Black Conspiracies

Denmark Vesey: The Slave Conspiracy of 1822

edited by Robert S. Starobin
Great Lives Observed Series, Prentice-Hall, 185 pp., $5.95

The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Materials

by Henry Irving Tragle
University of Massachusetts Press, 485 pp., $15.00

Nothing in the study of American slavery is more ironic than the extent to which analysis of that institution has had to depend on white sources. Slaves themselves left few if any written records, and historians have been only partially successful in reconstructing the slave experience from folklore and oral tradition. The student of slave rebellions faces two further disadvantages. Whites had no desire to advertise these events and often suppressed essential historical records. At the same time they frequently succumbed to panic and greatly exaggerated the size and scope of projected uprisings. As a result, evidence on crucial points is often lacking and information that does exist must be used with extreme care. The new documentary collections describing two of nineteenth-century America’s most important slave conspiracies, the plot by Denmark Vesey in Charleston in 1822, and Nat Turner’s rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831, perfectly illustrate these historiographical dilemmas.

Robert Starobin was a young radical historian of the South who died last year in Binghamton, New York, where he taught. It is altogether in keeping with his life that his last book, on Denmark Vesey, is dedicated to Bobby Seale and the memory of Fred Hampton, and that royalties from it are going to the Black Panther Party and the Southern Conference Educational Fund. Although limited by the format of a series to fewer than 200 pages, Starobin included an impressive number of primary and secondary sources concerning Vesey the most important of which is a long excerpt from the “Official Report of the Trials” of Vesey and his co-conspirators. There are also selections from contemporary letters, pamphlets, and newspapers, a few historical accounts of the Vesey plot, and a brief but perceptive introductory essay.

Henry Tragle, a former World War II tank commander and strictly an amateur historian, has attempted a more ambitious task—the collection of all extant primary documents concerning Nat Turner. It should be said at once that he has produced the most important single work ever published on the Turner rebellion. Tragle’s research is an example of historical detective work at its best. Over a period of two years, he made several trips to Southampton County, painstakingly reconstructing the exact path of the rebels and interviewing blacks and whites who might shed light on the local traditions which surround Turner’s name.

His book contains many contemporary sources, including selections from sixteen newspapers, the trial record of Turner and the other rebels, the diary and correspondence of Virginia’s Governor John Floyd, and the “Confessions” Turner dictated to the white lawyer Thomas R. Gray while awaiting trial. There is also a generous sampling of the historical literature on Turner. Aside from the Confessions, virtually all the documents are here published for the first time. Moreover, in piecing together the exact hour-by-hour chronology of the uprising, Tragle made ingenious use of other contemporary records, including militia reports, deeds, death and marriage certificates, and manuscript census returns.

Tragle seems to have succeeded in unearthing just about everything…

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