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Slave Rebellions

I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races…I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

Abraham Lincoln, 1858

The above is a predictable quote from any racist politician. The fact that it’s from the American President synonymous with ending slavery, just five years later, shows both how embedded the system of owning human beings as property was in the American psyche and, how rapidly change occurred.

By the 19th century, slavery is outlawed in the British Empire and throughout Europe but America’s finding it hard to kick its 200 year habit. But in the land of the free, the four million who aren’t are finding it equally hard to force their owners to change their ways.


In 1800, a slave called Gabriel attempts rebellion in Virginia. Other slaves betray him before it can start but it scares slave owners into tightening their already noose like control on their ‘property’. Eleven years later, possibly the largest slave revolt takes place near New Orleans. Armed only with the tools they have to hand, cane knives and axes, four to five hundred slaves march from plantation to plantation, killing their masters and freeing more slaves. The U.S army crushes them. Those ringleaders not shot in the initial confrontation, are later executed by firing squad.

The following years see various rebellions, Denmark Vesey in 1822, and notably, the rebellion by Nat Turner in 1831 which genuinely scares the slaveholding South. But the outcomes are rarely in doubt. The slaves do not have the numbers or the guns and are too dispersed to seriously challenge the Establishment. And nearly everyone has a vested interest in the slave economy. The North processes the cotton made by Southern slaves in the industrial factories and sells the produced fabrics domestically and globally. Slave rebellions threaten this and that’s why the federal army is used to eliminate any insurrection, black or white: As John Brown was to find out.

“He is a terrorist, in our modern terms.”

Richard Slotkin, Wesleyan University,

In 1859, John Brown, a militant abolitionist, attempts to capture the biggest collection of weapons in the South, the federal arsenal in Virginia. Along with his five sons, he aims to arm 20,000 slaves with muskets and pistols. They capture the poorly defended arsenal easily but not one slave joins them. U.S Marines, under the command of Robert E. Lee, kill all his sons, and capture John Brown. Before he’s executed, he prophetically says, ‘I John Brown am quite certain that the crimes of this land will never be purged away but with blood’.

Did you know?

Americans may have hated their tyrannous former colonial masters, the British, but it was the British Empire that offered a genuinely safe haven for escaping slaves. For example, in 1841, when a slave ship was overpowered, the newly freed men sailed for British West Indies. Despite the US Secretary of State threatening war if they were not returned, the British refuse to return them.