By Carlito Rovira
Of the events in African American history that bourgeois historians and apologists of slavery tend to dread is the Nat Turner Rebellion. This monumental chapter in Black history occurred on August 21, 1831 at the Belmont Plantation in Southampton County, Virginia. Since then Nat Turner’s name symbolizes defiance for African Americans but for white privilege it continues to be a moment in history that torments the imagination.
White supremacy’s preferred narrative of that rebellion is overemphasizing the violence inflicted on the slave owning families. False interpretations of that history aim to project slavers as victims and insidiously criminalize the justified rage of Black people, both in the pass and present.
To understand why this slave revolt was one of the bloodiest in U.S. history it is necessary to have a grasp of the horrific experiences the African American people endured under that system.
Great Britain perceived the Thirteen Colonies as their goose that laid golden eggs, and valued them more than all of its conquered territories throughout the globe. Of all the countries where slavery was practiced it was in the United States where this system became the most lucrative and brutal.
The rapid economic accumulation of wealth created from enslaved labor allowed the United States to develop into the giant capitalist bastion it is today. The enormous financial power that derived from the harshest circumstances of human suffering compelled the rulers to develop a set of ideas which ultimately served as their ideological justification for Black oppression — White supremacy.
Despite the glorification of the “old South” by the mainstream Black people were subjected to extreme forms of degradation, beatings, castration, torture, murder, and the rape of women, men and children alike. Black families lived under constant fear of being separated; Without warning children, mothers and fathers were sold to other slave plantations. In addition, among the most shocking and heinous acts committed by slave owners as a sport and for punishing insubordinate slaves was having their children tossed in rivers to be killed by crocodiles.
The gall of bourgeois historians who dare to make false judgement while minimizing the crimes inflicted on Black people. The blame for the not-so-pleasant details of slave uprisings falls strictly on those who firmly preserved the cruelty that came with this centuries-long system. Black people have historically been driven to use force as a means to end their suffering.
No uprising in history has ever been pretty. When a subjugated people realizes that struggle is the only path to freedom there are no guarantees that bloodshed will be absent from the equation. Tyrants have always reserved the right to use violence, as a way to preserve their power. For oppressed people breaking away from the yoke of their plight has always been achieved by whatever means available to them.
Although Nat Turner was traumatized from abuses since childhood he managed to develop strong leadership qualities which allowed him to develop and serve as preacher among the slaves. According to his supposed “confession” made after his capture, to a Southampton attorney Thomas Ruffin Gray, Turner stated that he had received a message from God commanding him to lead the slaves in an uprising.
On the evening of August 21, 1831, Under the leadership of Nat Turner numerous slaves abruptly began to rebel. They ran to the supply sheds to arm themselves with work tools used for toiling the land. With weapons in hand the enslaved laborers proceeded throughout the plantation to bludgeon and stab to death the well-armed overseers.
The intensity of the revolt continued with Nat Turner and his followers entering the hated resident mansion which symbolized the depth of their oppression as slaves. It was there where all members of the privileged White slave owning family were killed.
A state of panic widely consumed the White populace of Virginia and neighboring states, as the Black insurgents were hunted by bands of racist vigilantes. Unfortunately, by October 30th all of the insurrectionists were captured and put on a showcase trial.
On November 11, 1831 Nat Turner and 56 of his followers were executed and about 200 non-participants of the revolt from neighboring plantations were beaten and tortured. The repressive decrees implemented throughout the South were intense which lasted until the Civil War.
As if killing Turner and his followers were not enough to satisfy the frenzied vindictiveness of slavers, the bodies of the martyrs were gruesomely chopped to pieces, burned and used to make oil and glue. In the aftermath whites proved to be psychologically impacted, they became increasingly fearful of Black people. New repressive measures were instituted throughout the South with harsher laws that restricted the movement of slaves and free Blacks alike.
Nat Turner contributed to the rising momentum of that period which popularized the use of armed force against that vile institution. By all accounts Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1831 inspired John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, which triggered the momentous political storm that resulted in the Civil War of 1861-1865 and the overthrow of the slave-owning class.
The Attempt to destroy slavery by the slaves themselves is of the utmost significance. This event will continue to inspire today’s anti-racist struggles as we continue to grapple with the historical consequences of slavery in the modern era.
Although the rebellion was suppressed, with the martyrs tortured and executed, this history continues to inspire a yearning for freedom in the present period. The legacy of this slave revolt added to Black traditions that brought into being other heroic examples like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Ida B. Wells, Marcus Garvey, the African Blood Brotherhood, Malcolm X, Black Panther Party, and today’s Black Lives Matter movement.
History has given Nat Turner the noble title of revolutionary, during his lifetime. A future revolutionary struggle in the United States will surely bring about a broad desire for erecting statues and monuments dedicated to the memory of freedom fighters like Nat Turner. Giving the highest tribute to men and women who fought for Black liberation will be part and parcel of realizing the demand for reparations.