SLAVE CONSPIRACIES The most dramatic and forceful form of African American slave protest and resistance in the antebellum South was the organized slave rebellion. There were approximately two hundred rebellions or conspiracies to rebel in the South prior to 1860, the most significant of which were Gabriel's Revolt (1800), Denmark Vesey's Conspiracy (1822) and Nat Turner's Insurrection (1831).
Gabriel (1775-1800) was a slave of Thomas Prosser of Henrico County, Virginia. He and another slave, Jack Bowler, organized an estimated two thousand slaves for the purpose of seizing Richmond. Approximately 32,000 black slaves (compared to about 8,000 whites) lived in the immediate Richmond vicinity. It was hoped that if Richmond was seized, these slaves would join forces with Gabriel and then proceed to liberate all of Virginia's 300,000 Afro-American slaves. Swords, bayonets and other weapons were procured in preparation for the seige (and the concurrent massacre of all slaveowners) which was planned for August 30, 1800. The conspiracy, however, was betrayed by two slaves who wanted to spare their master. Martial law was declared and defenses mustered in Richmond while more than six hundred armed militiamen hunted down most of the conspirators, who were arrested and executed, at least until it became apparent that if all of the conspirators were hanged, Richmond's supply of slaves would be decimated. In the end, thirty-five blacks were executed for participating in the conspiracy. Gabriel himself was hanged on October 7, 1800.
The second major slave conspiracy of the nineteenth century was led by Denmark Vesey (1767-1822). A slave for over thirty years, Vesey purchased his freedom with money he won in
a lottery in 1800. He later became a Methodist minister, using his church as a base of operations for a proposed seige of Charleston, South Carolina. Biding his time, Vesey chose a number of trusted assistants and began building an arsenal of weapons. Planned for the second Sunday of July 1822, Vesey's seige of Charleston never materialized. As in the case of Gabriel's revolt, this conspiracy was betrayed by internal informers and spies who alerted Charleston authorities. An estimated nine thousand slaves had been enlisted in the Vesey plot, but only forty-seven of the conspirators, including Vesey, were executed.
The most spectacular slave insurrection in American history occurred on August 21, 1831, and was led by a slave preacher in Southampton County, Virginia. Born in 1800, Nat Turner was a visionary mystic who claimed that God had directed him to strike a divine blow against the institution of slavery. On the appointed day, Turner and six confederates initiated their revolt by killing Turner's master, Joseph Travis and his family. Within twenty-four hours, proceeding from one Southampton County farm to another, the conspirators killed sixty whites, secured guns and ammunition and increased their numerical strength to nearly sixty men. This group, however, was overpowered by state and federal troops. In the process, more than a hundred slaves (many of whom were not actively engaged in the uprising) were killed. Twenty of the conspirators, including Turner, were tried and executed.
The Nat Turner Insurrection sent a wave of terror throughout the white South. State legislatures were called into special session; slave codes were strengthened; and every movement of black slaves carefully watched. Occurring shortly after the publication of the first issue of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator, the Turner uprising simply added fuel to the already intense sectional controversy between northern anti-slavery and southern proslavery interests. More significant is the fact that the Nat Turner Insurrection provides ample evidence that African American slaves did not wear their chains lightly by docilely accepting their status as grinning, happy-go-lucky Sambos. See also: CATO CONSPIRACY.