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Stephen Oates, in a riveting storytelling fashion, captures the desires
and anxieties of the early to mid 19th century, with The Fires of Jubilee.
Oates has performed rigorous study to present an accurate portrayal of a
fascinating and mysterious man, who lived during an extraordinary period in
Oates begins the book with a thorough biography of Turner. He makes
a real effort to show what lead a man to commit the actions he did. Nat was
born on October 17, 1800 in Southampton County, Virginia. His mother
Nancy was brought to America in 1795. The man who purchased her was
Benjamin Turner, a wealthy tidewater planter. Nancy married a slave whose
name 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 five
years old, people started to realize that there was something very special
about 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 his
head and back. African legend held that a male with such markings would
grow up to be a leader. He intelligence earned the respect of other slaves as
well. One time he was given a book by another slave. Amazingly he knew
how to read it. No one knows who taught Nat to read, as an education was
very rare among slaves. His master, Benjamin Turner was extremely
impressed with Nat and often remarked to friends that, "he would never be of
service to anyone as a slave."
In 1809 Nat's life changed immensely. The first shock came when his
father escaped slavery to the north, never to be seen again. The second shock
was the death of Nat's master. In 1810 Nat became the official property of
Benjamin's oldest son, Samuel Turner. Samuel was a highly religious
bachelor in his mid twenties. Samuel worked his slaves hard and used
Christianity to scare slaves into obedience. I found this to be one of the most
fascinating situations in the book. The author takes several pages away from
Nat's story to describe some attitudes in the south. Most southerners,
including slave holders were deeply religious, devoted Christians. The basic
idea that whited tried to teach blacks was that God is supreme, and he allows
slavery because white people are superior to blacks. A good slave should not
question God's authority, but should accept his lot in life and carry out his
duties cheerfully. It was taught that slaves who were lazy or questioned the
morality 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 and
punishable by eternity in hell.
Despite their attempts to use Christianity as justification, many
American slave holders at this time were somewhat uneasy about the entire
slave situation. In 1790 a full scale slave rebellion had rocked the island of
Santo Domingo. In 1799 two white guards were killed while transporting
slaves through Nat's hometown, Southampton county. The first attempted
large scale insurrection on American soil was the Gabriel Prosser conspiracy
in Richmond in 1800. Gabriel and his accomplices planned to burn
Richmond, and take the governor hostage. His plans were spoiled before he
had an opportunity to carry them out, but the event contributed dramatically
to the uneasiness of many Southerners.
Nat toiled for many years in Turner's fields, growing more and more
discontent with his situation. His only refuge were his deep religious
convictions. He spent many hours each day in meditation and preaching to
other slaves. In 1821 Turner hired an overseer to increase the efficiency of
his slaves. Nat was extremely displeased with this and ran away that same
year. Astonishingly he returned under his own will thirty days latter. He
claimed that the Spirit had told him stay on the plantation and continue to
serve his master. In 1822 Samuel Turner died and Nat along with his new
wife , Cheery, were to be sold. Nat was valued at $400 and sold to Thomas
Moore. 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 in
several 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 for
Nat if he did not expectant to benefit from Nat's hard labor.
By now it was the summer
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American slaves, Slavery, Nat Turner, Slave rebellion, Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser, Manumission, Abolitionism, The Confessions of Nat Turner, Cherry Turner
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