Nat Turner was one of the most controversial characters of the nineteenth century America. Born into slavery, this African American youth organized the biggest slave rebellion in the United States of America in the early nineteenth century. Although it did not succeed in emancipating the slaves it busted the myth that they were contented with their lot and ultimately paved the way for abolition of slavery. Different people have different opinion about him. He was declared a prophet by his fellow slaves and respected as such. In 1960, he became an icon of black power movement in the US. Even to this day some scholars hail him as a hero fighting for a just cause. Another group calls him a religious fanatic and a murderer, not different from modern day terrorists. They argue that his method was villainous and cannot be supported at any cost. Yet, one cannot deny the fact that the rebellion he organized was not for his own benefit; he tried to liberate his fellow slaves who were treated inhumanly by their white masters and punished severely at the slightest mistake. Nat himself was no exception to that. A large knot of bones in his right wrist was a pointer to the fact.
Childhood & Early Life
Nat Turner was born into slavery on October 2, 1800 in a plantation belonging to one Benjamin Turner in the Southampton County in the state of Virginia. Nothing is known about his father. It is believed that he ran away when Nat was very young.
His mother Nancy was a house slave at the Turner household. It is believed that she came to Norfolk in 1795 with her previous master, a refugee from Saint Domingue and was later sold to Benjamin Turner.
After his birth the boy was registered as Nat by his master Benjamin Turner; but he has also been mentioned as Nathaniel in some official documents. He was given the surname of Turner according to the slave holder customs prevalent in those days.
When Nat was very young, he was very close to his parental grandmother Old Bridget, also a slave at the Turner plantation. She originally belonged to the Akan tribe, which resided in areas we now call Ghana. She was captured at 13 and was shipped to America as slave. Most probably it was she who sowed the seed of rebellion in Nat.
Nat was a very intelligent child and learnt to read at a very early age. His master Benjamin Turner encouraged his literary pursuit and even gave him a Bible. It is possible he also gave young Nat other books because in his confession Nat had said, he used to spend a lot of time reading books bought for white children.
Young Nat was also deeply religious and was often found praying and reading Bible. He also fasted a lot. He was very rarely found in the company of other children, and preferred to remain alone.
Benjamin Turner died in 1810. His brother Samuel became Nat’s new owner. However, according to another account, Samuel was Benjamin’s oldest son. He purchased a new property consisting of 360 acres of land just two miles away from the original home. He wanted to start a new plantation there and Nat, his mother Nancy and grandmother Old Bridget were loaned to him for that purpose. When Benjamin died in 1810, the arrangement became permanent.
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Nat Turner stayed with Samuel Turner until Samuel’s death in 1822. Although there is no evidence of the fact, it is believed he married a slave girl called Cherry during this period. However, the law of the land did not recognize marriages between slaves and therefore, it did not have any legal or religious sanctity.
Very soon he began to have visions, which he construed as messages from God. That he was chosen by God began to take root in his mind from now on. His fellow slaves also began to believe in that. However, it was not yet clear what God wanted him to do.
At the age of 22, Nat Turner ran away; but returned on his own to serve his old master. May be there were other attractions as well.
When Samuel died his property was liquidated and Nat Turner was sold off to Thomas Moore for $400 while Cherry was sold to Giles Reese, another plantation owner. Such forced separation from his loved ones embittered Nat further. He then tried to find solace in religion and began to spend more time in praying and fasting.
Turner had his first major vision in 1825. The vision convinced him that he was ordained to bring about a change. Very soon he began to organize religious services at Barnes’s Church near the North Carolina border.
Tuner had his next vision on May 12, 1828. He later told, “I heard a loud noise in the heavens and the Spirit instantly appeared to me”. Turner was then asked to take up the “yoke” of Christ for “the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first”. He was also warned not to act until he was given a further sign or to reveal anything to his family and friends; but continue as before.
Thomas Moore, his master, died a few months after this incident. Although his young son Putnam became Nat’s new owner the slaves soon found them under the supervision of Joseph Travis, the man whom Mrs. Moore married some time later.
By the beginning of 1831, Nat Turner was convinced that the time to act was near, but waited for divine sign to appear. However, he began to make preparation and confided in four trusted friends: Hark Travis, Henry Porter, Sam Francis and Nelson Williams.
On February 11, 1931, Virginia witnessed a full solar eclipse and Nat Turner took this to be a sign to start the rebellion. They initially decided to strike on July 4; however, it had to be postponed because Nat fell ill.
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On August 13, 1931 Virginia experienced another solar eclipse. Because of certain atmospheric condition, the sun appeared bluish green. However, Nat interpreted it as a sign of God and decided that it was time to strike.
The rebellion started on August 21, 1831. Some other sources put the date to August 22. The time was 2 O’clock at night. The group had around seventy black volunteers armed with hatchets, axes and knives. They did not have any fire arms. The rebels first attacked the Travis household and killed its every member. They then moved to other plantations killing the while people and freeing the slaves. Around 55 to 60 while people were thus killed in a single night.
They first met resistance by a band of white militia when they neared the town of Jerusalem, Virgina. In the beginning the rebels had an upper hand; but as reinforcement of three companies of artillery reached the spot, the rebels had to disband and escape. By the next morning only twenty of the rebels remained by his site.
Nat Turner next tried to persuade slaves of the neighboring plantations to join him; but sensing that the rebels could never win, they cast their lot with the owners. Very soon, Nat’s army was scattered and defeated. Nat himself went into hiding in Dismal Swamp area and stayed there for one month before being discovered by a white hunter. Most of his companions had by that time, been hunted down and killed.
The white militia also killed around two hundred black slaves, many of whom did not have anything to do with the rebellion. In addition, stringent laws were passed further curtailing black rights.
Capture and Execution
Nat Turner was captured accidentally by famer Benjamin Phipps on October 30, 1831. He surrendered without confrontation and was imprisoned in County Jail. His “Confession” was taken by Dr. Thomas R. Gray. Although Gray has claimed it to authentic there are many discrepancies in it and may have been altered by him to suit the ‘white’ interest.
Nat Turner was put on trial on November 5, 1831 at Southampton County Court for "conspiring to rebel and making insurrection”. As was expected, he was sentenced to death.
He was hanged on November 11, 1831. He was denied any formal burial. Instead, his body was beheaded, quartered and flayed, possibly to deny him ‘after life’. His skull was kept as a trophy. It later changed many hands.
Although the effect was not immediate, the rebellion of Nat Turner made many people think. Great abolitionists like Henry Highland Garnet and Thomas Wentworth Higginson were inspired by him.