A discussion of the psychological underpinnings of the rebellion
Nat Turner Rebellion
During the antebellum period of the United States there was a constant fear, real or imagined, of slave rebellion. One of the key factors in the treatment of slaves was the attempt, by slave holders, to keep them under control. These attempts to further control the black population in the United States were proven futile with the occurrence of the Nat Turner Rebellion. The story behind the rebellion has been told and retold repeatedly and has reached a level of notoriety that rivals that of urban legend. Occurring thirty years prior to the Civil War, most of what people knew of Nat Turner and the rebellion arises from William Styron's book "The Confessions of Nat Turner" and Turners confession itself. Turner believed himself to be a profit and that the Holy Spirit spoke to him, prompting him to carry out the rebellion. While I do not argue that Turner may or may not have heard these voices, it is my contention that he may have been suffering from psychosis savantism. This condition would account for his belief that the spirit was speaking to him as well as his ability to influence his fellow slaves into the actions that they committed. Additionally, Turner's actions lead to an overreaction by local whites, further victimizing those slaves that were not involved.
According to Turner, as documented in his confession, he was told at an early age that he was a profit and meant for something important.1 This idea was reinforced by his family after hearing Turner relate a story that occurred prior to his birth, of which he could have no knowledge of. Additionally, Turner was noted to possess a high level of intelligence evident by his ability to read at an early age without ever having been taught. Later in life Turner claims to have spoken with "the spirit", as well as having visions of blood in various locations and eventually spiritual battles, which continued periodically over the course of the next decade until the events of the rebellion occurred.
There are several possible psychological ailments that could explain the events encompassed by the life of Nat Turner, however psychotic savantism and synesthesia appear to fit the events and symptoms most appropriately. When we speak of psychotic savantism we must observe it in relation to autism and autistic savantism in that they are mirror results of the same ailment. Current studies and literature measure autism on a scale or spectrum. Likewise psychotic savantism must be looked at in the same way; the two ailments are actually mirror images of one another.2 The two ailments are directly connected, in that as one increases in intensity the other decreases in intensity. It is a logical conclusion that if a person with autism can also be afflicted with savantism than so also can a person suffering from a form of psychosis.
Throughout his confession Turner comments on events and situations that emphasize the unique possibility of savantism. From the very outset of Turner's confession he states that his parents claimed and reinforced the idea that he has intended for a great purpose in life after he related a story of an event that happened before he was born. Considering the plethora of cases of savants with the ability to recall long past dates and days, compute complex algorithms, and even mastery of musical instruments, would it not be possible that he had overheard the story from someone else and remembered it without realizing he had heard it? His intelligence and ability to read at an early age also lends to the idea that Turner was something of a prodigy which has also been linked to autism and conversely to psychotic savantism as stated earlier.
Turner additionally discusses his relationship with the other slaves in the county, specifically the other young men he grew up with. According to Turner, the other young men would take him with them when they were up to no good since he was better at planning.3 This idea of being able to influence others and be at the center of various key events is highly indicative of this particular form of savantism.4 Psychotic savants are also noted to claim privileged insight into reality, consequently leading to possible cults of personality.5 This lends itself more than once into the understanding of how Turner was able to influence the other slaves, not just into their earlier activities of theft, but also into their final murderous rampage in 1831. Turner states in his confession "Knowing the influence I had obtained over the minds of my fellow servants, (not by the means of conjuring and such like tricks--for to them I always spoke of such things with contempt) but by the communion of the Spirit whose revelations I often communicated to them, and they believed and said my wisdom came from God. I now began to prepare them for my purpose."6
Psychosis itself can explain Turner's multiple and realistic visions. It is possible that his visons were and combination of synesthesia, auditory hallucinations and delusions. From an early age Turner had been told that he was a profit, meant for something bigger and greater. This reinforcement from his family, particularly his mother and grandmother, in conjunction with his savantism could have resulted in the belief that he was speaking with the Holy Spirit as well as the incident during which he claims to have seen white and black spirits at war. This possible psychosis is further supported in the fact that Turner claimed to see blood in various places including the corn fields and the woods, as well as hieroglyphics written in blood.7 While these particular characteristics are indicative of some form of psychosis, the psychotic savant is believed to be able to relate to people on a level that allows them to easily fit in if not influence others. A prime example of someone who fits within this range of psychotic savantism would be John Nash who won the Nobel Prize despite dealing with severe psychosis. It is believed that people that fall into this category could fall into areas of expertise including religious evangelism, law, faith healing, and public relations, as well as fraud based crimes.8
The sway that Turner had over the slave community in Southampton county is undeniable based on the results of the rebellion. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on whether one believes Turner to be a hero or villain, slavery at the time was not monolithic but plural.9 Slavery was built upon neighborhoods founded on certain traditions, religious experiences and the people one dealt with on a daily basis. Outside of one's neighborhood unknown slaves were viewed with suspicion and in many cases turned in to the local owners, many times by the slaves of that particular neighborhood. In the instance of Turner's rebellion all went well until they proceeded outside their own neighborhood.10 Within his own neighborhood Turner was well known and looked at as a profit, however the residents in other regions did not know him or the other slaves and he was unable to count on their solidarity. Cooperation among slaves normally ended at the neighborhood border making it highly difficult to carry out a rebellion on a large scale.11 This concept of neighborhoods can be additionally reinforced in Turners own escape and eventual capture. For approximately ten weeks Turn was at large hiding in his own neighborhood living in a self-dug cave. It is highly unlikely that he would be able to survive during this time without help of some sort whether for food and water or some other necessity. Additionally, these societal boundaries kept him from leaving the area for lack of assistance eventually leading to his discovery and capture. Had he been able to count on the black community outside of his neighborhood he would have been able to leave and possibly never get captured. These conclusions are further supported by work done by Eugene Genovese. According to Genovese, Turners rebellion would fall under the same factorial deficiencies as other revolts in the Old South. Slave revolts were more likely to occur and succeed when a greater number of specific factors were met. Of these factors the two which were the most critical in the case of Turners rebellion were plantations or farms with a large number of slaves, numbering 100 - 200, as well as a society where blacks outnumber whites as in Haiti.12 While Turners rebellion was fueled by religion it was unable to maintain its momentum due to a sever lack of manpower. There are several examples of these factors throughout the Caribbean and South America. Within these regions blacks represented between 80 and 90 percent while the population of blacks in Virginia was approximately 37 percent,13 obviously a much smaller proportion than that in the Caribbean.
Reaction to the revolt, by whites, varied from region to region. Within Southampton county numerous blacks, participants in the revolt or not, were killed by roaming groups of vigilantes. According to a journalist with the Richmond Whig, these vigilantes acted with "great barbarity".14 While news at the time slowly, eventually the southern press began reacting to the event that happened in Southampton. Abolitionist papers viewed the revolt as an expected situation in response to the treatment of slaves and predicted more of the same to come in the future. Other papers, for fear of spreading hysteria in the community or ideas to the local slaves, reported nothing at all, effectively creating an information blackout. The primary issue however, that arose concerning the press, came from those publications that, if not telling complete lies, certainly exaggerated the story when it came to the facts of the revolt. The most noted of those exaggerations was found within the Raleigh Register three weeks after Turners rebellion was suppressed. According to the Register another revolt had taken place in Duplin and Sampson counties in North Carolina, during which a number of atrocities were committed and seventeen families were murdered.15 The Register later retracted the story and apologized however, the damage had already been done. Articles such as the found in the Register spread fear and varying levels of hysteria throughout the south.
Reactions by southerners varied widely as did their solutions to the "slave problem". Primarily it was questioned whether free blacks should be allowed to remain in the same region as slaves for fear that they would encourage more rebellion by flaunting freedom. Suggestions were made for voluntary militia to patrol the region in order to intimidate the black population into obedience as well as various legislative bills via the Virginia state legislature in order to send blacks to Liberia. Ultimately, southern society focused their attention on religion. After discovering that Nat Turner was a preacher, people began to voice their trepidation concerning the power and influence black preachers might exercise over the slave and free black population.16 Many believed that black ministers should not be allowed to preach in that they were outstanding at stirring up the black population thus leading to more resistance and revolt. Black preachers were seen as intelligent and literate and combining these characteristics with religion presented southern whites with a fearful possibility. The importance of religion to the black community allowed them to contend with life in slavery and having a skilled preacher might, in the eyes of the whites, encourage them to commit more acts of violence and rebellion. States such as Delaware passed laws limiting the size of black gatherings and curfews as well as gun ownership laws. Alabama made it illegal for a black person to be taught to read or to have religious services without at least five slaveholders present. All of these legal actions proved one thing, that many white southerners lived in fear, whether they were involved Tuner or not, about blacks, both free and enslaved.
As one analyzes the events of the Nat Turner Rebellion, before, during and after, there two separate conclusions that present themselves. Was Nat Turner an abolitionist hero touched by the divine spirit or, was he a highly charismatic and intelligent young man who happened to be suffering from a form of psychosis? No matter what the choice, the results are the same, 55 whites and hundreds of blacks killed and slave society in the old south reinforced even further. If Turner was a hero, connected to the divine spirit, then the sacrifices made could possibly be justified despite the retributions carried out by southern whites and the fact that it would take thirty-five more years and a war to realize the freedom he fought for. On the other hand, if Turner was a deluded young man the results of his revolt far from justify his actions and an argument can be made that his actions actually may have assisted in extending slavery in the south.
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1 "Nat Turner, 1800?-1831 The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va," Documenting the American South, accessed February 13, 2021, https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/turner/menu.html.
2 "The Symmetry of Savantism," Psychology Today, last modified August 21, 2009, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-imprinted-brain/200908/the-symmetry-...
3 "Nat Turner, 1800?-1831 The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va," Documenting the American South, accessed February 13, 2021, https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/turner/menu.html.
4 "The Symmetry of Savantism," Psychology Today, last modified August 21, 2009, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-imprinted-brain/200908/the-symmetry-...
5 "Bruno Bettelheim, Psychotic Savant," Psychology Today, last modified April 21, 2010, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-imprinted-brain/201004/bruno-bettelh...
6 "Nat Turner, 1800?-1831 The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va," Documenting the American South, accessed February 13, 2021, https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/turner/menu.html.
7 "Nat Turner, 1800?-1831 The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va," Documenting the American South, accessed February 13, 2021, https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/turner/menu.html.
8 "The Symmetry of Savantism," Psychology Today, last modified August 21, 2009, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-imprinted-brain/200908/the-symmetry-...
9 Anthony E. Kaye, "Neighborhoods and Nat Turner: The Making of a Slave Rebel and the Unmaking of a Slave Rebellion," Journal of the Early Republic 27, no. 4 (2007): 706.
10 Ibid 716.
11 Anthony E. Kaye, "Neighborhoods and Nat Turner: The Making of a Slave Rebel and the Unmaking of a Slave Rebellion," Journal of the Early Republic 27, no. 4 (2007): 706.
12 Eugene D. Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World (LSU Press, 1992), 11-12.
13 Ibid 14-15
14 Jeffrey A. Green. "Fear, Hypocrisy and Racial Notions: The White Response to the Nat Turner Insurrection as Revealed through the Southern Press, 1831-32." Griot 13, no. 2 (Fall, 1994): 17.
15 Ibid 18
16 Jeffrey A. Green. "Fear, Hypocrisy and Racial Notions: The White Response to the Nat Turner Insurrection as Revealed through the Southern Press, 1831-32." Griot 13, no. 2 (Fall, 1994): 20.