Fires of Jubilee

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Oates, Stephen B. The Fires of Jubilee, New York: Harper & Row, 1975
Stephen Oates, in a riveting storytelling fashion, captures the desires
and anxieties of the early to mid 19th century, with The Fires of Jubilee.
Oates has performed rigorous study to present an accurate portrayal of a
fascinating and mysterious man, who lived during an extraordinary period in
American history.
Oates begins the book with a thorough biography of Turner. He makes
a real effort to show what lead a man to commit the actions he did. Nat was
born on October 17, 1800 in Southampton County, Virginia. His mother
Nancy was brought to America in 1795. The man who purchased her was
Benjamin Turner, a wealthy tidewater planter. Nancy married a slave whose
name is not known, and gave birth to Nat. Interestingly she tried to kill Nat
rather then see him grow up to be a slave. By the time he was four or five
years old, people started to realize that there was something very special
about Nat. He could recall things that had happened before he was born.
Nat's parents were very proud of him and discovered strange marking on his
head and back. African legend held that a male with such markings would
grow up to be a leader. He intelligence earned the respect of other slaves as
well. One time he was given a book by another slave. Amazingly he knew
how to read it. No one knows who taught Nat to read, as an education was
very rare among slaves. His master, Benjamin Turner was extremely
impressed with Nat and often remarked to friends that, "he would never be of
service to anyone as a slave."
In 1809 Nat's life changed immensely. The first shock came when his
father escaped slavery to the north, never to be seen again. The second shock
was the death of Nat's master. In 1810 Nat became the official property of
Benjamin's oldest son, Samuel Turner. Samuel was a highly religious
bachelor in his mid twenties. Samuel worked his slaves hard and used
Christianity to scare slaves into obedience. I found this to be one of the most
fascinating situations in the book. The author takes several pages away from
Nat's story to describe some attitudes in the south. Most southerners,
including slave holders were deeply religious, devoted Christians. The basic
idea that whited tried to teach blacks was that God is supreme, and he allows
slavery because white people are superior to blacks. A good slave should not
question God's authority, but should accept his lot in life and carry out his
duties cheerfully. It was taught that slaves who were lazy or questioned the
morality of slavery would burn in hell for questioning God's supremacy.
Dreams of freedom or temptation to run away were the work of the devil and
punishable by eternity in hell.
Despite their attempts to use Christianity as justification, many
American slave holders at this time were somewhat uneasy about the entire
slave situation. In 1790 a full scale slave rebellion had rocked the island of
Santo Domingo. In 1799 two white guards were killed while transporting
slaves through Nat's hometown, Southampton county. The first attempted
large scale insurrection on American soil was the Gabriel Prosser conspiracy
in Richmond in 1800. Gabriel and his accomplices planned to burn
Richmond, and take the governor hostage. His plans were spoiled before he
had an opportunity to carry them out, but the event contributed dramatically
to the uneasiness of many Southerners.
Nat toiled for many years in Turner's fields, growing more and more
discontent with his situation. His only refuge were his deep religious
convictions. He spent many hours each day in meditation and preaching to
other slaves. In 1821 Turner hired an overseer to increase the efficiency of
his slaves. Nat was extremely displeased with this and ran away that same
year. Astonishingly he returned under his own will thirty days latter. He
claimed that the Spirit had told him stay on the plantation and continue to
serve his master. In 1822 Samuel Turner died and Nat along with his new
wife , Cheery, were to be sold. Nat was valued at $400 and sold to Thomas
Moore. This was very fortunate for Nat because he could remain in Virginia.
Nat's new master was a kind man, but the sale was also unfortunate to Nat in
several ways. It eliminated any chance that he might be given his freedom;
which his first master spoke of often. Moore would not have paid $400 for
Nat if he did not expectant to benefit from Nat's hard labor.
By now it was the summer of 1825. Nat become more mysterious or
withdrawn then he had ever been. He spent his Sundays (slaves had Sundays
off) in a cabin deep in the woods praying and reading the bible. He fated for
days at a time. He began to preach to other slaves about the evils of slavery.
He tried to convince them that God had something better for them; better then
slavery. He used Moses' escaping Egypt as a example of what he would one
day do for his people. He saw visions and had dreams of black spirits
defeating white spirits. He was certain that judgment day was approaching,
and simply had to wait for a final sign from God. Slaves flocked to his
Sunday meetings and listened to him preach late into the night. His masters,
Thomas and Sally, thought him to be harmless. As long as he did hi work
every week they had nothing to complain about. By now Nat had attracted a
large following and had b become friends with slaves in nearby plantations.
Negroes from all over the county could be frequently heard whispering among
themselves about general's Nat's rebellion. Many secretly swore their
allegiance to him. When he decided to act, they would aid him.
At this point the pace of the book changes immensely. The first
seventy-five pages have dealt with thirty years of history. The next hundred
pages discuss one day of history: Sunday, August 21. Oates begins with
some background on Virginia's Governor, John Floyd. Floyd was a
pragmatic supporter of state rights, follower John C. Callhoun, and he
actually favored gradual abolishment in his state. On this day however, Floyd
would face the greatest challenge of his political career. Back in
Southampton County, Nat's master is on his way to church, like all the other
white citizens. Slaves were usually left unattained on Sunday, as their
masters enjoyed an afternoon of picnicking and socializing after church. Nat
met with some of his closet friends deep in the woods that morning, at a place
called cabin pond. I found the descriptions of Nat's various allies very
interesting. They all had different personalities, but were united n a common
hatred of whites. One character that I found particle intriguing was named
Will. Everything except his name, and his future actions have been lost to
history. There were seven of them in all, and their plans were simple. They
would rise that night and kill white people; no-one would be spared. Nat was
confident that scores of Negroes would rise too his aid when he began his
march of death. There was really no ultimate objective to Nat's plan.
Apparently he believe that God would intervene once he put his plans into
action. Sometime after midnight, the insurrection began. Nat and his small
army moved toward their first target. Nat would first unleash terror on his
very owner. As they approached the house, they stopped at the slave quarters
to rally support for their cause. Nat refused to kill at first, so he watched as
will killed Nat's masters in his sleep. For the first time in his life, Nat was a
free man. And so it went throughout the night. Nat and army moved from
one farm to the next. At each farm more slaves joined their rebellion, and
helped kill the whites, and plunder. After several raids Nat's force was
sufficiently armed with rifles and horses, which they stole from each house.
When his army had grown sufficiently, Nat split his forces to increase
the killings. At many farms slaves refused to join Nat and actually fought
against him. Nat was shocked that the flames of rebellion did not burn in
very slave. A few lucky souls were able to escape from a raid and notify their
friends and family before it was too late. By mid-morning word had spread
throughout the county, and most of the farms that Nat encountered were
deserted. Most of the citizens had gathered in nearby Jerusalem, terrified of
the rebellion sweeping the countryside. Many believed that the British were
invading, or even that the apocalypse had taken place.
Meanwhile Nat's lieutenants continued their attacks. Nat remained
behind the entire time, possibly planning what he would do next. In course of
the whole rebellion he had only killed one person; a young girl, who he beat
with bare hands. By noon, the insurgents were heading toward Jerusalem and
confrontation. By now many of Nat's troops, about 40 strong, were to drunk
to fight or even ride their horses. Nat was furious with their lack of discipline
but pressed on anyway. The Virginia militia was ready with about 200 men
to fight the rebels. When the two forces meet on the road, Nat's force was
crushed, and Nat along with 20 others retreated to a nearby plantation. Nat
was extremely tired and needed to sleep. Nat tried to enlist more slaves, but
to his shock they turned on him. Suddenly, all that remained of Nat's
rebellion was Nat Turner himself. Back in Jerusalem, all the captured
insurgents were tried and hung. After six weeks, Nat was still at large, with
many reward hungry whites looking for him. On October 30 Nat was
walking through the woods when he heard something. He stuck his head out
from behind a tree to investigate and was shocked to see a white man
pointing a shotgun at him. Nat was taken back to Jerusalem to await trial.
While in prison, his state appointed lawyer, Thomas Gray visited Nat and
asked Nat if he was willing to be interviewed. Nat saw this as an opportunity
to immortalize himself and accepted. Gray published his interview in 1831.
Nat was convicted and execute on November 11. All said, his rebellion cost
the lives of sixty white, and over 200 blacks. Many blacks were killed after
news of the rebellion surfaced, and whites attempted to avenge their brothers
by murdering as many blacks as they could.
The effects of Nat Turner's rebellion were profound. The attitudes of
many plantation owners changed as a result of Nat. Many people had
believed that slaves would never think of hurting their "loving, Christian"
masters. What Nat did scared many whites tremendously. The Virginia state
legislature actually debated freeing all slaves to avoid future conflict. Of
course this never happened but this was the first time that such an idea had
ever been discussed. Many slave holders blamed the rebellion on the
abolishment movement. The same year of Nat's rebellion, William Loyd
Garrison began publishing "The Liberator". Some people attributed this to
the cause of the killings. Laws were passed that forbid teaching slaves to
read or write. An educated slave could be a dangerous slave. Within time,
the fury of Nat's rebellion diminished. The tariff issue became central to
southern politics. But even as Calhoun was battling Jackson for a lower
tariff, many Southerners were battling their consciences over the slave issue.
Overall, I was extremely impressed with this work. I think Stephen
Oates was truly interested in what he was researching, as this is reflected in
the book. His skill as a writer is excellent, and he does a very good job
bringing the reader into the story. Oates believes that Nat Turner's rebellion
was a critical turning point in American history, especially Southern history.
I was especially impressed with his ability to describe what was happening.
The detail fills the mind with a well-drawn picture of the scenery, smells,
attitudes, needs of the blacks and whites of this part of the South. Lastly I
would say that this book is not only enjoyable, but also an important
historical work that is helpful in understanding race relations of the past and
1793 Cotton gin invented
1800 Gabriel Prosser’s revolt discovered in Virginia
1806 Virginia tightens law on manumission (emancipation) of slaves
1808 Congress prohibits US participation in the international slave
1819-20 Missouri Crisis
1822 Denmark Vesey’s conspiracy in Charleston
1831 Nat Turner’s revolt in Virginia / William Lloyd Garrison begins
publishing antislavery newspaper, the Liberator
1832 Nullification Crisis / Virginia legislature debates and defeats a
measure for gradual emancipation

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