Photo Essay - Slave Revolts

The Deslondes RevoltOn to Orleans" : The Negro insurrection(1888), by Maurice Thompson. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Though not as well known as Nat Turner's Rebellion, the German Coast Uprising in Louisiana was likely the largest slave revolt in U.S. history. The insurrection was led by Charles Deslandes (Deslondes), a thirty-one-year-old slave driver on the sugar plantation of Manuel Andry. Scholars differ on whether Deslondes had arrived from Saint-Domingue, Haiti, a free man or if he was born into slavery in New Spain, but he occupied a favorable position on Andry's homestead, a detail that would haunt slave owners and authorities who believed that a slave's desire for emancipation could be neutralized by a privileged position.

On the night of 8 January 1811, Deslondes turned on his masters. Andry was able to escape the surprise attack, but his son, Gilbert, was hacked to death by Deslondes and his band of self-emancipated slaves. They raided the estate's stockpile of weapons and horses and began heading toward New Orleans, approximately fifty miles southeast. As the mob rampaged through nearby plantations, its ranks swelled with new slaves and runaways, eventually numbering close to five hundred members. The rebellion was so fierce that it took three days for authorities to begin mounting a defense, the governor of the Territory of Orleans marshaling a combined force of nearly seven hundred militiamen, slave owners, and U.S. Army soldiers to finally put down the revolt. Deslondes, along with nearly all of his surviving coconspirators, was sentenced to death for his role in the uprising. In a brutally clear warning to future insurrectionists, his "body was mutilated, dismembered, and put on public display" by local authorities, who were profoundly unsettled by the incident (Barnes).

Barnes, Rhae Lynn. "Deslandes (Deslondes), Charles." African American National Biography. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Oxford African American Studies Center. Web.

Amistad"Trial of the Slaves," the second panel of artist Hale Woodruff's Amistad Murals, painted for Talladega College in Alabama in 1938. At right, with arms crossed, is lead mutineer Joseph Cinque. Courtesy of the Granger Collection, New York.

The saga of the Amistad remains one of the world's most well-known stories of slave revolt, in part because of its 1997 dramatization by the famed Hollywood director Steven Spielberg and in part because its successful outcome was so impossibly exceptional. In July 1839, a group of African slaves aboard the Spanish schooner La Amistad overpowered the small crew overseeing their transport from Havana to Port-au-Prince in Spanish-controlled Cuba. Two of the ship's sailors survived the mutiny and were ordered to return the ship to Africa. Convinced, however, that their "contraband" would be confiscated and returned to Cuba if the ship made it the American continent, the crew surreptitiously navigated the boat toward the United States, and six weeks later the Amistad arrived on the eastern end of Long Island. Within days the schooner was boarded by USS Washington, a navy customs enforcement ship. The two Spanish sailors were freed, but the Africans were placed under arrest and taken to New London, Connecticut, to stand trial.

The case of the Amistad raised a dizzying number of legal issues, among them international sovereignty, state's rights, salvage laws, criminal law, and individual rights under the U.S. Constitution. Importantly, the men had been sold into bondage at the Lomboko slave factory in modern-day Sierra Leone, despite a treaty in 1817 between Spain and Britain banning slave importation to West Indian colonies. This issue of "legality"—whether the Spanish illegally transported humans—was a key point for the slaves' defense lawyers, which included seventy-three-year-old former U.S. president John Quincy Adams. Not wanting to antagonize Spain, a European power and fellow rival of the British, the Van Buren administration continued to resist rulings in favor of the Amistads, as the men had come to be called. At last, the case arrived in the Supreme Court. On 9 March 1841, the Court voted 7–1 that the "Africans were not slaves but free Africans" and that "Spain had no right to compensation for their lost 'slaves'" (Purdy). The Amistads soon departed for Freetown, Sierra Leone, one of the very few, if not the only, groups of insurrectionists to survive the horrors of slavery.

Purdy, Elizabeth R. "Amistad," Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619–1895— From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass. Ed. Paul Finkelman. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. Oxford African American Studies Center. Web.

Discovery of Nat Turner"The Discovery of Nat Turner", by Elisha Andrews. Color lithograph (c. 1894-1903). Courtesy of Peter Newark American Pictures/The Bridgeman Art Library.

As Frederick Douglass has become embedded in American mythology for his escape from slavery, Nat Turner endures as the nation's most potent symbol of slave insurrection. In just a few days in 1831, Turner waged the bloodiest challenge to the slave system in American history, killing nearly sixty men, women, and children in Southampton County, Virginia, before he and his followers were subdued. Before his execution, Turner was able to transmit his autobiography to his lawyer, Thomas Gray, while in prison. Though the veracity of Gray's transcription has long been debated, The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia cemented Turner's status as a mystical freedom fighter. In the book, Turner famously insisted that his revolt was inspired by God, explaining to Gray his vision of "white and black spirits engaged in battle." On 11 November 1831—less than two weeks after his capture and two and a half months since his initial assault—Turner was hanged. The legacy of Turner's ill-fated rebellion was threefold: it validated the resolve of abolitionists, who pointed out the barbaric lengths to which enslaved men were driven in order to escape bondage—even if the escape was death; it destroyed the fiction of the complacent savage, toiling happily away for a beneficent master; and it precipitated an even more brutal crackdown on slaves and free blacks in Virginia.

Southern Ideas of "Southern Ideas of Liberty." Lithograph printed in Boston (c. 1835). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Slave insurrections were a constant worry for slaveholders and southern authorities. (A worry, ironically, that severely undercut the fable of the "obedient and contented" "premium" slave articulated by the historian U. B. Phillips in his 1918 study, American Negro Slavery.) Not only slaves, however, lived under the heel of oppression. The system of forced servitude despoiled the lives of anyone living within it, including non-slaveholding whites and free blacks. For the system to function everyone had to abide it; fortunately for slaveholders, the courts, police, and local militias all obliged. Consequently, slave states made instructing slaves in any activity seen as potentially empowering illegal. As the above drawing depicts, free or not, white or black, if a person taught a slave to read, or treated him as a fellow human, he or she had better be prepared to pay. The drawing, which was likely created in Boston around 1835, portrays a judge sentencing an abolitionist to death by hanging. The judge, who is drawn with "ass's ears" and a whip, sits on a bale of cotton, his foot resting squarely atop the Constitution. To make the point even blunter, the caption reads: "Sentence passed upon one for supporting that clause of our Declaration viz. All men are born free [and] equal."

Denmark Vesey PlotThe cover page of Negro plot : an account of the late intended insurrection among a portion of the blacks of the city of Charleston, South Carolina, by James Hamilton. Courtesy of Documenting the American South, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries.

The Denmark Vesey Conspiracy might have mustered the largest group of rebel slaves in the country's history, but the plot was betrayed just before it was to begin. The conspiracy, which was hatched in the black churches of Charleston, South Carolina, was named for its lead planner, an accomplished carpenter and black leader who had purchased his own freedom after seventeen years of bondage in the city. Conflicting accounts on Vesey's personal history abound, but it is generally agreed that the degradations of his family life at the hands of slavery (though he lived as a free man, his children remained enslaved) steeled his resolve to achieve freedom at any cost. At the time of his arrest on 21 June 1822, Vesey was rumored to have readied several thousand blacks, free and enslaved, to seize various weapons caches throughout the city. After driving the city's white residents into retreat, the rebels were to make a mass exodus to Haiti, the recently created country born itself from a slave uprising. Vesey's plans unraveled, however, after two slaves—one a former coconspirator—informed their masters about the plot, and Vesey was forced into hiding. No longer willing to dismiss rumors of an insurrection, city authorities, led by Mayor James Hamilton, launched a manhunt for Vesey and other main plotters. Steadfastly refusing to confess, Vesey was tried and hanged five and a half weeks later.

Seminole Wars"Massacre of the Whites by the Indians and Blacks in Florida." Wood engraving (1836). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Between 1817 and 1858, the U.S. Army fought three defined wars with the Seminole Indian tribes of Florida. The Seminoles had long been the object of Spanish, French, and British colonial designs, but as the European powers began to retreat from North America in the early nineteenth century, the United States—a burgeoning power of local origin—became their central military adversary. Unsurprisingly, the weight of the slave system made the country's ambitious expansion goals ever more problematic. Since their arrival in America, slaves had found shelter and freedom in the Indian lands of Florida. This was due in part to acceptance (many Native Americans were themselves admixtures of various tribes), but there was also common opposition to white rule, and the Seminoles were eager to utilize the ex-slaves in their battle against white incursion. Not only were escaped slaves willing to join forces with the Seminoles, but, having lived on white land, they were also an important source of intelligence. While not exactly "slave" rebellions, the various wars, similar to the revolts of Nat Turner and Charles Deslondes, pitted blacks against authorities in a desperate effort to secure their freedom. The black-Seminole relationship, burdened by the ever-present threat of U.S. Army attack, was nevertheless complicated and often fraught. At times the alliance was strong, such as when a group of blacks, with Seminole backing, seized an arsenal at Prospect Bluff abandoned by retreating British forces after the War of 1812 (finding this intolerable, Major General Andrew Jackson ordered the "Negro Fort" smashed). At other points, however, the ex-slaves and Seminoles turned on each other, defecting to U.S. guardianship after promises of emancipation or immunity.

John Brown Surrenders"John Brown After His Capture," by Thomas Hoyenden. Printed in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine (1883). Courtesy of Ken Welsh/The Bridgeman Art Library.

John Brown's attack on Harpers Ferry in the fall 1859 was in nearly every sense a failure. Brown, a fanatical abolitionist and confidant of Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnet, had planned to storm the town's federal arsenal and distribute its cache of weapons among local slaves, which would, he hoped, spark a wide-scale insurrection. Before the break of dawn on Monday, 17 October, Brown and a twenty-one-man party set out from the farm he had been renting—and plotting from—on the Potomac River. The group was able to storm the arsenal with little opposition and was able to recruit two slaves to join its cause. Within hours of its victory, however, a local militia forced the group's retreat into a firehouse. The next morning, U.S. Army forces led by then lieutenant colonel Robert E. Lee—and under express command of President James Buchanan—arrived to route what was left of the would-be insurrectionists. By the time of Lee's arrival, eight of the men had been killed, and a wounded Brown surrendered. He was taken into custody and transported to Charles Town, West Virginia, to stand trial. Brown was hanged on 2 December of the same year, a symbolic end to an operation that had been so continually disastrous. Yet, for all of its failures, Brown's raid succeeded in driving the nation ever closer toward war with itself, an event that Brown had long proclaimed necessary in order to finally free the country's slaves. So taken with his friend's heroic last stand, Frederick Douglass later asserted in a speech, "I could live for the slave, but [Brown] could die for him."

Fort Monroe Doctrine"Fort Monroe Doctrine." Lithograph on paper (1861). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The secession of the Confederate states presented an enormous number of legal issues to the Lincoln administration. With no precedent to draw from, the president and his staff were effectively forced to govern as they went along. (Hostilities with self-declared republics such as Texas and California had occurred, but they were pains of annexation and integration—not secession.) It is within this context that the Union general Benjamin Butler, commander of Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, famously declared runaway slaves to be "contrabands." Butler arrived at Fort Monroe in May 1861. The fort was a critical Union garrison: it was located on the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, a crucial maritime highway, and close to the North Carolina border. Shortly after Butler's arrival, three escaped slaves appeared at the fort asking for asylum. Not long after, a Confederate officer turned up, asking for the return of his property, a request sanctioned under the Fugitive Slave Act. Butler was quickly forced to act. Concluding that Confederate states had abrogated U.S. rule and the Constitution by abandoning the Union, Butler argued that he was no longer required to abide by the Fugitive Slave Act or any laws governing the status of runaway slaves. The slaves, he argued, were now "contrabands"—spoils of war due their guardians. Though politically risky, Butler's ad-hoc directive was quickly assimilated into formal U.S. government policy and formed the basis for the Emancipation Proclamation. More important, with this mandate slaves became emboldened to attempt escape to Union-controlled territory; by July 1861, Fort Monroe was offering protection for nine hundred ex-slaves. While not as dramatic as violent uprisings, escape represented a rebellion against slavery and domination that was just as important. As the above political cartoon illustrates, however coarsely, the new "contraband" policy had an emboldening effect on Virginia slaves, much at the expense of their (former) owners.