Colonial Williamsburg® The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's Official History and Citizenship Website

Page content
Reset text sizeResize text larger

"Slave Trader, Sold to Tennessee..." watercolor by Lewis Miller, Virginia, 1853-1867.

The Fear of Slave Revolt

Today, it is hard to imagine how terribly violent slavery was. Slaves feared the violence of masters. Masters feared slave revolts. Worse, whites knew that any small provocation might ignite the spark. Look at the following Virginia Gazette description of a slave revolt on Bowler Cocke's Hanover County, Virginia, plantation in 1770. It began because a slave did not light the morning fire soon enough.

"Some time about Christmas last, a tragical affair happened at a plantation in North Wales, Hanover County, belonging to Bowler Cocke, Esq; the particulars of which, according to the accounts we have received, are as follows, viz. The Negroes belonging to the plantation having long been treated with too much lenity and indulgence, were grown extremely insolent and unruly; Mr. Cocke therefore had employed a new Steward. The Steward's deputy (a young man) had ordered one of the slaves to make a fire every morning very early; the fellow did not appear until sunrise; on being examined why he came not sooner, he gave most insolent and provoking answers, upon which, the young man going to chastise him, the fellow made a stroke at him with an axe (or some such weapon) that was in his hand, but happily missed him. The young man then closed with him, and having the advantage, a number of the other slaves came to the Negro's assistance, and beat the young man severely. At last, the ringleader (a very sensible fellow) interceded for him, on which they desisted. The young man ran off as fast as he could to procure assistance to quell them. Whilst he was gone, they tied up the Steward, and also a poor innocent, helpless old man, who overlooked a neighboring quarter, and on hearing the uproar had [come] across the creek to know the cause of it. There they [were] whipped till they were raw from the neck to the waistband. In some time the young man returned, with about twelve white men, and two little boys carrying each a gun. They released the two unhappy sufferers, and then proceeded to a barn, where they found a large body of Negroes assembled (some say forty, some fifty) on which they tried to prevail by persuasion, but the slaves, deaf to all they said, rushed upon them with desperate fury, armed with clubs and staves; one of them knocked down a White man, and was going to repeat the blow to finish him, which one of the boys seeing, levelled his piece, discharged its contents into the fellow's breast, and brought him to the dust. Another fellow, having also knocked down another of the Whites, was, in the same manner, shot by the other boy. In short, the battle continued sometime desperate, but another of the Negroes having his head almost cut off with a broad sword, and five of them being wounded, the rest fled. The accounts vary; some say three were killed upon the spot, and five wounded, others that two were killed, and five wounded, one of whom died soon after. It is said they had threatened to kill the Steward as soon as he came to the plantation. The ringleader was one of the slain."

Source: Virginia Gazette (Rind), January 25, 1770.

This newspaper article clearly communicates the violence of slavery, but it is important to remember that this account is written from the white master's point of view. It is a story about white Virginia's greatest fear. Can we really know what happened? Maybe the so-called "ringleader" was not leading the revolt at all. Perhaps he only tried to calm the violence and negotiate the release of the Steward and the old man. Did the band of twelve armed white men really try to persuade the forty or fifty frightened slaves to come out of the barn peaceably? Or, did they taunt and threaten them? We will never know. We can only read these and other primary sources and wonder at the horror and violence of a system of slavery that every man and woman-black and white-feared.

This article was written by Dr. William E. White, Director, Educational Program Development, Department of Education Outreach, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.