A Comparative Study of Nineteenth Century Slave Revolts and the Press Perception of Those Revolts

Slave revolts were a significant part of the late history of the slave trade in the Americas. This paper will compare and explore three different slave revolts in 19th century in the United States. The three revolts being investigated will be, Deslondes Slave Revolt in 1811, Nat Turner Slave Revolt in 1831 and the Creole Slave Revolt in 1841. The purpose behind the research is to explore; if slave revolts influenced other slave groups to revolt, if there was influence from abolitionist groups to encourage revolts, and how slave revolts were portrayed in the press. The goal is to compare the three revolts and how they changed how American society viewed slavery and how the revolts were understood and reported in the press.

            The 1811 slave revolt which is referred to as the Louisiana Slave Revolt, the German Coast Slave Revolt, or the Deslondes Slave Revolt began on French Plantations which became part of the United States after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, these plantation owners had escaped Saint-Domingue/ Haiti towards the end of the Haitian Revolution, the plantation owners had also brought many of their slaves with them to Louisiana, which still had a sizable French population, many of the slaves that had been brought over continue to hold the spirit of the Haitian Revolution which may have been a large reason for the revolt. The Nat Turner Revolt in 1831 was led by an enslaved preacher who described himself as a prophet. This revolt was likely the bloodiest of the slave revolts and left a significant legacy in U.S. history. The Creole Revolt took place on a slave trade ship called the Creole which was bound to Lousiana from Virginia in 1841, the slaves onboard the ship mutinied taking the ship to the Bahamas, which was a British colony where they were freed.

The Slave Revolts

Deslondes Revolt – NoirNola.com

            To understand these three revolts, a review of the facts of the revolts is necessary. The first revolt to be reviewed took place on the German Coast along Lake Pontchartrain in 1811 it is referred to as the Deslondes Slave Revolt, the Louisiana Revolt of 1811 or the German Coast Revolt. For the sake of this paper, it will be referred to as the Deslondes revolt to eliminate confusion. Charles Deslondes was a slave who had been transported from Santo Domingue during the Haitian Revolution when many French plantation owners were fleeing the slave uprising there. Many of these plantation owners settled in the Louisiana Territory a place with a known French and Spanish history and culture. The Deslondes Revolt took place at the same time that the United States Congress was considering statehood for Louisiana. In December 1810, Deslondes began planning the revolt, working with other slaves whom he swore to secrecy. Governor W.C.C. Claiborne had apparently been alerted that some sort of issue was about to begin, On January 7, 1811, he sent a letter to U.S. General Wade Hampton who was in charge of the army garrison at New Orleans. Governor Claiborne wrote in the letter that, “such part of our territory… may be infested with brigands.” It is uncertain to know whether Governor Claiborne felt a threat from the Spanish who were threatened by the potential for Louisiana statehood and the effect on other Spanish held territories nearby or he had been passed information about the potential for a slave revolt.[1]

            The revolt began in January with the uprising of as many as three hundred to five hundred slaves. An attack began on the plantation of Michael Andre who wrote to Governor Claiborne, “ Sir, I have only time to inform you, in the shortest way, of the unfortunate events which have lately happened, and of which I am one of the principal sufferers.”[2] Andre later wrote to a newspaper, and his letter was published in several other newspapers, “an atrocious gang of banditti” attempted to “assassinate” him “with the stroke of an axe” and that his “poor son” had been “ferociously murdered by a band of brigands.”[3] Andre was the owner of more than 80 slaves on his plantation one of which was Charles Deslondes.[4] “The rebels’ ranks swelled as they moved onto adjacent plantations, torching and looting several residences along the way. White families, in some cases alerted by loyal slaves, poured into New Orleans on Wednesday from their east-bank residences below Andry’s estate. François-Xavier Martin, a French- born judge on the territorial superior court, witnessed the panicked entrance “of carriages, wagons and carts, filled with women and children … bringing the most terrible accounts” of the uprising.”[5]

Deslondes Re-enactment – Associated Press

            Reports were received that the group of slaves were marching towards New Orleans, prompting the U.S. Army Garrisons at New Orleans and from Baton Rouge, as well as Louisiana Militia who were carried on a U.S. Navy ship up the Mississippi River to help subdue the uprising. The navy commander also considered dispatching a 16 gun Brig to assist the army and militia forces.[6] Two federal units descended upon those who had revolted, the military units surrounded them and exacted terrible retribution upon them including hanging some black prisoners on the spot and beheading others placing their heads on poles along the river. Deslondes who had escaped the massacre later turned himself in under a flag of truce, but he too was executed at the Andre plantation.[7] The revolt lasted just a few days, it however showed a significant impression in the media throughout the country which will be discussed later in this article.

            The Nat Turner revolt is likely the most well-known slave revolt in U.S. history. Nat Turner was born into enslavement ins Southampton County, Virginia. Turner learned to read at a young age which was unusual for slaves in the southern states. He also took an interest in religion, listening intently to white preachers who were brought to preach to the slaves on Sundays, the only day when slaves were allowed rest. In his late teens, Turner began to preach on his own to the gathered slaves, which was welcomed by local slave holders. Turner eventually began to believe that God was speaking directly to him and he was a prophet of messages to enslaved peoples. Over several years, Turner was sold to several owners separating him from his mother, his wife, and his children. In 1831, Turner would lead the largest slave revolt in Virginia history, a revolt that would cause significant terror across the country.[8]

Nat Turner – Time.com

            In 1831, there was a great amount of concern for slave revolts, news had spread through the press of a number of small slave revolts in the south, slave owners began to have grave concerns over their slaves rising up and possibly murdering them and their families. Press reports and rumors spread the story and began to cause a frenzy throughout the south. Turner stated that at the sign from God, which he saw as the solar eclipse in February 1831, “I should arise and prepare myself, and slay my enemies with their own weapons. And immediately on the sign appearing in the heavens, the seal was removed from my lips, and I communicated the great work laid out for me to do.”[9] Turner shared his prophecy with his friends and enlisted their help and with their help, Turner’s friends invited several others to join them. These men rode on horseback to several farms and plantations that had owned slaves. In total the men murdered sixty-six men, women, and children based on the prophecy of Turner. Upon Turner’s capture, over twenty days following the initial incident, Turner confessed to attorney Thomas Ruffin. In Turner’s final statement to Ruffin, he stated, “During the time I was pursued, I had many hairbreadth escapes, which your time will not permit you to relate. I am here loaded with chains, and willing to suffer the fate that awaits me.”[10] On November 11th, 1831, Nat Turner was hanged in Jerusalem, the county seat of Southampton County, Virginia. There was a great deal of press coverage of the events of Nat Turner’s revolt, including Ruffin’s conversation and confession from Turner himself.

            The Brig ‘Creole’ was a cargo transport ship based in Richmond, Virginia, at the end of October 1841, the ship set sail bound for New Orleans, Louisiana. The following passage is taken from the historical record read to the United State Senate regarding a mutiny on board the ship.

Creole Revolt – BlackFacts.org

“It appears that the brig “Creole,” of Richmond, Virginia, Insor, master, bound to New Orleans, sailed from Hampton Roads on the 27th of October last, with a cargo of merchandize, principally to bacco, and slaves, (about 135 in number); that on the evening of the 7th of November, some of the slaves rose upon the crew of the vessel, murdered a passenger named Hewell, who owned some of the negroes, wounded the captain dangerously, and the first mate and two of the crew severely ; that the slaves soon obtained complete possession of the brig, which under their direction was taken into the port of Nassau, in the island of New Providence, where she arrived on the morning of the 9th of the same month; that at the request of the American Consul in that place, the Governor ordered a guard on board, to prevent the escape of the mutineers, and with a view to an investigation of the circumstances of the case ; that such investigation was accordingly made by two British magistrates, and that an examination also took place by the Consul; that on the report of the magistrates, nineteen of the slaves were imprisoned by the local authorities as having been concerned in the mutiny and murder, and their surrender to the Consul, to be sent to the United States for trial for these crimes, was refused on the ground that the Governor wished first to communicate with the Government in England on the subject; that through the interference of the Colonial authorities, and even before the military guard was removed, the greater number of the remaining slaves were liberated, and encouraged to go beyond the power of the master of the vessel, or the American Consul, by proceedings which neither of them could control.”[11]

The ship had been captured by slaves who had mutinied, against their owner and the ship’s crew forcing it to the British colony of the Bahamas where slavery was unlawful under British law.

Upon hearing the statements of the ship’s captain and crew, most of the mutineers were freed and allowed to enter the island of New Providence. The story of the creole became one of legend and the leader of the mutiny Madison Washington became a symbol of pride amongst slaves and was seen as a hero by abolitionists for his planning and execution of this uprising.[12] The details of the Creole uprising spread quickly through the press because it had been brought directly to the attention of the President and the Senate. The uprising began to cause fear amongst those who traded and transported enslaved peoples along the Atlantic Coast and even caused changes to the sailing patterns of trade ships on the Atlantic Coast and Gulf of Mexico out of fear another ship would be taken to other places where slaves could seek freedom such as Haiti or Jamaica.

Slave revolts in the Press

            The press at the outset of the nineteenth century was largely hand printed stories of local news, advertisements and stories printed by other newspapers that had been mailed from other parts of the country. In many cases these stories were being printed weeks to months after they had happened. News was not being relayed by telegraph until the 1850s, so the news stories regarding slave uprisings were likely not known to the public outside of the local area for some time. This delay in the reporting would cause some panic in other regions an extended time after the incident had resolved. Another consideration regarding the newspapers of the nineteenth century is that many of the news stories relayed were based on letters written by the victims of incidents. In the case of slave uprisings, some of the “news stories” were the actual writings of the slave owners who may have been the target of the uprising. Some of these people wrote under pseudonyms to separate their name from the reporting. Some of the writings sensationalized the story which helped the printer sell more newspapers.

            In the case of the Deslondes Revolt, local press coverage was quite subdued regarding the revolt, this was likely out of fear that it would “adversely influence the slave market.”[13] The press appeared to have more concern over business than it did for the citizens of New Orleans and Louisiana regarding the revolt. Outside of Louisiana, the story of the revolt had spread. “A March 25th, Times of London item, for example, mentioned “a very serious insurrection which had taken place among the negroes, who had set fire to many plantations, and destroyed property to a vast amount.”[14] The story had reached across the ocean in three months, though it was different from the story that was initially printed locally.

            The Governor of Louisiana did work to inform the public about the incident, he wrote a letter to the Louisiana Gazette stating, “as a January 10 Louisiana Gazette item, credited to Claiborne, indicated. In it the governor told readers that the “brigands” numbered from “180 to 500.” Giving further details, he wrote, “The mischief done is not ascertained—there is, however, reason to apprehend that several of our fellow citizens have been massacred, some dwelling houses burnt and others pillaged.” He urged the citizens of New Orleans to “continue their vigilance.”[15] Later in January, further reports regarding the incident were reported in the Louisiana Gazette from a person writing under the pseudonym “Z” who is largely believed to be Michael Andre, based on the details he gave about the incident. “Z” wrote, “It is very difficult to obtain anything like a correct statement of the damages done by the banditti on the coast.” This telling estimated the insurrectionist camp as being possibly “500 strong, and that at least one half of them were armed with muskets and fusils, and the others with sabres and cane knives.” According to “Z,” the black slaves broke “open sideboards and liquor stores” on the André plantation, “getting half drunk” before their march toward New Orleans. His words recalled the stories from Haiti as he described the ensuing panic: “The road for two or three leagues was crowded with carriages and carts full of people, making their escape from the ravages of the banditti.”[16] Newspapers in New York and Pennsylvania printed a letter written to a man in Chester, Pennsylvania which stated. “You cannot easily form an idea of the alarm and confusion that prevailed on the first news of this event, many of the inhabitants of this place were sufferers in the insurrection at Cape Francois (Saint Domingue/Haiti).”[17] These newspaper stories spread wildly through the country and often facts were exaggerated causing further panic over the situation.

Richmond Free Press

            In the newspaper coverage of the Nat Turner Revolt, historians note “hysterical style of the press” which was, “constantly alarming and hyperbolic.”[18] Examples of this hyperbole can be found in newspapers in Virginia and North Carolina, “The Richmond Enquirer reported on August 30, 1831, of “some very unpleasant rumors of similar disturbances in our sister State of North Carolina.” The newspaper contained a letter from Halifax, east of Raleigh, which asked for “2 kegs of Gun Powder” because “the negroes [sic] here have risen against the White people….” The Halifax writer said that “the whole county is in an uproar. We have to keep guard night and day. We have had no battle yet, but it’s expected every hour.”[19]  Other newspapers did dispel the rumors of a great insurrection, The Richmond Enquirer, in Virginia printed, “the burning of property and massacre of several white 11 families” had been erroneously reported. It also said that two blacks had been executed, adding “while we rejoice to hear that no [white] lives are lost, there should be no relaxation of vigilance and precaution.”[20] The newspapers had themselves created a panic without reason or justification, this panic caused local governments to call up militias for the safety of their citizens from a threat that did not exist. The panic that ensued caused the murder of possibly more than 200 slaves and freedmen in North Carolina and Virginia.

There was also a great deal of coverage in Virginia regarding the Nat Turner Revolt, the Richmond Constitutional Whig printed in one story:

“Disagreeable rumors having reached this city of an insurrection of the slaves in Southampton County, with loss of life, in order to correct exaggerations, and at the same time to induce all salutary caution, we state the following particulars.

An express from the Hon. James Trezevant states that an insurrection had broken out, that several families had been murdered, and that the negroes were embodied, requiring a considerable military force to reduce them.

The names and precise numbers of the families is not mentioned. A letter from the Postmaster corroborates the intelligence. Prompt and efficient measures are being taken by the Governor, to call up a sufficient force to put down the insurrection, and place lower Virginia on its guard.

Serious danger, of course, there is none. The deluded wretches have rushed on assured destruction. The Fayette Artillery and the Light Dragoons leave here this evening for Southampton—the artillery to go in a Steamboat, and the Troop by land.

We understand that the insurrection in Southampton is little more than the irruption [sic] of 150 or 200 runaway slaves from the Dismal Swamp, incited by a spirit of plunder and rapine. It will be quickly suppressed.”[21]

            The Richland newspapers had reported information they received from happenstance and conjecture without knowing the full details of what had happened in Southampton County nearly seventy-five miles away. The Richmond Enquirer reported similar information as the Richmond Constitutional Whig had, but was reporting the uprising near Halifax, North Carolina, fifty miles further away than Southampton, Virginia.

Newspaper coverage of the Creole revolt was very similar to the coverage of other revolts. Newspapers in the coastal cities, especially in the south held concern for other ships that may carry slaves to other ports in the United States and the fear of revolts abord those ships. This panic was enhanced by the fact that the British Government had freed the mutineers citing that the mutiny had taken place outside the jurisdiction of the United States and Great Britain and as slavery was illegal under British law, British government officials could not interfere with the dealings of free men who had not violated British law. Abolitionist newspapers which had arisen with the growing Anti-slavery movement gave praise, the New York Evangelist called the slaves, “The Hero Mutineers.”

Conclusions

            These three revolts show a coming thread of slaves fighting for their liberty from the extreme oppression of slavery. While it is difficult to say what inspired each other groups of slaves to rise up, there is evidence to show that at least two of the groups had knowledge of slave revolts that had happened prior to these uprisings. Although there may be no direct connection between these incidents and prior incidents, there is evidence that at least some information had been gained from other uprisings. While many southern ‘Slave Codes’ forbid fraternization with slaves from other plantations or owners, it was difficult to enforce these rules especially in larger towns and cities. It is very likely that news of slave revolts spread among communities of enslaved people by word of mouth.

            There is no notable evidence among the documentation reviewed to show that any of these slave revolts were an action cause by outside influences. No noted evidence connects these slave uprisings with Abolition or Anti-slavery groups in the free states or otherwise. From the resources gathered it would appear that each of these uprisings were planned and carried out by the enslaved people themselves without outside influences other than the actions and treatment of the slave owners themselves.

The press reactions to these incidents were sensationalized to an extent that without significant study of primary sources from the incident. In reading the press accounts, it could be believed that all of these uprisings could have led to a nationwide slave revolt. The press items covered show a great deal of hyperbole and in some cases a complete misunderstanding of facts and locations. The truth of these revolts can luckily be found in the historic documentation of the incidents themselves.

Bibliography:

Gabrial, Brian “Alarming beyond Expression”: Moral Panics and the “Hysterical Style of the Press” after Nat Turner’s 1831 Revolt in Southampton County, Virginia. 2005

Jay, William. The Creole Case, and Mr. Webster’s Despatch; with the Comments of the N.Y. American. New-York, NY: Pub. at the Office of the “New-York American”, 1842.

The Creole Case and Mr. Webster’s Despatch. New York American. (New York American Publishing.). 1842

Paquette, Robert. “A Horde of Brigands?” The Great Louisiana Slave Revolt of 1811 Reconsidered. Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, SPRING 2009, Vol. 35, No. 1, Histories of Resistance (Spring 2009), pp. 72-96

Roth, Sarah. “Whig Aug 23: Nat-Turner.” Nat Turner Project. Meredith College, 2015. https://www.natturnerproject.org/whig-aug23.

Rupprecht, Anita. ‘‘All We Have Done, We Have Done for Freedom’’: The Creole Slave-Ship Revolt (1841) and the Revolutionary Atlantic. International Review of Social History, Vol. 58, Special Issue 21: Mutiny and Maritime Radicalism in the Age of Revolution: A Global Survey (2013), Pages 254-255

Turner, Nat & Ruffin, Thomas. The Confessions of Nat Turner. African-American Protest Literature. November 1831.


Notes:

[1] Gabrial, Brian. “Haiti in 1791, Gabriel Prosser’s 1800 Conspiracy, and the 1811 German Coast Slave Revolt.” In The Press and Slavery in America, 1791-1859: The Melancholy Effect of Popular Excitement, 17-28.

[2] Gabrial. Page 26.

[3] Gabrial. Page 26.

[4] Robert Paquette, “A Horde of Brigands?” The Great Louisiana Slave Revolt of 1811 Reconsidered. Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, SPRING 2009, Vol. 35, No. 1, Histories of Resistance (Spring 2009), pp. 72-96

[5] Paquette. Page 74.

[6] Paquette. Page 75

[7] Gabrial, Brian. “Haiti in 1791, Gabriel Prosser’s 1800 Conspiracy, and the 1811 German Coast Slave Revolt.” In the Press and Slavery in America, 1791-1859: The Melancholy Effect of Popular Excitement, 17-28.

[8] Nat Turner & Thomas Ruffin, The Confessions of Nat Turner. African-American Protest Literature. November 1831.Page 390.

[9] Turner. Page 392

[10] Turner. Page 393

[11] The Creole Case and Mr. Webster’s Despatch. New York American. 1842 (New York American Publishing. Page 5-6

[12] Anita Rupprecht. ‘‘All We Have Done, We Have Done for Freedom’’: The Creole Slave-Ship Revolt (1841) and the Revolutionary Atlantic. International Review of Social History, Vol. 58, Special Issue 21: Mutiny and Maritime Radicalism in the Age of Revolution: A Global Survey (2013), Pages 254-255

[13] Gabrial, Brian. “Haiti in 1791, Gabriel Prosser’s 1800 Conspiracy, and the 1811 German Coast Slave Revolt.” In the Press and Slavery in America, 1791-1859: The Melancholy Effect of Popular Excitement, Page 26.

[14] Gabrial. Page 26

[15] Gabrial. Page 27

[16] Gabrial. Page 27

[17] Gabrial. Page 27

[18] Brian Gabrial, “Alarming beyond Expression”: Moral Panics and the “Hysterical Style of the Press” after Nat Turner’s 1831 Revolt in Southampton County, Virginia. 2005. Page 5

[19] Brian Gabrial, “Alarming beyond Expression”: Moral Panics and the “Hysterical Style of the Press” after Nat Turner’s 1831 Revolt in Southampton County, Virginia. 2005. Page 12

[20] Gabrial. page 12-13

[21] Sarah Roth, “Whig Aug 23: Nat-Turner,” Nat Turner Project (Meredith College, 2015), https://www.natturnerproject.org/whig-aug23.

Author:

Greetings! I am Shawn MacIntyre, and I grew up with a love of history. When most kids were watching cartoons I was watching documentaries. After a long career in public safety, I chose to return to college to seek a new career path bringing history to the public. In April 2019. I graduated from Point Park University with a Bachelor's Degree in History, Magna Cum Laude. My new path is to make learning history fun, exciting and accessible to everyone. I invite you to join me on my journeys to historic destinations, learn interesting facts about the past, and spark a love for history!

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