they went. This wasn’t thoughtless violence, although that would arguably have been justified. They let an innkeeper live because he was known to treat his enslaved people kindly. Not every enslaved person wanted to join them and it’s said some were forced to go along. It’s not that they didn’t want to be free, but they knew the odds…and the consequences.
Word has spread quickly through the surrounding area and white land-owners quickly formed a militia. It was this group that found the rebels before sundown that same day when the group, numbering nearly 100, stopped to rest. A firefight ensued, and though the rebels gave as good as they got, the battle ultimately went to the enslavers. 44 enslaved people were killed in the shoot-out or executed later, though it’s said some were spared if the enslavers believed they had been forced to join in.
The following year, as a direct result of the Stono Rebellion, South Carolina passed the 1740 Negro Act, which prohibited importing more enslaved Africans. Why? They knew they were outnumbered. At the time, there were more people in bondage in South Carolina than free and more revolts seemed inevitable. Some of the provisions of the Negro Act had existed in law already, but weren’t consistently enforced, like prohibiting slaves to gather, read and write, grow their own food, or work elsewhere to earn money. The act also required armed militias to regularly patrol to prevent enslaved people from gathering. The tiniest sliver of a silver lining came in the form of fines levied for particularly harsh treatment of the enslaved, a tacit admission that treating people like animals you don’t like might just cause them to rebel against you.
Two years after Stono and 750 miles north, there was a violent uprising on a massive scale, except…there wasn’t. There has been a string of arson fires in New York City, with four fires on a single day in early April. The only thing hotter than the fires were the rumors of who started it and why. Names started being whispered of this enslaved person or that one being witnessed fleeing the fire or being in the area with a particular chip on their shoulder for the owner or residents of the building. The fires, and any other crimes that happened to take place around that time *must be part of some larger plan. There was also a fear of Catholics at the time as the mother country was in a bit of a tiff with Spain. Waspy residents whipped themselves into a frenzy. The whole thing was rather like the Salem Witch Trials and in fact people in New England accused New Yorkers of having imagined or fabricated the whole plot. The New York situation followed the Salem playbook to the letter. There was little or no evidence, no real evidence anyway, and everyone who was arrested was forced to name other people who were involved, who would in turn be arrested and forced to name names so that the whole thing grew geometrically, even exponentially.
A grand jury was impaneled and an indentured servant named Mary Burton was made to testify. She worked for a publican named John Hughson, who was known to buy stolen goods from enslaved people as well as selling them alcohol and allowing them to gather in his tavern. She testified that three enslaved men, who were habitues of the tavern, named Caesar, Cuffee, and Prince, along with some poor whites, had formed a conspiracy to burn the city and the wealthier citizens along with it. A white prostitute with ties to Cesar was also brought in and made to name conspirators. Before long, more than one hundred enslaved people and a handful of white people were brought into the basement of the city hall and interrogated on charges of burglary, arson and insurrection. And by interrogated, I of course mean harassed and beaten. Such tactics resulted in 81 confessions.
Caesar and Prince were hanged. The prostitute, the publican, and his wife were all convicted and publicly executed, with the publican’s body left hanging as a warning to others. But that wasn’t enough for the judge presiding over the investigation and trial. He offered rewards for evidence of the plot, on a sliding payment scale depending on the value of the information and the color of the informant’s skin. Over the course of the three-month investigation, some 150 people were arrested and “confessed” or testified against someone else. Burton continued her accusations throughout the summer, eventually accusing more than 20 white people, including a Latin teacher named John Ury who was accused of using his Catholic faith to influence the rebellion. Ury would become the fourth and final white person executed for this non-conspiracy.
When all was done and dusted and the fervor had died out, 4 white people and at least 30 Blacks had been executed. Around 80 more people, mostly Black but some white, were exiled from the state of New York. The remaining enslaved people were sold to the Caribbean. In the aftermath, New York Assembly decided to stop importing enslaved people from the Caribbean, which had previously supplied nearly three-fourths of the enslaved population, believing that people taken from African would be less prone to organized revolt than slaves from the Caribbean.
On the topic of being choosy over where you’re buying other human beings from, it’s important to remember that not all the people enslaved in the Americas were transported from Africa. Between 2.5 million and 5 million Native Americans were enslaved throughout the Western Hemisphere from pretty much the day Columbus thought he’d landed in India. Quick aside about Columbus, since this episode was recorded on what used to be Columbus day: He wasn’t the only person who thought the earth was round; everybody knew it was. He thought it was much smaller than everyone else did, and pear-shaped. That’s what he set out to prove. He was a minor name in history until a wave of Italian immigrants to the US needed something to help look good to resident Americans. Back to the main story. While people enslaved in Africa tended to be adult males, the majority of enslaved Native Americans were women and children.
In the early 1700’s, two groups of people sought refuge in the Everglades of Spanish-controlled Florida: people who had escaped enslavement and the Seminole, who were just trying to find someplace to live without white colonists every time you turned around. Spain welcomed both groups warmly, even giving legal freedom to the enslaved, provided they would defend the area on Spain’s behalf. Temporary settlements became permanent as the two groups intermingled, and intermarried, in what would become the first legally sanctioned black free town in American and giving rise to the people referred to as Black Seminoles. This development didn’t sit well with whites in the South, who didn’t like the idea of living so close to an armed population of people they’d enslaved and people they’d driven from their ancestral land. Plus, the people they currently held in bondage kept trying to run away to live with the Black Seminoles, where they knew they would be welcome. So rude. And so the US government, from George Washington forward, was faced with the question of what to do about the Florida problem.
In 1818, under James Monroe, General Andrew Jackson, who was generally-speaking a bastard, took it upon himself, without orders, to invade Florida and claim it for the US. While he was at it, he executed the people who’d had the temerity to defend their home, figuring that the emptier a territory is, the easier it is to annex. The United States then properly bought Florida from Spain and when Jackson took his turn on the seat of power, he decided to get rid of the remaining Seminoles. And all other Native Americans. Told you, bastard. This led to the Second Seminole War, which was 1835–1842, and became the largest and costliest of the so called, Indian wars.
Because the communities were tied together, what happened to the Seminoles also happened to the former slaves and vice versa. Plus, the Black Seminoles knew that if the government came for Seminole, they would be more likely to be enslaved than forced to move. From the winter of 1835 to the summer of 1836 Black Seminoles, escaped slaves and Native peoples fought alongside one another. In April of 1836, Black Seminoles and their Indian allies moved together to create one of the largest slave rebellions in U.S. history. One of the largest rebellions, period. They gathered nearly three times as many enslaved people as there were colonists who participated in the Boston Tea Party, and together they laid waste to Florida sugar mills, the heart of the local economy with effects that would reach across the country.
The government knew that alliance was too much to handle and they offered guaranteed freedom to Black Seminoles who turned in their Seminole brethren. There were very few takers. In 1838, John Horse, the de facto leader of the Black Seminoles agreed to stop fighting the U.S. government in exchange for moving to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma and for legal recognition of their freedom. The government agreed and then in the most unexpected and surprising twist that no one could have foreseen, went back on its word, with the US AG declaring a decade later that the government never had the authority to recognize their freedom and those who had been slaves, were in fact still enslaved. This basically put a target on the backs of all Black Seminoles, so they fled again, this time to Mexico. Slavery had been illegal in Mexico for decades and the nation welcomed them. When slave catchers from Texas would go into Mexico after the Black Seminole, they were met with resistance not only from the Black Seminoles but also from the Mexicans and, helpfully, the Mexican Army.
It is the only US slave rebellion where the enslaved were able to secure permanent freedom and a land of their own and all they needed to do was walk from FL to OK to Mexico and make friends with the army. If it actually worked, why don’t we ever hear of the Black Seminole rebellion. One reason is that historians tend to specialize. They might study Native American history or they might study American slavery, each to the exclusion of the other. Tales of the rebellion had to be repressed in its time to stop other enslaved people from seeing their success and rising up. They did the same thing with the Haitian revolution. And then there is the all-important narrative. You can’t claim you treated the humans you subjugate and own well if same is ready to take up arms against you. It just flies in the face of The Lost Cause, the pseudo-historical ideology that claims the cause of the Confederate States during the American Civil War was a just and heroic one. It’s where the ‘states rights’ lie and all the monuments come from.
If any slave revolt makes it into a textbook, five’ll get you ten it’s going to be Nat Turner, so we won’t get into as much detail. As a refresher: Nat Turner’s Rebellion (also known as the Southampton Insurrection) was a rebellion of black slaves that took place in Southampton County, Virginia, in August 1831, led by Nat Turner. The rebels killed between 55 and 65 people, at least 51 of whom were white. The rebellion was put down within a few days, but Turner survived in hiding for more than two months afterwards. The state executed 56 slaves accused of being part of the rebellion, and many non-participant slaves were punished in the frenzy. And again, laws were passed against education and gatherings, for free blacks as well as enslaved, and this time including gathering for worship, requiring white ministers to be present at all worship services. To tell us a bit more about the man himself and how Turner became a leader, please welcome Rafiq Taylor, host of Garbled Twistory.
If anyone listening is a school textbook writer or on the selection committee, people also need to know about The German Coast Uprising, so named because the area had first been settled by German immigrants, even if you don’t think of German as one of the flavors of the region. It was lead by a man who origins are in dispute –maybe he was born into slavery in Louisiana, maybe he was born free in Saint-Domingue– one Charles Deslandes. On a January evening in 1811, Deslondes led a band of rebels downriver through the parishes of St. Charles and St. John the Baptist, about forty miles from the city of New Orleans. January might seem like a bad time for insurrection, but it was actually an ideal time. January is between growing seasons, even in the relative warmth of Louisiana, so the enslaved people had more time available for themselves.
Deslondes was of mixed race, born to a black mother, and worked as a slave driver at the Woodland Plantation owned by Manuel Andry. Deslondes led a small band of enslaved men into the mansion of the plantation owners, where they wounded Andry and killed his son. Andry was able to flee and raise the alarm. Deslonde and his men armed themselves with muskets from the plantation’s basement and even took Andry’s militia uniforms.
During their two-day, twenty-mile march, the men burned five plantation houses and several sugarhouses. The rebels headed to New Orleans, liberating others along the way, and as they marched, their numbers grew. Nearly 500 people marched together, carrying cane knives, hatches, machetes, the tools of their labor now turned into weapons, and shouting two slogans “On to New Orleans” and “Freedom or death.” As the rebellion unfolded, terrified whites fled their plantations for the relative apparent safety of New Orleans…even though that’s also where the rebellion was going.
The territorial governor at the time imposed a curfew and dispatched two companies of volunteer militia, 30 regular Army soldiers, and a few dozen sailors for good measure. By about 4 a.m. on January 10, the New Orleans forces had reached Jacques Fortier’s plantation, where the commander thought the rebels had made camp. The rebels had made camp at Fortier’s plantation, but had begun backtracking two hours earlier. Unfortunately, that put the rebels on a course to intercept another detachment. The battle was joined, but it wasn’t long before the rebels ran out of ammo and were overtaken. Within a half-hour, dozens of slaves were killed, the rest fleeing into the swampy woods. Deslondes was captured the next day and, without benefit of a trial, brutally executed. Thinking the end of Braveheart, but with less slow-mo and more…burning.
When the smoke cleared, metaphorically and a little literally, 2 white men and nearly 100 enslaved men and women had died. Those who were captured were then put on trial, found guilty, and executed by firing squad. That sounds de rigueur, sad as that is to say, but it’s after their death that things get medieval. The heads of the executed were severed and put on pikes along the major roadway to New Orleans so that other enslaved people would see them. It’s said that the savage display ran for 60 miles…meaning you could drive at highway speeds and it would take an hour before you stopped passing heads. As with all our other examples, in the wake of the rebellion, restricting life even more for both enslaved and free blacks in the state, though some enslaved people who warned plantation owners or served on the militia were given their freedom.
Since yesterday was Indigenous Peoples’ Day in many places and even though I only barely touched on the intersection of Native Americans and the North American slave trade, I want to jump into the future, by which I mean out past, to another time that seems to have had revolution in its tagline, the 1960’s. Cast your eyes to the west, to the edge of California and a rocky island in San Francisco bay. Yes, that one, Alcatraz, the rock.
After the American Indian Center in San Francisco was destroyed in a fire in October 1969, an activist group called “Indians of All Tribes” turned its attention to Alcatraz island and the prison which had closed six years earlier. I’m going to abbreviate Indians of All Tribes to IAT, rather than shorten it to Indians, just so you know. A small party, led by Mohawk college student Richard Oakes, went out to the island on Nov 9, but were only there one night before the authorities removed them. That didn’t disappoint Oakes, who told the SF Chronicle, “If a one day occupation by white men on Indian land years ago established squatter’s rights, then the one day occupation of Alcatraz should establish Indian rights to the island.”
11 days later, a much larger group of Indians of All Tribes members, a veritable occupation force of 89 men, women and children, sailed to the island in the dead of night and claimed Alcatraz for all North America natives. Despite warnings from authorities, the IAT set up house in the old guards’ quarters and began liberally, vibrantly redecorating, spray-painting the forboding gray walls with flowers and slogans like “Red Power” and “Custer Had It Coming.” The water tower read “Peace and Freedom. Welcome. Home of the Free Indian Land.” The IAT not only had a plan, they had a manifesto, addressed to “The Great White Father and All His People,” in which they declared their intentions to use the island for a school, cultural center and museum. Alcatraz was theirs, they claimed, “by right of discovery,” though the manifesto did offer to buy the island for “$24 in glass beads and red cloth”—the price supposedly paid for the island of Manhattan.
Rather than risk a PR fall-out, the Nixon administration opted to leave the occupiers alone as long as things remained peaceful and just kinda wait the situation out. The island didn’t even have potable water; how long could the IAT stay there? Jokes on you, politicians of 50 years ago, because many of the occupiers lived in conditions as bad on reservations. They’d unknowingly been training for this their entire lives. Native American college students and activists veritably swarmed the island and the population ballooned to more than 600 people, twice the official capacity of the prison. They formed a governing body and set up school for the kids, a communal kitchen, clinic, and a security detail called “Bureau of Caucasian Affairs.” Other activists helped move people and supplies to the island and supportive well-wishers send money, clothes and canned food.
Government officials would travel to the island repeatedly to try, and fail, to negotiate. The IAT would settle for nothing less than the deed to Alcatraz Island, and the government maintained such a property transfer would be impossible. The occupation was going better than anyone expected, at least for the first few months. Then, many of the initial wave of residents had to go back to college and their places were taken by people more interested in no rent and free food than in any cause. Drugs and alcohol, which were banned, were soon prevalent. Oakes and his wife left Alcatraz after his stepdaughter died in a fall, and things began to unravel even more quickly. By May, the sixth month of the occupation, the government dispensed with diplomatic efforts and cut all remaining power to Alcatraz. Only a few weeks later, a fire tore across the island and destroyed several of Alcatraz’s historic buildings. Federal marshals removed the last occupiers in June of the second year, an impressive 19 months after they first arrived, six men, five women and four children. This time, when laws were passed after an act of rebellion, they were *for the rebels, which many states enacting laws for tribal self rule. When Alcatraz opened as a national park in 1973, not only had the graffiti from the occupation not been removed, it was preserved as part of the island’s history. People gather at Alcatraz every November for an “Un-Thanksgiving Day” celebrating Native culture and activism.
And that’s… Gabriel Prosser’s rebellion ended before it began. Heavy rains delayed the start of the mission, giving time for a militia to be formed by plantation-owners who’d been warned about the plot. I’ll leave you today with the words of historian Joseph Holloway, “The revolts were all doomed from the start, and yet slaves still revolted against insurmountable odds in the fight for their personal freedom and liberty.”