‘The One Hundredth Anniversary of the Nat Turner Revolt’ by N. Stevens from The Communist. Vol. 10 No. 8. August, 1931.

‘The One Hundredth Anniversary of the Nat Turner Revolt’ by N. Stevens from The Communist. Vol. 10 No. 8. August, 1931.

White bourgeois historians often repeat the fiction that the Negroes were used as slaves because of their docile nature. Comparisons are made of them with the red Indians, pointing to the latter’s fighting spirit in choosing annihilation in preference to slavery. This contrast is far from the truth. These bourgeois historians refuse to recognize historical facts and circumstances.

As a matter of fact American history is replete with Negro slave revolts. Furthermore, considering the conditions under which the Negroes were captured and brought to this country, the harshness with which they were received, and the atrocious treatment they were subjected to after they landed on these shores, it is remarkable indeed how these people were able to fight, as they did time and again, for their emancipation. Just consider the extent of the exploiters’ brutality. Agents were sent to the coast of Africa to encourage and to plot tribal wars between the coastal inhabitants and the interior. The defeated interior tribes were captured and brought to the coast as slaves. Tens of thousands were also kidnapped for the same purpose. Those captured and kidnapped were chained to each other, and driven on foot for more than a thousand miles across the land to the coast. Many thousands died on the way from famine, thirst and exhaustion. Those who survived were then put on the slave ship. Ventilation on these ships was inadequate, clothing was limited, water was insufficient and the food was abominable. “The men on the ‘slaver’ were ironed in pairs by the ankles. Men and women were compelled to lie down on their backs on the deck with their feet outward, the irons on the men being usually fastened to the deck. The space between the decks was about 3 feet 10 inches high, and they were packed so close that a space of only 5 feet long and 16 inches wide was allowed to each slave. In these quarters they remained while the human cargo was being collected (3 to 6 months) and during the passage across the Atlantic (6 to 10 weeks).”1 Thus for every slave finally imported to America, it is estimated that five more died on the way.

When those who survived these hardships were finally brought to the plantations, they found themselves far away, in a totally unknown land and among hostile strangers, hungry, ragged, miserable, bewildered and helpless. Without much ado, they were immediately put to work, under a bestial overseer. Under the rule of the whip the slaves were forced to work from sunrise to sunset. “They were given quarters no better than the stables for animals and they were fed upon the coarsest food known to be given to human beings.”2 They had no rights and were entirely dependent on their masters.

To prevent any possibilities of revolt, the Negroes were forbidden to be abroad after nine o’clock in the evening, or to be entertained, or to gather in groups after that hour. For the least violation of these rules these people were punished in a most despicable and inhuman manner. Special acts legalizing barbarous punishments to the Negroes is recorded as early as the first decade of the 18th century. In the year 1711 South Carolina calls for a law of punishment that will be “more exemplary than any punishment that had been inflicted on them.”3 The reason given was, that these Negroes “are becoming insolent and mischievous.”4 Insolent and mischievous indeed! Quite often white overseers were found dead in the field while some of the slaves had run away to a nearby Indian tribe or even to the unknown wilderness, there perhaps to die of hunger and thirst, all in the hope of freeing themselves from the slave, driver’s torture.

During the early days of slavery, as well as in the later stages, the Negroes revolted time and again, notwithstanding all the cruelties, whipping and pillory that always followed such revolts. The Negro people displayed the greatest courage and determination in their fights for liberation.

The Nat Turner revolt was the twenty-seventh of the Negro rebellions recorded by our white bourgeois historians. About half of these revolts are reported to have occurred between the years 1728 and 1765. Many revolts are also reported aboard the slave ships, with quite a number of successes, such as the Creole and the Amistad ship revolts. But most of these revolts were, “for the good of all,” not recorded by the white masters.

Under conditions described above, it is clear that large mass movements were very difficult, if not altogether impossible, yet in a number of revolts, the plot embraced large territories and thousands of slaves.

The white exploiters were eager and in fact attempted to enslave the red Indians in the same way as they did the Negroes. The Indians, however, were able to ward off the fate of the Negroes because, firstly, they were on their own soil; secondly, they had an independent economy, and thirdly, they had their organized tribes, who from the very outset gave battle to the whites, when- ever the latter kidnapped any of their members. The Indians had some means of defense—poor as it was; while the Negroes were in a strange land, dependent upon the white masters for their crust of bread and without any form of organization. The white ruling class was finally victorious in even annihilating the incorrigible Indians because of their superior mode of production, and an organized armed force which enabled them to pit the rifle against the primitive bow and arrow.

Of the many slave rebellions the Nat Turner revolt, one hundred years ago (August 21, 1831), was the best planned and it excelled all the others in its conspiratory form. The leaders went about quietly and systematically organizing the masses. The following report may be an illustration of how they: proceeded in their work. Nat Turner preached in North Carolina on the 14th of August. There many of the slaves who listened to him, signified their readiness to support him “by wearing around their necks red bandanna handkerchiefs, and who in many ways showed their rebellious spirit. This behavior, however, was not understood until after the insurrection.”5 It is evident even from the most prejudiced reports that the leaders of the revolt were devoted, self- sacrificing, determined and courageous fighters for the cause of emancipation. Here is an answer given by a slave, known as Will, to Nat Turner’s query why he joined the rebels, “My life is worth no more than theirs (the other rebels) and my liberty is as dear to me, and I shall obtain this or lose my life.”6 This correctly typifies their idealism and readiness to die for the cause. Notwithstanding the difficulties and the secrecy under which they had to work, they evidently met quite often and discussed their plans.

The revolt was originally set to begin on July 4 of the same year, but after noting the unusual arrangements and precautions taken in preparation for that year’s Independence Day, the rebels changed their plan for a more opportune time. The month of August was then decided upon. In those days August was a month of quiet and jubilee. By August the cultivation of the crops was completed, and many of the white men would then be on their vacation, hunting of fishing trips. During the month, all those slaves who had been industrious and obedient during the week would get the Saturday afternoon off as a holiday. The leaders, having chosen a quiet Sunday night for the beginning of the revolt, had been especially industrious and obedient during that week, a course which permitted them the Saturday afternoon off, thus enabling them to get together and perfect the last details of the plan.

The revolt started in Southampton, Virginia, and embraced almost the entire South. Due to some miscalculation, the revolt did not start in all the states simultaneously as planned. Prior to the Southampton outbreak and for some time thereafter, the entire South was seething with revolt. Reports of discontent and plots of revolts were uncovered in almost every state in the black belt. The country was thrown into a panic of wild excitement on Tuesday, the 23rd of August, when the news was flashed that “the slaves have risen.” Indeed they had risen! The black belt was in the wildest confusion and turmoil; “fear was seen in every face, women pale and terror-stricken, children crying for protection, men fearful and full of foreboding.”7 On the second day of the rising, nearly 60 whites had been killed. The rebels went from plantation to plantation, killing off the whites, sparing none. They had traversed a distance of 30 miles without encountering the least resistance, except that of a single man. Nat Turner, the resolute, valiant and skillful leader of this uprising, placed the best armed and most trusted men in the lead, with orders to approach the houses as fast as they could ride, so as to prevent any one from escaping who might spread the alarm. At each plantation the army of rebels increased. The slaves at each plantation visited, helped to dispatch the whites, and then either joined the army, or were left to be in charge of the plantation. Not only the leaders but all those who joined the march later, displayed the greatest courage, determination and conspiratory discipline. They were, however, very poorly armed, there being but few rifles to go around. Fowling pieces loaded with bird shot were the general weapons. There was a terrible shortage of ammunition, to the extent that even at the very first encounter with the organized white militia, the rebels were forced to use gravel for shot. The plantationists, however, though frightened and demoralized, soon had the well armed and equipped militia and the federal regular army at their disposal.

The rebels planned to reach Jerusalem—the county seat—where they had expected reinforcement in men and ammunition. But about three miles from Jerusalem they encountered the first armed resistance. In this encounter the whites were beaten and forced to retreat. The rebels pursued them for about 200 yards. There the whites obtained reinforcements. A severe battle took place, at which several of the Negroes were killed and many wounded. Realizing the enemy’s superior force, and being short of ammunition, the rebels decided to retreat, and to go by a private road to Jerusalem and attack it from the rear. Nat Turner quickly rallied his forces and proceeded along the private road. In order to reach Jerusalem by this road, they had to cross a bridge. The scouts reported that this bridge was well guarded. But Nat was not discouraged. He raised more forces and was determined to proceed. On the 23rd, however, they encountered an attack by cavalry from Greenville. The rebels were beaten and scattered. Nat made another attempt to rally his forces, but by this time the militia and the federal troops were in full control. The cavalry became particularly active in routing and killing off all suspects. By Thursday, the 25th, Nat Turner realized that the situation was hopeless. Further resistance would be useless for the present, so he called a halt for the time being. After the dispersal of his forces, Nat Turner dug a hole under a pile of fence rails in the field and concealed himself in it. There he lay for eight weeks, never venturing out except in the dead of night. He was accidentally discovered by a dog that entered the cave at night and dragged out some meat. The dog on seeing Turner near the cave, began to bark. Fearing that he would thus be discovered, Nat escaped from that hiding place. For the next fortnight he had many narrow escapes. He was eager to get out of the country, but as he could travel only at night and the patrols were very vigilant, he found escape impossible. He continued to roam from place to place, the chief means of concealment being a fodder-stack. During this long period of hiding, he undoubtedly received food and other aid in secret from the Negroes in the neighborhood, which is another attestation to the courage and conspiratory experiences of the Negroes. In the meantime the whites kept a strict vigil, and searched for him high and low. Parties were organized to go through the woods hunting for him. Prizes were set for his capture. On October the 30th one of these hunting parties finally discovered and captured him.

The merciless revenge that followed the defeat of the rebels is indescribable. Every slave in the territory affected was of course suspected, and many were shot in cold blood. General Eppes in an official report stated that “many Negroes were shot at sight, without even knowing who they were.” Were it not for the fact that shooting of slaves without a legal trial, meant a loss of so many dollars to the white masters, many more Negroes would have been killed as a warning and in revenge. As it was, many of those taken as prisoners by the troops were beheaded. “The heads of these Negroes were stuck up on poles, and for weeks their grinning skulls remained a warning to those who should undertake a similar plot. With the same purpose the captain of the marines as they marched through Vicksville on the way home, bore upon his sword the head of a rebel.”8

Nat Turner, of course, suffered most. On his capture, Sunday, October 30, ten weeks after the uprising began, he was tortured with pin pricks and brutally whipped, rolled down hill in a barrel, led around from house to house, insult and injury heaped upon him aplenty. The drunken guards knew no mercy. The next day they conveyed him to Jerusalem. Along the rout, he was tormented and cruelly mishandled by the “curious” spectators.

Discovery of Nat Turner.

On the 11th of, November the Negro leader was finally hanged. His body was handed over by the sons of this liberty-loving country to the doctors, “who skinned it and made grease of the flesh,” if we can believe a report of the time. Out of his hide, it was said, they made money purses. It is not unlikely that a grandson of one of these highly cultured Southern “gentlemen” still retains one of these purses as a token, and undoubtedly treasures it with great pride.

Of the 53 Negroes arraigned for trial, 17 were executed and 12 transported. Among those executed were one woman slave and three free Negroes.

On the day of his execution Nat Turner was but a little over 31 years of age. While all of his movements were secret, it is nevertheless pretty evident that as early as the year 1825 he was already involved in the plan of revolt. He was born a slave on October 2, 1800, five days before the execution of another great revolutionist, Gabriel Prosser, who in August of that year had attempted to lead his people in a similar unsuccessful revolt against slavery. From his very childhood Nat showed great mental ability, and was very observant of everything about him. His parents were quite intelligent. They inspired him from early childhood with the need of emancipation. His father ran away when Nat was a mere boy and never was recaptured. His mother too was rebellious and never accepted her state of slavery as a matter of course. As Nat grew older he became more inquisitive in search of knowledge. He lived a great deal in seclusion and spent much time in the woods by himself, where he studied and developed a wide information, especially in the science of astronomy. He experimented a good deal in casting different things into molds of earth, and tried to make paper, gunpowder and many other things. He became a preacher, perhaps more because of the privileges it gave which helped him to organize the revolt, than because of his belief. The white bourgeois historians refer to him as a “fanatic,” but he was no more fanatic than Sandino or the Chinese Communists are bandits. He was clear-headed, calm, intelligent and a courageous revolutionist. When he could no longer bear the plight of slavery he ran away, but returned after 30 days, realizing that as a runaway he could not be as effective in the preparation for the revolt. Even the bourgeois historian, Drewry, admits “the insurrection was not instigated by motives of revenge or sudden anger, but was the result of long deliberation and a settled purpose of mind.”

Portrait of Nat Turner by Frank Cieciorka, 1969.

A serious shortcoming of the revolt was the lack of political perspective. The rebels set out to emancipate the slaves by killing off all the whites. They had, however, no plan or program, except to rid themselves of their despicable enemies. A wider perspective was necessary. It was important, at the very outset of the rebellion, to declare for the confiscation of the great plantations and for the division of the land among the Negro masses. Then again the rebellion had to face not only the Southern plantationists, but also the entire organized American state with its armed forces and the economic machine. The American ruling class was well organized and consolidated. They had full control. It had not yet become possible at that time for a slave revolution to secure the aid and unity of the working class and the poor tenant farmers, not only in the South, but the North as well. Furthermore, apart from individual leadership, there was no centralized party. Without a strong well-organized and centralized party, there can be no successful revolution. In view of all these fundamental shortcomings and considering the brutal system of oppression the Negroes were subjected to, and the absolute lack of freedom, it is indeed remarkable, and to the credit of the Negro masses, that this revolt was extended—according to the Reverend Lorenzo Dow—“from the state of Delaware to the Gulf of Mexico.”

In view of the vastness of the plot and its systematic development, some white historians are trying to place white men behind it. But from all the facts it is clear that not only were there no whites involved in the plot, but there were but few free Negroes involved in it. It was the work of the slaves themselves. The great significance of this revolt lies in the very fact that it was not limited to the few leaders, but was a broad mass movement.


  1. E. L. Bogart, The Economic History of the U.S.
  2. Carter G. Woodson, The Negro in American History.
  3. Joshua Coffin, Account of Principal Slave Insurrections.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Drewry, Slave Insurrections in Virginia.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.

There were a number of journals with this name in the history of the movement. This ‘The Communist’ was the main theoretical journal of the Communist Party from 1927 until 1944. Its origins lie with the folding of The Liberator, Soviet Russia Pictorial, and Labor Herald together into Workers Monthly as the new unified Communist Party’s official cultural and discussion magazine in November, 1924. Workers Monthly became The Communist in March, 1927 and was also published monthly. The Communist contains the most thorough archive of the Communist Party’s positions and thinking during its run. The New Masses became the main cultural vehicle for the CP and the Communist, though it began with with more vibrancy and discussion, became increasingly an organ of Comintern and CP program. Over its run the tagline went from “A Theoretical Magazine for the Discussion of Revolutionary Problems” to “A Magazine of the Theory and Practice of Marxism-Leninism” to “A Marxist Magazine Devoted to Advancement of Democratic Thought and Action.” The aesthetic of the journal also changed dramatically over its years. Editors included Earl Browder, Alex Bittelman, Max Bedacht, and Bertram D. Wolfe.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/communist/v10n08-aug-1931-communist.pdf

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