Now for the story of Nathaniel Bacon.
He was a paradox. Even today opinions on him are divided. Some reckon he was an opportunist who bolstered his personal power through others’ complaints, some say he was a true revolutionary who sparked American independence. What’s not in dispute is that he was from one of England’s top families, but he almost forced the English presence out of America!
His rebellion in 1676 was reportedly the worst and most hated anti-slavery rebellion yet. During it he had Governor William Berkeley running for safety across the Chesapeake, the Tidewater estates ravaged, Jamestown incinerated and all servants revolting!
Bacon was married to Berkeley’s cousin, therefore he was appointed to the Governor’s ruling council and gained 2 plantations.
At the end of the civil war (1651), Cromwell decided to use Virginia as a dumping ground for English and Irish unwanteds. His army swept up literally thousands of vagrants, beggars & prostitutes, and filled the Midlands gaols with them. After the Monarchy Restoration things got much worse; veterans from Cromwell’s New Model Army were also enslaved in the province. It was said that ex-Roundheads were involved in every single insurrection since then. The most serious of these was the Servants’ Plot 1663 – ringleaders’ heads were stacked on chimney pots and planters made slaves continue working even on Sundays!
How Christian of them (and I’m not being sarcastic).
In 1670, the Virginia General Court saw the influx of prisoners as dangerous to the colony. They protested to the king who agreed to suspend convict shipments. But then in 1672 a ‘Negro rebellion’ was brewing, so called because even ‘white’ slaves were too scared to join. Their number one complaint was land (unsurprisingly); either they received none at the end of their indenture, couldn’t afford to have it surveyed, or were going bust from the failing tobacco business. As the grandees’ main man, Berkeley and his poll tax* got the worst of the complaints.
* Ex-servants who owned 50 acres were taxed the same rate as their former slavers with 10,000 acres!
In 1675 the few remaining Americans (native) decided to ramp up their efforts from stealing plantations’ hogs to outright war on Virginia. Hundreds died on both sides. Bacon joined in after one of his slaves was killed, and weeks later became the leader of the most violent planters who wanted all natives slaughtered. Berkeley disagreed and said reconciliation was better, as he believed there were distinctions between tribes – good and bad. Why? He was “helping” native allies in more wars against the French and trading furs with ‘good’ tribes. Bacon didn’t give a monkey’s, and instigated the Battle of Bloody Run (1656, not 1763) in which he was recognised as a hero.
Over the coming months Berkeley & Bacon bickered more, leading to points when Berkeley had Bacon arrested then released, and Bacon had Berkeley captured then released.
Then came June 1676. Their duels came to a stalemate. The governor called the election for the House of Burgesses, with his critics all fucking off home. Reforms were rushed through to reduce the power of patronage. Bacon tried to raise his own army to wage war on the natives again – and was arrested again. Then he published Declaration of the People, a formal list of complaints against Berkeley. Complaints included:
- unjust taxation,
- not protecting smaller plantations
So Bacon rallied the people, promising freedom to every slave who’d leave their master to join his cause! Except his own and those of his adherents but whatever! People flocked to him, not just the “trash” (Berkeley’s word) but ones from all social strata minus the grandees. Yes, even magistrates, planters & burgesses joined him!
By the August he had enough men to hold Jamestownand the west shore, and he believed he could’ve beaten the army being sent from England. One of his supporters worte up an account featuring two other supporters – Richard Lawrence and William Townsend. Lawrence was allegedly in it for the love of “a blackamoor, his slave, and thought Venus was… to be worshipped with the image of a Negro.”
Interesting the book doesn’t divulge who that woman was. When I find out I’ll add her.
By the October the rebellion suddenly ended and was disbanded after Bacon died from bloody flux. Rebels were still at large however, but the next month naval captain Thomas (really?!?) caught one of the last bands of them, a good 400, and promised them freedom. 80 of them were smart enough not to trust him, so he said he’d take them to a rebel-held fort. In reality he took them within firing range of a MAN-O’-WAR!!!
When Oliver Cromwell had died (HOORAY!), Charlie the sequel had his corpse dug up from Westminster Abbey, dragged to Tyburn, hanged, beheaded & quartered. Governor Berkeley wanted to do the same to Bacon’s corpse, but when he got to the coffin he found it was full of stones!
Despite all that fuss, 880 or 890 slaves of all colours managed to flee Virginia to freedom. Most were recaptured but some lived on to become the Cumberland Plateau Maroons. Lee and his fellow grandees were pissing themselves over the rebellion’s aftermath: Berkeley warned that revolts like that would keep on happening until rule came to “agree with the common peoples.” They had nightmares about armed ‘black’ and ‘white’ servants fighting them again, then realised it could actually happen as they had no protection! So guess what they did next.
Get more arms?
NO! The Chesapeake planters hatched a plot to create a yeoman class made up of the children they had with their slaves just like in the Caribbean. In other words, inter-class (and interracial) people bred to divide the servile class.
‘Whites’ were given privileges like being forbidden from being whipped naked without a court order, and actually receiving freedom dues including corn, money, clothes, guns and 50 acres. ‘Blacks’ and natives, on the other hand, were stripped of property, judicial, electoral & family rights. They weren’t allowed to be freed even if the slavers wanted to! On the larger plantations segregation was enforced via separate living quarters and different clothing.
Thus the beginnings of colour-based chattel slavery…
Back to Part 13
On to Part 15