When news of the 1791 Haitian slave revolt reached Britain, supporters of the slave trade cited the rebels’ brutality to prove the perils of abolition.
How did English abolitionists respond?
In general, they were embarrassed by the violence and did not defend it. Typical was the leading abolitionist William Wilberforce who, when the rebellion was debated in the House of Commons in April 1792, “distanced himself from the black uprising”.
To this general rule, historians typically cite two “radical, and marginal” exceptions — abolitionists who “openly defended the violent actions of slaves in pursuit of freedom”.
William Roscoe was a liberal lawyer and sometime MP from Liverpool.
In his 1792 Inquiry into the Causes of the Insurrection of the Negroes in the Island of St. Domingo, Roscoe “deplored” the “outrages” perpetrated in the uprising but affirmed that slave “[r]esistance” was “justifiable” and blamed the atrocities on the slave system:
[L]et us be permitted a few reflections on the awful scenes that the Island of St. Domingo has of late exhibited: the picture of these outrages forms indeed the most striking part of the narrative in question. The destruction of flourishing plantations; the burning of houses; the slaughter of the Whites by secret treachery, or open revolt; the gross violations of female chastity; the dissolution of all bonds of subordination, and all the attachments of society, contribute to fill the dreadful sketch.
Are these enormities to be lamented? they surely are. Can they excite our wonder? by no means. What is the state of the labouring negro? Is he not a being, bound down by force? labouring under constant compulsion? driven to complete his task by the immediate discipline of the whip? — Are affection, lenity, and forbearance, the result of oppression and abuse? When the native ferocity of Africa is sharpened by the keen sense of long continued injury, who shall set bounds to its revenge?
Again, how have the fierce dispositions of savage life been counteracted or improved by the example of their White Superiors? Resistance is always justifiable where force is substitute of right: nor is the commission of a civil crime possible in a state of slavery. Yet the punishments that have been devised in the French islands to repress crimes, that could only exist by the abuse of the Slave-holder, are such as nature revolts at. How often have these unfortunate beings beheld their fellows, beat, in famine and distraction, the bars of an iron cage, in which they were doomed to pass in inconceivable misery the last days of their existence? Is it not known that in these wretched islands a human being has resigned his life in the torments of a slow-consuming fire? An unavenged instance of an act so awfully atrocious, marks out for perdition the country that could suffer it. When the oppressor thus enforces his authority, what must be the effects of the sufferers’ resentment?
In thus endeavouring to unfold the primary and ever active causes of these troubles, let it not be thought that I wish to paliate the enormities committed by the insurgents: enormities deeply to be deplored, by every one not totally insensible to the sufferings of humanity. But let it not be forgotten, that to know the origin of the malady is the first step towards an efficacious remedy: should that origin be found in the mistaken conduct of the Planters, it is for them to apply the cure after the accumulated cruelties of ages.
British Abolitionists: Sublime Humanity and Majestic Prose by Norman Finkelstein
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In 1831, a slave named Nat Turner organized an insurrection in Virginia. It proved to be the largest slave revolt in American history. Turner hoped to stir into action the whole of the slave population but was only able to enlist 70 others.
It’s unknown whether Turner expected to achieve a military victory or, short of that, force a national reckoning with slavery. He exhorted his fellow insurrectionists to “kill all the White people.” (It appears that he intended to spare women, children and surrendering men once the insurrection gained a firm foothold.)
The unfolding scene was ghastly: babes decapitated, other Whites disemboweled and hacked to pieces. With only the rarest exception, for 48 hours no White in their tracks was spared the slaves’ accumulated wrath and fury.
Some 60 Whites perished: “whole families, fathers, mothers, daughters, sucking babes, and school children butchered, thrown into heaps, and left to be devoured by hogs and dogs or to putrify on the spot.” (Turner himself, it seems, displayed forbearance. He killed only one person.)
In the course of quelling the rebellion, Whites randomly murdered and mutilated some 120 Blacks “in ways that witnesses refused to describe,” often severing heads and mounting them on poles as a portent “to all those who should undertake a similar plot.”
A biographer of Turner (Stephen Oates, The Fires of Jubilee) observes that his “rage” sprang from the “prodigious chasm” that separated his talents and aspirations—by all accounts, Black as well as White, he was a match for any White man’s wits—and the slave’s fate which Turner was born into and to which he was consigned for his terrestrial existence. Possessed of a “prodigious knowledge of the Bible,” Turner was for certain a religious zealot.
He contrived that his bloody revolt was ordained by God, he was the vehicle and executor of God’s will, and his actions had been sanctioned by God. He was an, as it were, premature jihadi. But it’s also true that he found in scripture a “rational” vision of divine retribution and earthly redemption that resonated with his plight.
After the insurrection was repressed, Turner’s rage was ascribed by Whites to his religious delirium so as to obscure the slave uprising’s real taproot: not “fanatical delusion” but the system of bondage that stoked the flames for vengeance. White southerners, Oates muses,
had to believe that the insurrection sprang from religious fanaticism, which had bewildered and deranged Nat’s mind and had led him and his “band of savages” to commit atrocities beyond the capacity of ordinary slaves. Whites could not blame the rebellion on their own slave system—they were too much a part of it to do that.
Turner was demonized by Whites after his death, the honorable exception being the White Abolitionists.
William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the anti-slavery Liberator, championed moral suasion to win the public over to manumission. Yet, whereas he stated that the “excesses” of Turner’s revolt could not be justified and he was “horror-struck at the late tidings,” Garrison conspicuously did not condemn the slave revolt.
Instead, he railed against the hypocrisy of those who sang paeans to the sanguinary struggles for liberty then being fought out in Europe, but who fell deathly silent when it came to the enslaved, lacerated Black population in their midst.
It took uncommon courage to take Garrison’s stand. A $5,000 price was put on his head in North Carolina while Georgia offered the same amount to anybody who would kidnap him and drag him for trial. The “radical” podcasting universe of our day wouldn’t risk two “likes” and one “share.”
Even as none contested the gruesome facts of the rebellion, southern Blacks did not recoil in horror at Turner’s name. On the contrary:
He became a legendary black hero ... enshrined in an oral tradition that still flourishes today. They regard Nat’s rebellion as the “First War” against slavery and the Civil War as the second. So in death Nat achieved a kind of victory denied him in life—he became a martyred soldier of slave liberation who broke his chains and murdered Whites because slavery had murdered Negroes.
The above words were written by Oates in 1973.
In 1988, a book on Turner’s life (introduced by Coretta Scott King) was selected for inclusion in the “Black Americans of Achievement” biography series for children. By now, Nat Turner occupies an honored place in American history.
Nat Turner in Gaza by Norman Finkelstein