Warner, Samuel. Horrid Massacre in Virginia. 1831. Woodcut. Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
Written by Aidan Beaton
In February of 1831 a slave named Nat Turner believed that he had witnessed a sign from God. In the Virginia sky Turner saw a solar eclipse and was convinced that this was the message that he had been waiting years for. Turner was a deeply religious man and for years he had believed that he was receiving messages from God. These messages from God influenced many of the decisions that Turner made in his life and it was because of this that when he witnessed the solar eclipse he decided that it was time to carry out the visions that he had seen of black spirits battling white spirits (Biography). It would take him until August, but over the several months after he had made his decision, Turner gathered followers and allies that would eventually fight with him in one of the largest and bloodiest slave rebellions in American history. On August 21st, the rebellion began. Nat Turner and the 40 to 50 slaves that fought with him killed an estimated 60 white men women and children (History Matters). Following this slave uprising fear ran rampant in the South. Driven by the fear of future rebellions more restrictions were placed on African Americans in various Southern states (Rebellion).
There are no pictures available of the rebellion, unsurprisingly, but that does not mean that there are no depictions of the bloody scene. Samuel Warner is credited with the creation of the scene that reads “Horrid Massacre in Virginia”. Made in 1831 in the weeks following Nat Turner’s rebellion, the piece is done in woodcut (Library of Congress). Woodcut is a technique used in printmaking where the image is carved into a block of wood with the areas that are to be left colorless being carved away. This woodcut scene depicts Nat Turner’s rebellion in all of its stages. While Of course, the piece has the images of slaves attacking white men, women, and children, but it also shows white men fighting back against the slaves and eventually giving chase to the slaves on horseback. All of these images come together to form a striking story. Instead of focusing on just one aspect of the rebellion, Samuel Warner instead chose to turn his artwork into a sort of storyboard and it is almost like watching a film of the rebellion unfolding. Something about seeing a depiction of the rebellion is very eye catching and it is also very intriguing because there is so much back story involved.
It is difficult to say exactly what Samuel Warner’s intention was in creating this piece as not much is known about the artist. However, a few features of the image, as well as some general knowledge of the time period in which it was created may shed some light on this. First off, it is clear by the words emblazoned across the top of the image stating “Horrid Massacre in Virginia” that the artist is not supporting the actions of the rebelling slaves. What is interesting about the image is the fact that the title of the image is stated as Authentic and Impartial Narrative of the Tragical Scene Which was Witnessed in Southampton County (Virginia) (History Matters). This title muddies the waters a bit about what exactly the purpose of the image is. It may seem that, perhaps, the image was just created in order to relay the news that a rebellion had occurred and was not meant to influence any opinions in any specific way given the language of the title. The fact that the print was manufactured in New York may seem to support this notion as well. However, there is also reason to believe that the image was created in order to increase fear among white southerners. Given the fact that this rebellion occurred in 1831 before there was widespread acceptance of African Americans, it would seem somewhat unlikely that there would be an image created of black people attacking white people without some bias attached. In addition to this, it was a common practice to spread propaganda that would result in increased fear among white southerners which then lead to more restrictions placed on slaves. This image could clearly be used as such propaganda because it depicts so clearly the black slaves teaming up against and overtaking several white people. Although, there are many features of the image that can lead to speculation about what Samuel Warner’s reasons were for creating the image it is impossible to know with any certainty.
Although slavery was present in the United States from the time that Europeans first began settling the American continents, the 1800s showed slavery reaching new heights in the country. With the invention of the cotton gin in the 1790s the process of cotton picking was revolutionized. The length of time that it took to clean the cotton and the number of people that were necessary for this role were reduced tremendously and as a result cotton became a much more profitable crop. Rather than reducing the number of workers necessary for cotton farming and reducing the number of slaves needed, the number of slaves working in the cotton fields grew dramatically because the amount of cotton that could be cleaned and sold was so much larger (Professor L. Pittman, Lecture, 2015). As the cotton business grew so did plantations and slavery only became more important. The living environments for slaves did not improve, however, as slave owners continued to treat the slaves as replaceable objects, sometimes working the slaves to death. By the time Nat Turner led his rebellion in 1831 over 1.5 million people were enslaved in the southern states which accounted for over 33% of the total population in these states (UMBC). Slavery was clearly very prevalent at this time and was a very significant part of life for a vast majority African Americans living in the United States. Even following the abolishment of slavery in the United States in the 1860s the history of racial slavery in the country would continue to follow African Americans and has played an enormous role in shaping the lives and experiences of African Americans continuing even to this day.
In the centuries that slavery was an institution in the United States African Americans faced an incredible amount of oppression. African Americans had very few, if any, rights because they were seen as property rather than as people and they were treated accordingly. Some of the rights that slaves were deprived of are things that, today, are thought of as very basic human rights. For example, an overwhelming number of slaves were deprived of the chance to learn how to read or write and there were also rules put in place to keep slaves from gathering in large groups. Both of these rules were used as ways to keep control over the slaves (Pittman, 2015). If the slaves were uneducated and blocked from meeting in groups it would be nearly impossible for them to come together to resist the slave owners. A rebellion, like Nat Turner’s, was exactly what slave owners were attempting to avoid with these slave codes. Some people, like Nat Turner, however, were able to get around these rules and the image of the “Horrid Massacre in Virginia” serves as a reminder of what could occur when slaves were educated and could communicate with each other. What seems so significant about this image is that in the decades and decades that slavery took place, there were almost no opportunities for images like this to be created because there were so few revolts of this type. Millions of people were enslaved in the United States, but there are few instances of slave revolts, especially of the magnitude of Nat Turner’s rebellion. There were numerous ways in which slaves rebelled against their owners and, though revolting was one of the more uncommon ones, the depiction of Nat Turner’s rebellion stand out as a significant piece from the era of slavery because it clearly highlights the fact that slaves were aware of the unjust ways in which they were treated and that they did fight back even when it was an incredibly challenging endeavor.
Throughout the first few weeks of class we have discussed slavery at length. We have discussed the numerous ways in which slaves were treated unfairly, with unfairly being a massive understatement, and we have discussed the ways in which they were forced to live. Doing back breaking labor for their masters and then continuing their work at home. The life of a slave was quite clearly not a pleasant experience. The amount of work that slaves did for their masters was not met with “thank yous” and instead was met with beatings and more work. Harsh rules imposed on slaves called slave codes were put in place to limit even further the rights that slaves had. These restrictions and mistreatment did not mean that slaves did not resist their masters, however. There were numerous ways in which slaves resisted their masters and their work. Some of these forms of resistance included slowing their speed of work and therefore costing their master money because they would have fewer crops to sell was one way in which slaves fought back. Other ways they attempted to resist included breaking tools, stealing food, and abusing livestock (Pittman, 2015). These were considered the more everyday types of resistance and occurred more frequently than some other types of resistance. One of these ways of resisting was fighting back.
One of the elements that was eye catching about the image that Samuel Warner created was that it depicted an event that was quite uncommon, a slave rebellion (Pittman, 2015). Those who don’t know much about what took place during slavery may assume that slave rebellions were a somewhat common occurrence, but they were one of the more rare ways in which slaves resisted their owners. Not only was Nat Turner’s rebellion one of these rare occurrences, but it was, in fact, one of the largest and most effective of its kind. Rebellions, such as Nat Turner’s, may be the more famed forms of resistance, but this does not mean that they were the only ways in which slaves were able to push back against their owners. Nat Turner’s rebellion was not the only of its kind, and it was certainly not the only form of resistance that slaves employed, but the image of Nat Turner and his allies fighting against the white people that enslaved them, created by Samuel Warner, will serve as a reminder of all of the slaves that fought for and craved their freedom and this will not be forgotten.
“Horrid Massacre in Virginia.” Library of Congress. George Mason University, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2015. <http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/98510363/>.
“Nat Turner Biography.” Biography.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2015. <http://www.biography.com/people/nat-turner-9512211>.
“The Nat Turner Rebellion.” History Matters. George Mason University, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2015. <http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6811>.
Pittman, L. (2015). Slavery & Slave Resistance [Portable Document Format].
“A Rebellion to Remember: The Legacy of Nat Turner.” Documenting the American South. UNC, 2004. Web. 18 Nov. 2015. <http://docsouth.unc.edu/highlights/turner.html>.
“Slave, Free Black, and White Population.” UMBC. UMBC, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2015. <http://userpages.umbc.edu/~bouton/History407/SlaveStats.htm>.