Fires of Jubilee
The Fires of Jubilee, New York: Harper & Row, 1975Stephen Oates, in a riveting storytelling fashion, captures the desiresand anxieties of the early to mid 19th century, with The Fires of Jubilee.Oates has performed rigorous study to present an accurate portrayal of afascinating and mysterious man, who lived during an extraordinary period inAmerican history.
Oates begins the book with a thorough biography of Turner.
He makesa real effort to show what lead a man to commit the actions he did.
Nat wasborn on October 17, 1800 in Southampton County, Virginia.
His motherNancy was brought to America in 1795.
The man who purchased her wasBenjamin Turner, a wealthy tidewater planter.
Nancy married a slave whosename 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 fiveyears old, people started to realize that there was something very specialabout 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 hishead and back.
African legend held that a male with such markings wouldgrow up to be a leader.
He intelligence earned the respect of other slaves aswell.
One time he was given a book by another slave.
Amazingly he knewhow to read it.
No one knows who taught Nat to read, as an education wasvery rare among slaves.
His master, Benjamin Turner was extremelyimpressed with Nat and often remarked to friends that, "he would never be ofservice to anyone as a slave."In 1809 Nat's life changed immensely.
The first shock came when hisfather escaped slavery to the north, never to be seen again.
The second shockwas the death of Nat's master.
In 1810 Nat became the official property ofBenjamin's oldest son, Samuel Turner.
Samuel was a highly religiousbachelor in his mid twenties.
Samuel worked his slaves hard and usedChristianity to scare slaves into obedience.
I found this to be one of the mostfascinating situations in the book.
The author takes several pages away fromNat's story to describe some attitudes in the south.
Most southerners,including slave holders were deeply religious, devoted Christians.
The basicidea that whited tried to teach blacks was that God is supreme, and he allowsslavery because white people are superior to blacks.
A good slave should notquestion God's authority, but should accept his lot in life and carry out hisduties cheerfully.
It was taught that slaves who were lazy or questioned themorality 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 andpunishable by eternity in hell.Despite their attempts to use Christianity as justification, manyAmerican slave holders at this time were somewhat uneasy about the entireslave situation.
In 1790 a full scale slave rebellion had rocked the island ofSanto Domingo.
In 1799 two white guards were killed while transportingslaves through Nat's hometown, Southampton county.
The first attemptedlarge scale insurrection on American soil was the Gabriel Prosser conspiracyin Richmond in 1800.
Gabriel and his accomplices planned to burnRichmond, and take the governor hostage.
His plans were spoiled before hehad an opportunity to carry them out, but the event contributed dramaticallyto the uneasiness of many Southerners.Nat toiled for many years in Turner's fields, growing more and morediscontent with his situation.
His only refuge were his deep religiousconvictions.
He spent many hours each day in meditation and preaching toother slaves.
In 1821 Turner hired an overseer to increase the efficiency ofhis slaves.
Nat was extremely displeased with this and ran away that sameyear.
Astonishingly he returned under his own will thirty days latter.
Heclaimed that the Spirit had told him stay on the plantation and continue toserve his master.
In 1822 Samuel Turner died and Nat along with his newwife , Cheery, were to be sold.
Nat was valued at $400 and sold to ThomasMoore.
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 inseveral 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 forNat if he did not expectant to benefit from Nat's hard labor.
By now it was the summer of 1825.
Nat become more mysterious orwithdrawn then he had ever been.
He spent his Sundays (slaves had Sundaysoff) in a cabin deep in the woods praying and reading the bible.
He fated fordays 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 thenslavery.
He used Moses' escaping Egypt as a example of what he would oneday do for his people.
He saw visions and had dreams of black spiritsdefeating white spirits.
He was certain that judgment day was approaching,and simply had to wait for a final sign from God.
Slaves flocked to hisSunday 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 workevery week they had nothing to complain about.
By now Nat had attracted alarge following and had b become friends with slaves in nearby plantations.
Negroes from all over the county could be frequently heard whispering amongthemselves about general's Nat's rebellion.
Many secretly swore theirallegiance to him.
When he decided to act, they would aid him.At this point the pace of the book changes immensely.
The firstseventy-five pages have dealt with thirty years of history.
The next hundredpages discuss one day of history: Sunday, August 21.
Oates begins withsome background on Virginia's Governor, John Floyd.
Floyd was apragmatic supporter of state rights, follower John C.
Callhoun, and heactually favored gradual abolishment in his state.
On this day however, Floydwould face the greatest challenge of his political career.
Back inSouthampton County, Nat's master is on his way to church, like all the otherwhite citizens.
Slaves were usually left unattained on Sunday, as theirmasters enjoyed an afternoon of picnicking and socializing after church.
Natmet with some of his closet friends deep in the woods that morning, at a placecalled cabin pond.
I found the descriptions of Nat's various allies veryinteresting.
They all had different personalities, but were united n a commonhatred of whites.
One character that I found particle intriguing was namedWill.
Everything except his name, and his future actions have been lost tohistory.
There were seven of them in all, and their plans were simple.
Theywould rise that night and kill white people; no-one would be spared.
Nat wasconfident that scores of Negroes would rise too his aid when he began hismarch of death.
There was really no ultimate objective to Nat's plan.
Apparently he believe that God would intervene once he put his plans intoaction.
Sometime after midnight, the insurrection began.
Nat and his smallarmy moved toward their first target.
Nat would first unleash terror on hisvery owner.
As they approached the house, they stopped at the slave quartersto rally support for their cause.
Nat refused to kill at first, so he watched aswill killed Nat's masters in his sleep.
For the first time in his life, Nat was afree man.
And so it went throughout the night.
Nat and army moved fromone farm to the next.
At each farm more slaves joined their rebellion, andhelped kill the whites, and plunder.
After several raids Nat's force wassufficiently armed with rifles and horses, which they stole from each house.
When his army had grown sufficiently, Nat split his forces to increasethe killings.
At many farms slaves refused to join Nat and actually foughtagainst him.
Nat was shocked that the flames of rebellion did not burn invery slave.
A few lucky souls were able to escape from a raid and notify theirfriends and family before it was too late.
By mid-morning word had spreadthroughout the county, and most of the farms that Nat encountered weredeserted.
Most of the citizens had gathered in nearby Jerusalem, terrified ofthe rebellion sweeping the countryside.
Many believed that the British wereinvading, or even that the apocalypse had taken place.Meanwhile Nat's lieutenants continued their attacks.
Nat remainedbehind the entire time, possibly planning what he would do next.
In course ofthe whole rebellion he had only killed one person; a young girl, who he beatwith bare hands.
By noon, the insurgents were heading toward Jerusalem andconfrontation.
By now many of Nat's troops, about 40 strong, were to drunkto fight or even ride their horses.
Nat was furious with their lack of disciplinebut pressed on anyway.
The Virginia militia was ready with about 200 mento fight the rebels.
When the two forces meet on the road, Nat's force wascrushed, and Nat along with 20 others retreated to a nearby plantation.
Natwas extremely tired and needed to sleep.
Nat tried to enlist more slaves, butto his shock they turned on him.
Suddenly, all that remained of Nat'srebellion was Nat Turner himself.
Back in Jerusalem, all the capturedinsurgents were tried and hung.
After six weeks, Nat was still at large, withmany reward hungry whites looking for him.
On October 30 Nat waswalking through the woods when he heard something.
He stuck his head outfrom behind a tree to investigate and was shocked to see a white manpointing a shotgun at him.
Nat was taken back to Jerusalem to await trial.
While in prison, his state appointed lawyer, Thomas Gray visited Nat andasked Nat if he was willing to be interviewed.
Nat saw this as an opportunityto immortalize himself and accepted.
Gray published his interview in 1831.
Nat was convicted and execute on November 11.
All said, his rebellion costthe lives of sixty white, and over 200 blacks.
Many blacks were killed afternews of the rebellion surfaced, and whites attempted to avenge their brothersby murdering as many blacks as they could.The effects of Nat Turner's rebellion were profound.
The attitudes ofmany plantation owners changed as a result of Nat.
Many people hadbelieved that slaves would never think of hurting their "loving, Christian"masters.
What Nat did scared many whites tremendously.
The Virginia statelegislature actually debated freeing all slaves to avoid future conflict.
Ofcourse this never happened but this was the first time that such an idea hadever been discussed.
Many slave holders blamed the rebellion on theabolishment movement.
The same year of Nat's rebellion, William LoydGarrison began publishing "The Liberator".
Some people attributed this tothe cause of the killings.
Laws were passed that forbid teaching slaves toread or write.
An educated slave could be a dangerous slave.
Within time,the fury of Nat's rebellion diminished.
The tariff issue became central tosouthern politics.
But even as Calhoun was battling Jackson for a lowertariff, many Southerners were battling their consciences over the slave issue.Overall, I was extremely impressed with this work.
I think StephenOates was truly interested in what he was researching, as this is reflected inthe book.
His skill as a writer is excellent, and he does a very good jobbringing the reader into the story.
Oates believes that Nat Turner's rebellionwas 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 Iwould say that this book is not only enjoyable, but also an importanthistorical work that is helpful in understanding race relations of the past andpresent.Chronology1793 Cotton gin invented1800 Gabriel Prosser’s revolt discovered in Virginia1806 Virginia tightens law on manumission (emancipation) of slaves1808 Congress prohibits US participation in the international slave trade1819-20 Missouri Crisis1822 Denmark Vesey’s conspiracy in Charleston1831 Nat Turner’s revolt in Virginia / William Lloyd Garrison begins publishing antislavery newspaper, the Liberator1832 Nullification Crisis / Virginia legislature debates and defeats a measure for gradual emancipation