5 Famous Revolts by Enslaved People

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 enslaved people and 19th-century anti-enslavement activists around the globe. That's because under Gen. Toussaint Louverture's leadership, enslaved people there managed to successfully rebel against their colonizers, resulting in Haiti becoming an independent Black nation. On multiple occasions, enslaved Black people and anti-enslavement activists in the United States plotted to overthrow the institution of enslavement, but their plans were foiled time and time again. The individuals who strove to bring enslavement 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 revolts by enslaved people in history reveals why.

The Haitian Revolution

Toussaint Louverture
Toussaint Louverture.

Universidad De Sevilla / Flickr

The island of Saint Domingue endured more than a dozen years of unrest following the French Revolution of 1789. Free Black people on the island revolted when French enslavers refused to extend citizenship to them. Former enslaved person Toussaint Louverture led the Black people on Saint Domingue in battles against the French, British, and Spanish empires. When France moved to end enslavement 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 pro-slavery states once again, Black people 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."

The Rebellion of Gabriel Prosser

Inspired by the Haitian and American revolutions alike, Gabriel Prosser, a Virginia enslaved person in his early 20s, set out to fight for his freedom. In 1799, he hatched a plan to end enslavement 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 White, free Black, and enslaved people 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 revolt by enslaved people 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 enslaved people told their enslavers 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 an enslaved person told them his whereabouts. He and estimated 26 enslaved people in total were hanged for partaking in the plot.

The Plot of Denmark Vesey

In 1822, Denmark Vesey was a free man of color, but that didn't make him detest enslavement 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 belief in the equality of all men motivated Vesey and an enslaved person named Peter Poyas to put into action a massive revolt by enslaved people 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 enslavement. Had they actually carried out the insurrection, it would have been the largest rebellion by enslaved people to date in the United States.

The Revolt of Nat Turner

Nat Turner
Nat Turner.

Elvert Barnes / Flickr

A 30-year-old enslaved person named Nat Turner believed that God had told him to free enslaved people from bondage. Born on a Southampton County, Virginia, plantation, Turner's enslaver allowed him to read and study religion. He eventually became a preacher, a position of leadership in the. He told the other enslaved people 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 enslaved people sometimes were. He and his men then gathered the family's guns and horses and initiated a revolt with 75 other enslaved people that ended with the killings of 51 White people. The insurrection did not result in the enslaved people obtaining their freedom, and Turner became a freedom seeker for six weeks after the rebellion. Once found and convicted, Turner was hanged with 16 others.

John Brown Leads Raid

John Brown
John Brown.

Marion Doss / Flickr

Long before Malcolm X and the Black Panthers discussed using force to protect the rights of Black people, a White North American 19th-century anti-enslavement activist named John Brown advocated using violence to upend the institution of enslavement. Brown felt that God had called him to end enslavement by any means necessary. He not only attacked supporters of enslavement during the Bleeding Kansas crisis but encouraged enslaved people to revolt. Finally in 1859, he and nearly two-dozen supporters raided the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry. Why? Because Brown wanted to use the resources there to carry out an uprising by enslaved people. No such rebellion occurred, as Brown was apprehended while invading Harper's Ferry and later hanged.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "5 Famous Revolts by Enslaved People." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/five-famous-slave-revolts-2834806. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2023, April 5). 5 Famous Revolts by Enslaved People. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/five-famous-slave-revolts-2834806 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "5 Famous Revolts by Enslaved People." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/five-famous-slave-revolts-2834806 (accessed June 3, 2023).