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Five Famous Slave Revolts

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Natural disasters. Political corruption. Economic instability. The devastating impact these factors have had on Haiti in the 20th and 21st centuries have led the world to view the nation as tragic. But in the early 1800s when Haiti was a French colony known as Saint Domingue, it became a beacon of hope to slaves and abolitionists around the globe. That’s because under Gen. Toussaint Louverture’s leadership, slaves there managed to successfully rebel against their colonizers, resulting in Haiti becoming an independent black nation. On multiple occasions, enslaved blacks and abolitionists in the United States plotted to overthrow the institution of slavery, but their plans were foiled time and time again. The individuals who strove to bring slavery to a radical end paid for their efforts with their lives. Today, socially conscious Americans remember these freedom fighters as heroes. A look back at the most notable slave revolts in history reveals why.

1. The Haitian Revolution

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The island of Saint Domingue endured more than a dozen years of unrest following the French Revolution of 1789. Free blacks on the island revolted when French plantation owners refused to extend citizenship to them. Former slave Toussaint Louverture led the blacks on Saint Domingue in battles against the French, British, and Spanish empires. When France moved to end slavery in its colonies in 1794, Louverture broke ties with his Spanish allies to team up with the French republic.

After neutralizing Spanish and British forces, Louverture—Saint Domingue’s commander-in-chief—decided that it was time for the island to exist as an independent nation rather than a colony. As Napoleon Bonaparte, who became France’s ruler in 1799, plotted to make French colonies slave states once again, blacks on Saint Domingue continued battling for their independence. Although French forces eventually captured Louverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe led the charge against France in his absence. The men triumphed, leading Saint Domingue to become the West’s first sovereign black nation. On Jan. 1, 1804, Dessalines, the new leader of the nation, renamed it Haiti, or a “higher place.”

2. Gabriel Prosser’s Rebellion

Inspired by the Haitian and American revolutions alike, Gabriel Prosser, a Virginia slave in his early 20s,set out to fight for his freedom. In 1799, he hatched a plan to end slavery in his state by occupying Capitol Square in Richmond and holding Gov. James Monroe hostage. He planned to get support from local Native Americans, French troops stationed in the area, working whites, free blacks, and slaves to carry out the insurrection. Prosser and his allies recruited men from all over Virginia to take part in the rebellion. “In this way they were preparing for the most far-reaching slave revolt ever planned in U.S. history,” according to PBS. “They also amassed weapons and began hammering swords out of scythes and molding bullets.”

Scheduled for Aug. 30, 1800, the rebellion hit a snag when a violent thunderstorm pounded Virginia on that day. Prosser had to call the insurrection off since the storm made it impossible to traverse roads and bridges. Unfortunately, Prosser would never have the opportunity to re-launch the plot. Some slaves told their masters about the revolt in the works, leading Virginia officials to look out for rebels. After a couple of weeks on the run, the authorities captured Prosser after a slave told them his whereabouts. He and estimated 26 slaves in total were hanged for partaking in the plot.

3. Denmark Vesey’s Plot

In 1822, Denmark Vesey was a free man of color, but that didn’t make him detest slavery any less. Although he’d purchased his freedom after winning the lottery, he could not purchase the freedom of his wife and children. This tragic circumstance and his Because he belief in the equality of all men motivated Vesey and a slave named Peter Poyas to put into action a massive slave revolt in Charleston, S.C. Just before the insurrection was to take place, however, an informer exposed Vesey’s plot. Vesey and his supporters were put to death for their attempt to overthrow the institution of slavery. Had they actually carried out the insurrection, it would have been the largest slave rebellion to date in the United States.

4. Nat Turner’s Revolt

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A 30-year-old slave named Nat Turner believed that God had told him to free slaves from bondage. Born on a Southampton County, Va., plantation, Turner’s owner allowed him to read and study religion. He eventually became a preacher, a position of leadership in the African-American community. He told the other slaves that he’d deliver them from bondage. With six accomplices, Turner in August 1831 killed the white family he’d been loaned out to work for, as slaves sometimes were. He and his men then gathered the family’s guns and horses and initiated a revolt with 75 other slaves that ended with the killings of 51 whites. The insurrection did not result in the slaves obtaining their freedom, and Turner became a fugitive for six weeks after the rebellion. Once found and convicted, Turner was hanged with 16 others.

5. John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry

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Long before Malcolm X and the Black Panthers discussed using force to protect the rights of African Americans, a white abolitionist named John Brown advocated using violence to upend the institution of slavery. Brown felt that God had called him to end slavery by any means necessary. He not only attacked supporters of slavery during the Bleeding Kansas crisis but encouraged slaves to revolt. Finally in 1859, he and nearly two-dozen supporters raided the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Why? Because Brown wanted to use the resources there to carry out a slave uprising. No such rebellion occurred, as Brown was apprehended while invading Harper’s Ferry and later hanged.
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