Slave Conspiracies in Colonial Virginia
by Mary Miley Theobald
A group of Virginia slaves plotted rebellion in winter 1731. From left, interpreters Jason Gordon, Harvey Bakari, Robert Watson, Greg James, and Ayinde Martin.
There was in colonial Virginia a relentless fear of slave uprisings. Rumors and reports fed the anxieties of a slaveholding society, and some of them were founded in fact. But there was no organized slave uprising in Virginia until well into the nineteenth century. All the plots were uncovered or betrayed before they could be carried out. Luck—bad for the slaves, good for the masters—played a role, but there were other factors.
One was the number of slaves in the colony and the ability of those slaves to communicate with one another. Until the early years of the eighteenth century, there were too few slaves in Virginia to form a critical mass. Illiteracy and the lack of a common language among transported Africans scattered across unfamiliar territory hindered communication. So did distances between plantations. As conditions changed, Virginia slave conspiracies became more frequent. But not until the antebellum period did one become an insurrection.
As every Virginia fourth grader learns, the first Africans were brought to Jamestown in 1619. Labor was scarce and these few people were quickly purchased on the same terms as English indentured servants: after seven years of labor, they were free. Masters were buying labor, not people, although the distinction was lost on many. By 1625, there were said to be twenty-three Africans serving in Virginia; twenty-five years later, there were 300, or 2 percent of the population.
Rebellious indentured servants, black and white, posed a threat. Records from 1644 mention, for example, Africans belonging to a Mrs. Wormley who engaged in "riotous & rebellious conduct." But bad behavior and running away do not constitute a conspiracy.
Fear of rebellion, among other things, led to the slave patrols that hunted runaways and people "rambling Abroad" without passes. The penalties for such infractions grew increasingly harsh. Rashad Brown is the object of Lee Peters, left, and Richard Nicholl's horseback chase.
By the 1660s, the status of African servants had hardened into permanent servitude based on skin color. Now there were slaves in Virginia and labor-starved tobacco planters wanted more.
The plot exposed during this decade was a conspiracy of slaves and indentured servants who planned "to destroy their masters and afterwards to set up for themselves." According to colonist Robert Beverley, writing forty years after the fact, the uprising was led by mutinous and rebellious followers of Oliver Cromwell, "soldiers that were sent thither as servants" when King Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660. Little is known about the scheme beyond its date and location—Gloucester County in 1663. As would happen again and again, the plot was betrayed from the inside. The informant, an indentured servant named Berkenhead, received a reward of five thousand pounds of tobacco plus his freedom. Several bloody heads dangled from local chimney tops as a gruesome warning to others.
In 1681 about 3,000 slaves worked alongside 15,000 white indentured servants—about 4 percent of the population, but a number that was rising. During this decade were Virginia's first significant slave conspiracies discovered.
A widespread conspiracy in the Northern Neck was crushed in 1687. Its leaders were executed. When authorities learned that the plotting was done under the cover of gatherings for slave funerals, they prohibited slave funerals. The next year, the Northern Neck was the site of another attempted uprising, this one led by "Sam, a Negro Servt to Richard Metcalfe." A repeat offender, he had "several times endeavoured to promote a Negro Insurreccon in this Colony."
"To deter him & others from the like evil practice for time to come," the court ordered the sheriff of James City County to whip him severely, and return him to the Westmoreland County sheriff to be whipped again. Sam would forever wear "a strong Iron collar affixed about his neck with four sprigs." Should he leave his master's plantation or remove the collar, he would be hanged.
The militia patrols, often comprised of poor whites who were not slave owners, were forced to leave their farms to look for suspicious slaves, almost none of whom were guilty of anything. Richard Josey is run to ground by, from left, Ryan Remis, Doug Horota, and Bob Albergotti.
During the early years of the eighteenth century, Virginia slave conspiracies became more frequent and ambitious. In 1709 a plot involving enslaved Indians as well as Africans spread through at least three counties—James City, Surry, and Isle of Wight. Of the four ringleaders, Scipio, Salvadore, Tom Shaw, and Peter, all but Peter were quickly jailed. Their fate is not known. Peter escaped and remained at large for at least a year—a reward of £10 was still being offered in 1710 for his capture alive; £5 if dead.
Another conspiracy in the same area—perhaps inspired by Peter and involving only African American slaves—was to have begun on Easter, 1710. A slave named Will, however, betrayed it to authorities. Will got his freedom and his owner Robert Ruffin was reimbursed for his value with £40 of public money. Two of the plot's leaders were tried by the General Court, convicted, and executed. Wrote Governor Edmund Jenings in his report to the London Lords of Trade, "I hope their fate will strike such terror in the other negroes as will keep them from forming such designs for the future, without being obliged to make an example of any more of them."
When Hugh Drysdale arrived in Williamsburg in 1722 to begin his term as Virginia's governor, he found the jail full of mutinous slaves awaiting trial. Three of the leaders were convicted of "Conspiring among themselves and with the said other Slaves to kill murder & destroy very many" of His Majesty's subjects and sentenced to be sold out of the colony. According to Drysdale, their design
was to cutt off their masters, and possess themselves of the country; but as this would have been as impracticable in the attempt as it was foolish in the contrivance, I can foresee no other consequence of this conspiracy than the stirring upp the next Assembly to make more severe laws for keeping their slaves in greater subjection etc.Every slave rebellion or rumor of plotting resulted in laws increasing the severity of punishment, curtailing slaves' movements, and restricting their ability to assemble, attend funerals or religious services, or possess weapons.
Bakari, Watson, Gordon, James, and Martin as the jailed ringleaders of the 1731 Norfolk conspiracy after the chance discovery of their plot. Several were hanged.
After the 1722 conspiracy came another, perhaps related to Middlesex and Gloucester counties. It involved free blacks as well as slaves and mulattos. There was not, however, enough evidence to convict the free blacks. Seven slaves were sentenced to be sold and transported out of the colony—a decision explained by the high cost to the public treasury of reimbursing masters for executed slaves. Drysdale told the General Assembly that the laws were
very deficient in the due punishing any intended Insurrection of your Slaves, you have had a Late Experience of the Lameness of them; I am persuaded you are too well acquainted with the Cruel dispositions of those Creatures, when they have it in their power to destroy or distress, to let Slipp this faire opportunity of making more proper Laws against them.
The legislature agreed and passed additional regulations, including several aimed squarely at free blacks. Their right to vote was expressly denied, as was their ability to possess firearms.
By 1730, Indian slavery was over and the number of white indentured servants was dwindling, but black slaves had risen to about a quarter of Virginia's population. White Virginians' anxiety increased proportionately.
In the fall of that year, Governor William Gooch reported to the Board of Trade that another slave uprising had been scotched. The spark was a false rumor that "His Majesty had sent Orders for setting of them free as soon as they were Christians, and that these Orders were Suppressed." Gooch tried to learn the source of this falsehood and called out the militia to take up any slave found off his master's plantation. "A great many" were made prisoner and were whipped for "rambling Abroad," and by this method Gooch hoped "to Convince them that their best way is to rest contented with their Condition."
Six months later, in the middle of winter, Phase Two of the insurrection began:
Negros, in the Countys of Norfolk & Princess Anne, had the boldness to Assemble on a Sunday while the People were at Church, and to Chuse from amongst themselves Officers to Comand them in their intended Insurrection, which was to have been put in Execution very soon after: But this Meeting being happily discovered and many of them taken up and examined, the whole Plot was detected.
After a trial, four ringleaders were executed and the rest harshly punished.
News of the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831 in Southampton County, Virginia, was broadcast to the nation in bloody tales of merciless murder. Twenty slaves hanged, and about 100 more, many innocent, lost their lives in the tide of revenge that followed.
The insurrection had spread to as many as five other counties, Gooch informed the Board of Trade, though the plot had not advanced as far in them as it had in Norfolk County. He ordered the militia to patrol two or three times a week to prevent night meetings, and had every man bring his guns to church on Sundays so that they would not "be Seized by the Slaves in their Absence, if the same mutinous Spirit should be Revived amongst them." Gooch told the Bishop of London that some of the blame for slave unrest fell on cruel masters who "use their Negroes no better than their Cattle."
Word of the aborted uprising blew like the wind to other Atlantic colonies. In Philadelphia, Ben Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette reported that the insurrection was:
Occasioned by a Report at Col. Spottswood's Arrival, that he had Direction from his Majesty to free all baptiz'd Negroes; many Masters and Mistresses having baptized their Slaves in Order to instruct them in the Christian Faith: The Negroes have improve'd this Notion to a great Height: It is said some of the Ringleaders are taken: Five Counties are in Arms pursuing others, with Order to kill them if they do not Submit.
The Gazette story attempted to reassure its readers with a patronizing bit of humor reported by Captain Willis of the Amity, who had just arrived in Philadelphia from Virginia. During the voyage, a black stowaway was discovered on board. The man said that he was heading to England on behalf of the slaves to petition the king for their freedom. "He was going Embassador from the Negroes to his Majesty King George. However, his Excellency was turned ashore, and whip't thro' every County to the Place from whence he came."
The Norfolk conspiracy led to further crackdowns on the slave population and stringent demands on Virginia's militia. The militia was made up not of paid professional military men but of farmers and planters, many of whom did not own slaves. Armed and mounted, the militia's job was to patrol the countryside in search of suspicious gatherings, a dangerous process so time-consuming that it "has occasioned a good deal of Fatigue to the Militia, and some loss in their Crops, as happening at a time their Labour & Industry were much wanted in their Grounds." This expensive system of policing brought grumbles from the poor whites who owned no slaves themselves and were unable to pay fines for failure to perform the required militia duty. They recognized that the system favored the slave-owning minority who were compensated with tax money for slaves that were executed and who could buy their way out of participating in the patrols. The resentment of poor whites would reach its peak during the Civil War when similar exemptions excused slave owners from the fighting.
For the next one hundred years, Virginia's enslaved and free blacks continued to plot uprisings, but, like Gabriel Prosser's 1800 rebellion near Richmond, all were discovered or abandoned before they could be put into motion. In other colonies from South Carolina to New York, however, major uprisings shook the white population.
One hundred years after the discovery of the Norfolk conspiracy, the worst fears of Virginia's whites were realized. In 1831 in Southampton County, Nat Turner led the first successful slave revolt in Virginia, the largest and most consequential in United States history. Inspired by the success of a Haitian revolution in 1790 that freed the island's slaves and threw off French rule, Turner aimed for no less. The immediate result was about sixty white farmers killed and about twenty captured slaves tried and hanged. But the backlash resulted in the deaths of as many as a hundred more slaves, many who had nothing to do with the rebellion, and laws that made the "peculiar institution" even harsher than it had been.
What made Turner's rebellion succeed when all previous attempts had failed? This time the uprising was not betrayed, but it was demographics that made the difference.
Virginia's African American population had grown to nearly half a million, or 40 percent of the total. No Africans had been brought to America legally since the end of the slave trade in 1808, so most of Virginia's slaves were "country born" rather than "outlandish," meaning born in lands out of the country, or Africa. They communicated easily amongst themselves in English and were familiar with the countryside and with white customs and habits. The leaders of the most elaborate slave insurrections—men like Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner—were literate. They were preachers or possessed specific skills such as blacksmithing or carpentry that enabled them to move about with greater freedom than the average field hand. Ironically, the more valuable certain slaves became in terms of skills and abilities, the more adept they were in resisting slavery. They had acculturated and, having done so, had greater talent for coordinating rebellion.
For further reading:
- "In Mind and Heart" with the Enslaved of Yesteryear from the Summer 2003 Journal
- African Americans
- Podcast: Behind the Scenes Interview: Dunmore's Proclamation