Nat Turner's Rebellion: Echoes of Resistance from Virginia to Gaza

Nat Turner was born in Virginia in 1800, the son of slaves and the property of plantation owners.

His rebellion, which was launched August 21, 1831, and lasted two days and two nights, saw the killing of some fifty-five white men, women, and children, some (including the family of the man who owned him) in their sleep. To begin with, the rebels numbered just six besides Turner, but by the end they had recruited sixty to their cause. The plan was to go from plantation to plantation, house to house, blazing a trail of terror on their way to the county seat, where Turner aimed to raid the armory for weapons and ammunition. Today the seat of Southampton County is known as Courtland, but back then it was called — what else? — Jerusalem.

Turner's rebels never reached Jerusalem. They were met by white militias just a few miles away and either captured or killed. In the frenzy that followed, some three dozen Black people were slain in extrajudicial killings. Thirty were tried before a panel of slaveholding judges and condemned to death, though twelve later had their sentences commuted. Turner remained a fugitive for almost two months before he was caught and hanged on November 11, 1831.

A day before the first convicted rebel was executed, William Lloyd Garrison, the publisher of the abolitionist paper The Liberator, wrote:

True, the rebellion is quelled. Yet laugh not in your carnival of crime Too proudly, ye oppressors! You have seen, it is to be feared, but the beginning of sorrows.

He goes on to warn supporters of the pro-slavery cause not to seek satisfaction in the display of retributive violence. Wielding the country's overwhelming military might — "the power to kill all," as he calls it — either in revenge or as a deterrent against future slave revolts can only lead to the intensification of the conditions that motivated Turner's to begin with. It is a cycle of violence that, without being broken, will inevitably end in "a war of extermination." Written thirty years before the outbreak of the Civil War, in which as many as 750,000 Americans died to settle the matter of slavery, this insight is stunning.

In some white liberals' thirst "to apply the whip and forge new fetters," Garrison saw a deadly double standard. Isn't it enough to imagine the revolters "dripping with warm blood fresh from their lacerated bodies" to understand that their acts weren't committed in a vacuum? He railed against these "fustian declaimers for liberty" and "valiant sticklers for equal rights" who talk up the cause of freedom where it concerns "Frenchmen, Greeks, and Poles" (heroes of popular freedom fights), yet who side with the slaveholders against the oppressed in their own country. After all, it isn't just "in their stripes — in their emaciated bodies — in their ceaseless toil" that the enslaved find reason to rise up. It can be found "wherever you and your fathers have fought for liberty — in your speeches, your conversations, your celebrations, your pamphlets, your newspapers." While these hypocrites preached liberty and justice out of one side of their mouths, out the other they were calling for people born into bondage to be put down with gunfire.

"Is there aught to justify the excesses of the slaves?" Garrison asks. "No." Yet Turner's rebels "deserve no more censure than the Greeks in destroying the Turks, or the Poles in exterminating the Russians, or our fathers in slaughtering the British." Where it meets resistance, he argues, the path to freedom will be paved with bodies. Short of abolition, no amount of peace-pleading can stop the swell of righteous anger from spilling over. "The blood of millions ... cries aloud for redress! Immediate emancipation alone can save [us] from the vengeance of Heaven, and cancel the debt of ages!"

Swap occupation for enslavement, Gaza for Virginia, Israel for the US, Hamas for Turner's rebels, and you'll get the point. The parallels are obviously not one-to-one, but Garrison's commentary on the roots of insurrectionary violence, the killing of innocents, and the consequences of reprisal maps neatly onto the crisis of humanity currently unfolding in the occupied territories. So does his judgement of his pro-slavery peers. There is a nauseating bloodlust at the heart of Israel's aggression. The genocidal logic undergirding it is not unlike American-style racism, and it is bringing on death with a similar vehemence.

Vengeance continues to rain down from the heavens with "Made in USA" stickers pasted on the shells. The debt of ages will have to wait another day.

— Trevor Clarke

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