Monday, February 20, 2012

Book Notes: The Fires of Jubilee; Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion

The Fires of Jubilee is Stephen B. Oates stirring narrative of the dramatic events which took place in Southampton, Virginia in 1831. His book contains only a little analysis or historiography, but focuses the vast proportion of its 150+ pages on a straightforward telling of the violent events of the slave rebellion which broke out, and which will forever be associated with the name of it's leader, Nat Turner.

In Oates' account, white Virginia prided itself on its moderate slave regime, even convincing itself that the slaves were not bullied into obsequiousness but were happy, indeed grateful for their lot. White Virginians looked down upon what they regarded as the ill-treatment of slaves in states known for their harsher codes, such as Georgia or Alabama. The reality which lurked below the calm surface was that slaves like Nat Turner refused to be complicit in their dehumanisation and humiliation, and spent years planning an armed revolt.

Turner himself is a fascinating character. A man of unusual abilities he managed to gain the ability to read and write (although this was illegal), and read all he could -especially of the Bible. Reading the Bible for himself, Turner discovered that the White peoples proof-texts justifying slavery were weak; and that the book was full of compelling stories of the divine liberation of captives and exiles. These texts, his life experiences, and his interpretation of mystical signs forged a conviction in his mind that God had called him to be a Moses-like liberator of Virginia's black slaves. A dramatic eclipse in 1831 convinced Turner that God was calling him to start his rebellion, and so his small band of followers began their revolt, executing whites across the county farm by farm. Oates book provides a systematic chronology of the brief revolt and it's brutal suppression.

As fascinating as the story of the rebellion itself, is Oates' account of the aftermath of the events of 1831. For a start, it is often forgotten that the number of black casualties killed in white reprisals far outnumbered Turner's victims. Secondly, Oates describes the level of fear amongst the white community who worried that the rebellion was only a small part of a wider uprising planned by Northern Abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison. This in turn led to the imposition of far stricter and harsher 'slave-codes' in Virginia which significantly reduced the limited freedoms slaves had enjoyed prior to 1831 - a severity that would endure for the remainder of the ante-bellum period. Most surprisingly of all however is the fact that Nat Turner's rebellion was one of several factors which combined to almost persuade Virginia's Governor Floyd to table an emancipation bill in the state legislature (he was apparently persuaded against it at the last minute by his mentor, noted apologist for the 'peculiar institution', John C. Calhoun). As much of the state favoured an end to the turbulent and disturbing presence of slavery, there was a possibility that such a bill may have passed - which would have had enormous consequences for the South, and could have radically altered the course of American history, especially the Civil War. Nat Turner and his six confidante's who planned the uprising, didn't manage to spark of a wholescale slave war, and many slaves stayed local to their masters, and the whole movement lasted but three short bloody days. Yet - they came closer to changing history than anyone (except possibly the mystical Turner himself) could have imagined possible. One thing seems certain however; if Turner had lived to see the destruction of Richmond in the 1860s at the conclusion of a Civil War which increasingly came to be defined by the slavery issue; he would have claimed it was the divine judgement on the South that he had warned about in 1831.

Oates concludes his book with a postscript of stories from his field trips to Virginia to research the Turner story. Detailed accounts of the revolt exist so that tracing the exact route of the rebels from farm-to-farm  was possible for Oates in the early 1970s. Some of the same old farm houses from the 1830s were still standing too. Sadly, he found the place still bristling with racial tension nearly a century and a half after Nat Turner led his axe-wielding slaves out from their cabins to overthrow their oppressors.

Interestingly, Oates simply avoids making any moral judgements (either positive or negative) about Turner and his associates. He does not lift the moral agenda of Ghandi and Martin Luther King from the Twentieth Century and impose this back onto the 1830s in order to start a discussion about the necessity for evil to be confronted through non-violent struggle. Rather, (and quoting Frederick Douglass to this effect) he sees the violent actions of the rebels as simply part of the violence created by slavery; the brutal actions created by a brutal system.

Oates' book is short, lively, shocking and important. It vividly details an important chapter in the history of the American South. It's very good, though rather uncomfortable reading.

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