The Fires of Jubilee



I’m nearly finished with a fascinating work about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion: The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion by Stephen B. Oates.

I’d like to leave aside the controversy over William Styron’s fictional account of the rebellion, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) which was very popular in the sixties and seventies.

I haven’t read it, nor have I read William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, which came out shortly afterward.

Styron’s book won the Pulitzer Prize, and was praised by eminent African-American authors like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, but it has been criticized for a lot of glaring inaccuracies, including Turner’s supposed obsession with white women.

Oates, a former professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, doesn’t make stuff up the way Styron did. He does what all good historians do: He sorts through an enormous body of original sources and presents the telling details that illuminate this fascinating story.

While he conveys the deadening, oppressive evils of slavery, he also presents the disgusting brutality of the rebels, who slaughtered more than 60 men, women and children with axes, knives and swords.

At one point they came to a school and decapitated all the children and left their bodies in a heap.

The brutality of the rebels sickened even their fellow slaves, who spread the alarm and even fought against them.

When I started the book, I was all set to regard Turner as a hero because his cause was just, but if you hack women and children to death, you’re not a hero.

Oates also does a great job conveying the deep-seated paranoia of the slave owners throughout the South.

I always thought the brutality of the slave-owners was prompted by greed and cruelty — and it was! — but as Oates observes, another important motivator was fear.

More than 200 slaves and free blacks were murdered and executed after the rebellion, of whom about 50 were actually involved.

There were many inquiries by Virginia authorities into the causes of Turner’s revolt, because the slave owners were anxious to prevent future outbreaks.

One lawyer even published a lengthy interview with Turner himself, who claimed he was commanded by God Almighty, who showed him signs in the heavens.

In fact there was a solar eclipse shortly before the uprising.

John Floyd, the governor of Virginia blamed the rebellion on the writings of William Lloyd Garrison and his Boston-based abolitionist publication The Liberator, although there is no evidence that any of the slaves had ever read it.

That didn’t stop Floyd from offering a $5,000 reward to anyone who would kidnap Garrison and bring him to Virginia. Georgia offered an additional $5,000.

But the real reason for the brutality of the rebels is simple. Nat Turner had been reading an ancient terror manual known as The Bible. Right there in the book of Ezekiel he found his instructions:

“Then the glory of the God of Israel rose up from between the cherubim, and moved to the entrance of the Temple. And the Lord called to the man who was carrying the writer’s case.

“He said to him, ‘Walk through the streets of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of all who weep and sigh because of the detestable sins being committed in their city.’

“Then I heard the Lord say to the other men, ‘Follow him through the city and kill everyone whose forehead is not marked.

“Show no mercy; have no pity! Kill them all—old and young, girls and women and little children. But do not touch anyone with the mark. Begin right here at the Temple.”

Unfortunately the seat of Southampton County was then called Jerusalem, Virginia.