African in America logo tabled version
Brotherly Love
Part 1: 1450-1750
Part 2: 1750-1805
<---Part 3: 1791-1831
Part 4: 1831-1865

Narrative | Resource Bank | Teacher's Guide

Conspiracy and Rebellions
I 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 man, 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.

- Nat Turner

In 1791, revolt broke out in the French Caribbean colony of St. Domingue, which was located on the western third of the island of Hispaniola (the eastern two-thirds was owned by Spain and called Santo Domingo). One of the wealthiest colonies in the Americas, St. Domingue produced half of all the sugar and coffee exported to Europe and the United States. It owed its wealth to the work of slaves, who were treated with brutality.

The rebellion started when free blacks were not granted citizenship, as France's Declaration of the Rights of Man had decreed. Slaves joined in the revolt and returned the brutality their masters had shown them, murdering and raping whites and torching the island. Because slaves and free blacks outnumbered whites by a ratio of more than 10 to 1, the revolt quickly spread through the port city of Cap Français and surrounding plantations. In 1794, the National Assembly of France abolished slavery in its colonies, and in January, 1800, when Spain formally ceded its colonial claims to France, Toussaint L'Ouverture, the leading general of the black revolt, became the undisputed leader of the entire island.

Declaration of the Rights of Man
Toussaint L'Ouverture
Revenge Taken by the Black Army

But the battle was not over. Napoleon Bonaparte, who had seized power in France in 1799, was building a global empire with aspirations in the New World. In 1802, he dispatched 20,000 troops to Saint Domingue to depose Toussaint and reinstitute slavery. Toussaint was captured and exiled to France, where he died in prison the following year. The rebels continued to fight, and by the end of 1803 Napoleon had to concede defeat in Saint Domingue. Having lost 35,000 men, the French evacuated their former colony. In the 13 years of fighting, more than 100,000 black lives had been lost. On January 1, 1804, President Jean Jacques Dessalines proclaimed the free republic of Haiti -- deriving the name from an indigenous word meaning "a higher place."

The Haitian Revolution

Word of the rebellion in the Caribbean reached the United States, inspiring slaves with hope and whites with fear. In 1799, a slave named Gabriel was caught stealing a pig in Richmond, Virginia. When he was apprehended by an overseer, Gabriel attacked the white man, biting off his ear. For this, Gabriel was branded in open court and spent a month in jail. Inspired by St. Domingue, Gabriel felt it was time for American slaves to revolt. Gabriel was a skilled blacksmith and was allowed to hire himself out in Richmond and on neighboring plantations. In his travels, he met with other slaves and began hammering swords out of scythes and molding bullets. He recruited an army of conspirators from Richmond and other Virginia towns, preparing the most far-reaching slave revolt ever planned in the United States.

They chose the night of August 30, 1800 to strike. But as they waited for the appointed time, it began to rain heavily, making roads impassable. They decided to postpone the attack, but before they could carry it out, the plot was betrayed. Apprehended slaves were granted immunity for providing testimony about the conspiracy. The trial of at least 65 slaves lasted two months, with Vice President Thomas Jefferson offering advice to Virginia Governor James Monroe on how to deal with the rebels. Twenty-six rebels were executed, including Gabriel, and their owners were reimbursed for their value.

Gabriel's Conspiracy
Confession of Solomon
Rebel's statement from Gabriel's Conspiracy
Jefferson's letter to James Monroe

Although the Richmond revolt had not come about, slaveowners felt a tangible fear in its aftermath. In 1801, when Jefferson became president, he called Toussaint and his army cannibals and attempted to stop information about St. Domingue from reaching the U.S. He sent a new consul, Tobias Lear, to the island and offered assistance to Napoleon in his efforts to regain control. When the French admitted defeat in 1803, Napoleon gave up all his aspirations for the New World, and sold the 830,000 square-mile Louisiana Territory to the United States for only $15 million. The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States.

Tobias Lear to Madison

In 1815, Florida was the scene of another insurrection. When the British evacuated Florida a the end of the War of 1812, they left a fort on the Apalachicola River to their allies, African Americans and Choctaw Indians. The place became known as the "Negro Fort," and approximately 800 black fugitives settled in the area nearby. In July 1816, American military forces and their Lower Creek allies attacked the fort, bringing the settlement of blacks to an end.

Florida's Negro Fort
Plan of Fort Gadsden

In 1818, Denmark Vesey, a member of the African church in Charleston, decided it was time for blacks to lose their shackles. The former property of a slave-ship captain, Vesey had first-hand experience of slavery's brutality. He carefully planned the revolt for four years, with the help of Gullah Jack, a conjurer from Angola. But they were betrayed by a Charleston slave in May of 1822, and the revolt was over before it began. The conspirators were brought to trial, 35 were executed and 42 were deported. News of the planned revolt, which had involved thousands of peoplee, including many trusted servants, shocked the South. In Charleston, the AME church was torn down to restrict communication and autonomy among blacks.

The Vesey Conspiracy
Denmark Vesey brought before the Court
Confession of Monday Gell
Sentence of Gullah Jack
Reflections, Occasioned by the Late Disturbance

The lower country should be on the alert. -- The case of Nat Turner warns us. No black man ought to be permitted to turn a Preacher through the country. The law must be enforced or the tragedy of Southampton appeals to us in vain.

- The Richmond Enquirer, August 30, 1831
In 1831, Nat Turner's Rebellion broke out near Jerusalem, Virginia. Turner, born in 1800, saw religious visions from an early age and preached to other slaves. In August of 1831, he believed God sanctioned him to strike back against the white oppressors. Without a definite plan to guide them, Turner and seven other slaves began to kill, entering their master's chamber in the middle of the night. Vowing to kill all whites, the slaves brutally murdered men, women, and children during a bloody 36-hour rampage. The insurrection grew to over 40 men. At least 57 whites were bludgeoned, stabbed, and hacked to death. Close to 1,000 Virginia and federal military troops were called out, and at least 100 innocent blacks were killed. Over 50 suspected rebels were caught immediately, but Turner remained at large for almost two months. When finally brought to trial and hanged, Turner was defiant and unrepentant, still believing he had been empowered by God to kill. In the aftermath of the rebellion, a hysterical climate reigned in the South, leading to mob lynching and false accusations of conspiracy.

Nat Turner's Rebellion
The Confessions of Nat Turner
The Richmond Enquirer on Nat Turner's Rebellion
Discovery of Nat Turner
Fear of Insurrection

Next: Growth and Entrenchment of Slavery

Part 3 Narrative:

Map: The Growing Nation
Freedom and Resistance
The Black Church
• Conspiracy and Rebellions
Growth and Entrenchment of Slavery

Part 3: Narrative | Resource Bank Contents | Teacher's Guide

Africans in America: Home | Resource Bank Index | Search | Shop

WGBH | PBS Online | ©