The Nat Turner rebellion, also infamously known as the Southampton Insurrection was an uprising of enslaved Virginians that happened in the Southampton County of Virginia in August 1931. It was spearheaded by Nat Turner, a clergyman who felt moved by the inhumane treatment that African-Americans were subjected under the slavery system. Virginia is understood to be one of the geographical powerhouses of slavery in the U.S.A. Most American presidents who were Virginians fanned slavery and promoted this rancorous institution. It was against this backdrop that Nat Turner, “The Prophet” received divine visions that instructed him to challenge the status quo and see to it that, “the wickedness ceases.”
Who was Nat Turner?
Nat Turner was an enslaved African-American who resided in Virginia under the mastership of Samuel Turner. The latter had inherited Nat from his father, Benjamin Turner’s estate. During those times, enslavement of humans in the United States of America was legal and succession laws that applied to property applied to humans. In a real, but awkward sense, enslaved people were regarded as property of their masters. Nat Turner grew up under the institution of slavery and thus, his upbringing made loathe the system and turned to God for recourse. Nat is understood have been hands on with the gospel, preaching and convincing slave owners that slavery was against God’s will. History has it that, Nat Turner had visions, thus the moniker ‘Nat, The Prophet’.
Nat Turner had a great conviction that God sent him to fulfill his great purpose. The purpose was conveyed to Nat in the spring of 1982 when Turner heard a thunderous voice from the heavens while working in his new master, Thomas Moore’s fields. For Turner, the message was that, “…the time has come that the first should be the last and the last should be the first.” In the Turner’s visions, the institution of slavery was portrayed a serpent and it was his prerogative to fight the serpent gloves off. Theologian Joseph Dreiss interlinks this vision of Turner to the 1831 rebellion alluding that, Turner’s emphasis on the need for a direct confrontation with the serpent was a clear statement and eye opener on the rebellion plan.
The buildup to the rebellion
Turner gathered fellow trusted slaves and advised them of his mooted grand plan to topple slavery in Southampton. In order for the squad to efficiently and stealthily communicate without being traced, they made use of particular songs that resonated with fellow slaves within the neighborhood. For Nat, the rebellion had to be preceded with certain atmospheric signs such that, by February 12, 1831 when the annual eclipse was visible in Virginia, the team was convinced that the time had come to put their plan in action. History has it that, for Turner and the rest of the slaves who participated on the preparations for the rebellion, the eclipse was a sign of the Black man’s hand reaching over the sun. Initially, the rebellion was slated for THE U.S Independence Day, but due to a short illness, the plan couldn’t materialise. On August 13, the sun appeared bluish-green as a result of an eruption of Mount St Helens and for Turner, this was the final alarm signaling the start of the rebellion.
The Nat Turner rebellion
A week later, the rebellion was on in Southampton. Turner moved with fellow trusted slaves to whom he had confided with about the uprising and went on to rope other 70 enslaved and free Blacks. Equipped with a few horses, the rebels journeyed from house to house , freeing enslaved black people and killing many of the White people whom the encountered, mostly the slave owners. In order to limit unwanted attention, they proceeded with their mission using such weapons as knives, axes, hatchets and blunt instruments. In one of the most subtle rebellions borne of sheer frustration and backed by ‘divine instruction’, Turner and the conspirators carried out an indiscriminate exercise. They went on to kill women and children in the process. Writing in The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrections in Southampton, attorney Thomas Ruffin Gray notes that, Turner confessed to have killed only one person, Margaret Whitehead whom he punched a blow. However, Turner is said not to have harboured the intention of indiscriminate slaughter of the white people, but it was a means to instill a sense of terror and despondency within the enslaving populace. Further, it was an awakening call to the inhumane and brutal attitudes of slave holders.
Casualties and the State retaliation
Statista records that, approximately 50-65 whites were killed during the insurrection. This number included few women and children. In an all-out mission that spurned for about 4 days, the state militia responded with 150 forces backed with three companies of artillery. Sensing the swiftness of the insurrection and the resultant casualties suffered, the state militia further sent detachments to Norfolk and North Carolina. The Commonwealth of Virginia went on to slaughter 56 Black people while the militias killed a 100 more, including those that were mere suspects to the conspiracy. Out of fear of a spill-over effect, the White violence on black people continued for at least two weeks. The editor of the Richmond Whig, a newspaper that was published in Richmond , Virginia between 1824 and 1828 summarised the scene in the following words; “the slaughter of many blacks without trial and under circumstances of great barbarity”.
The Sate retaliation after the rebellion was gruesome and vindictive. The response reached a state of disproportionality such that, Reverend G.W Powell, a clergy man wrote to complaint to the New York post stating that, “many Negroes are killed every day and the exact number will never be known”. Without adhering to their Commander, General Eppes’ order to stop the killing, the militia ruthlessly beheaded suspects and mounted their chopped off heads on poles at crossroads as a form on intimidation. Almost 2 centuries later, a section of Virginia State Route 68 still indicates “Blackhead Signpost Road”. In a show of superiority and State control, the white mob went on to slaughter more black women and children.
Turner’s capture and post-rebellion status
Nat Turner evaded capture for six weeks from the time the militia pounced on the rioting slaves. He was later captured by a White farmer named Benjamin Phipps hiding in a depression created by a cut off tree. He was tried on November 5, 1831 for conspiring to rebel and making insurrection. Turner was later on hung on November 11, 1831 in Jerusalem, Virginia and his body was dissected and flayed. His skin is said to have been used to make purses as souvenirs. While the insurrection was quelled, it served as a chilly warning to the White enslavers that, the slave institution was, at a point in future, going to experience its crush, in the U.S and around the globe.