Sunday, October 02, 2005

Celebrating the Birth of Nat Turner

Today we mark 205 years since the birth of Nat Turner (October 2, 1800 – November 11, 1931). Nat Turner, the son of slaves, was himself born the slave of Benjamin Turner, a prosperous plantation owner. Turner was to lead the 1831 slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, the most remarkable instance of black resistance to enslavement in the South.

Taught to read by his master's son, Nat developed deep religious beliefs and encouraged by his parents, gradually began to believe that God had chosen him to lead his people out of slavery. Among fellow slaves he came to be known as “The Prophet” for his religious visions.

In 1831 Turner was sold to Joseph Travis. In February of that year Nat Turner took an eclipse of the sun to be a sign from God to start an insurrection. On August 21, 1931, Turner and about seven other slaves killed Travis and his family, launching the rebellion that quickly moved house to house freeing slaves and killing whites.
Turner had hoped that his action would cause a massive slave uprising but the rebellion was suppressed within 48 hours, by then having grown to 75 slaves and free blacks, and claiming the lives of 55 whites.

Over 3,000 members of the state militia were sent to defeat Turner's rebellion. Turner eluded capture for months but on October 30 he was discovered and arrested. On November 5, Nat Turner was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. He was hanged and skinned on November 11 in Jerusalem, Virginia. His corpse was mutilated and various body parts were kept by whites as souvenirs. In further retaliation, hundreds of blacks, many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion, were beaten, tortured and murdered by hysterical white mobs.

The state legislature of Virginia too responded with a repressive policy against slaves and free blacks and an official policy was instated that forbade questioning the slave system, on the grounds that any discussion might encourage similar slave revolts.

In the end, no slave uprising in North America before or after inflicted such a severe blow to the ranks of slave owners whom from then on remained haunted by the specter of a mass slave rebellion. This is why Nat Turner is a hero to all oppressed people.


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