Time and Place: 1831: Slave Revolts

Module code: V1377
Level 5
15 credits in spring semester
Teaching method: Seminar
Assessment modes: Coursework

In August 1831, Nat Turner launched the most significant slave revolt in American history. Murdering 60 whites in a bloody spree, Turner's revolt convulsed the region. Seventy two hours later, militia units crushed the revolt. The backlash was frenzied with at least one hundred enslaved people executed by local militiamen. Yet despite Turner's subsequent execution, neither the rebel slave nor the insurrection he initiated could be entirely exorcized from the minds of contemporary southerners.

In December 1831, 60,000 enslaved people in western Jamaica rebelled against the island's slaveholding elite. It was the final, and one of the largest, revolts in the history of Caribbean slavery.

These revolts laid bare the revolutionary capability of enslaved people, they exposed the enmity that most slaves bore toward their masters, and they visibly revealed that enslaved people would adopt desperate means to secure their freedom. They also demonstrated how enslaved peoples utilized evangelical and small-scale trading networks to mobilize communities. And the revolts exposed how rebel leaders exploited national and transatlantic tensions over the future of slavery and harnessed direct action to the political tide of anti-slavery in Britain and America. But the frenzied backlash also revealed white anxieties over slavery, the nature of race, and the longeveity of slavery. As enslaved rebels demonstrated their rage against slaveholders and their aspirations for freedom, whites responded with fear, resentment, and paranoia to the rebel threat. Some condemned outside agitators, notably vocal abolitionists and evangelical liberals, while others redoubled their commitment to racialized slavery.

This module will address:

  1. the role of enslaved peoples (and the concept of 'agency') in shaping liberation movements in a comparative context
  2. the factors underpinning the disintegration of Jamaican slavery and its defense in America
  3. the growth of anti-slavery in the Anglophone Atlantic and the expansion of abolitionist sentiment in Britain and the USA
  4. white slaveholding identities and meanings attached to slave ownership, including anxieties surrounding the loss of white racial authority during and after the revolts
  5. the value of comparative methodologies for understanding historical change.

In short, the module examines the material, political, psychological, and gendered parameters to racial slavery and emancipation within the early nineteenth-century Atlantic world and considers the rise and fall of slavery in two key settings.

Module learning outcomes

  • Critically evaluate the historiography around a particular moment.
  • Critically evaluate the applicability of historical concepts to particular cases.
  • Supply evidence of these skills in extended essay form.
  • Demonstrate ability to use limited amounts of primary source material in extended historical argument.