A book by Nat Turner as recorded by Thomas R. Gray
After listening to a podcast on various revolts in Early America, I have been keen to do research on some of them and find out more information. The most interesting of these, were stories of various slave revolts that happened as far back as the late 1700s and early 1800s, just as America had shaken the yokes of British oppression, only to seemingly create yokes of their own for farmers, poor people, laborers, and of course slaves. It’s a interesting part of history that largely gets overlooked when folks discuss anything from 1776 to the Civil War basically. The subject of today’s book review is the tale of one of those slave revolts – happening in August of 1831, a self educated slave preacher rocked Virginia society to it’s very foundation. This is the story of Nat Turner’s rebellion, in his own words.
“During a span of approximately thirty-six hours, on August 21-22, a band of enslaved people murdered over fifty unsuspecting white people around Southampton, Virginia. The exact number killed remains unsubstantiated—various sources claim anywhere from fifty to sixty-five. Almost all of those involved or suspected of involvement in the insurrection were put to death, including Nat Turner, who was the last known conspirator to be captured. Following his discovery, capture, and arrest over two months after the revolt, Turner was interviewed in his jail cell by Thomas Ruffin Gray, a wealthy Southampton lawyer and slave owner. The resulting extended essay, “The Confessions of Nat Turner, The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, VA.,” was used against Turner during his trial. The repercussions of the rebellion in the South were severe: many slaves who had no involvement in the rebellion were murdered out of suspicion or revenge.”
This book is predominantly the words that were purported to be the spoken account of the so-called “Late Insurrection” by Nat Turner himself as told to Thomas R. Gray in his jail cell prior to trial. This is bookended with some introductory information about the court proceedings, and a testament that this account was read to Nat Turner during the trial, by which he agreed they were his words. Later on, the book contains a list of all murdered by the rebels, and all slaves that had been previously apprehended for their part in the episode. I say purportedly because who knows if this was an actual confession or some kind of false confession after hours of interrogation – sadly we will never know. Most historians accept it as true, so I will go under the impression that is the case.
It’s amazing that Mr. Turner was not wiped entirely from history, had Gray, a lawyer, not transcribed and published his words, I’m sure Turner would only exist as an old southern boogeyman – long forgotten for hundreds of years. There are other notable slave revolts including one in South Carolina at the Stono River, one led by a slave named Gabriel in Virginia, and another named Denmark Vessey of South Carolina.
I was happy to see this book was easy to read despite it’s 1831 copyright date. I have come across many books from this era full of overwrought “purple” prose. For example, a recent read-through of a book called Vampyr by John William Polidori was a hard slog despite being like 40 pages long. Honestly, its why I used to hate literature classes – half the time I would be skimming the chapters because of how worthless half the language was. The words of Turner are most similar to that one of King James version of the Bible, which most are sued to no matter their religious preference. Nat Turner was so well versed in it and it’s themes, being a preacher and all, that the stylistic tone of the book carried over into his spoken word. In his eyes, he was a modern day prophet, and God’s will was to lead his people to a new era by forcing the iron jaws of America’s “peculiar institution” closed for good.
“I had a vision – and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened – the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams – and I heard a voice saying, ‘Such is your luck, such are you called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bear it.’”Nat Turner
I’m not going to say this was an enjoyable read, considering it’s basically a piece of legal paperwork that lead to a man’s death, dismemberment, and attempted erasure from history. I knew, going in, on what I was going to read seeing that I recently read a version of this in comic book form, but that didn’t the words any less powerful. Whether you feel that Turner’s actions were justifiable or not, considering his situation, doesn’t really matter. Much like with any book on John Brown, you will see Turner hailed a hero from some, a demon from others – what’s important on what could have happened and what ultimately did happen due to this chapter in history. Virginia came close to abolishing slavery due to this, something that was ironically struck down in favor of a law that made it illegal to educate slaves. Basically the opposite of what the problem was, and something that eventually was yet another domino of cause leading to the Civil War.