Summary: “Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion” by Stephen Oates Book Review


The author of this book is Stephen B. Oates. He is a former professor of history at University of Massachusetts Amherst. The writer is an authority in the 19th century American History. The book is about a slave by the name Nat Turner, who organized an uprising against their white masters. The uprising helped in bringing to an end the discrimination of the African Americans by their white counterparts. The theme of this book is the emancipation of the black slaves from their white slave owners who used to oppress them (Oates 19).


According to Oates (10), the setting for this book is in Southampton, which is a small town in Virginia. The little town consisted of plantations and identical homes. The slave owners in that area claimed that they were not oppressing their slaves. On the contrary, they claimed that they had given them a number of rights. Some of the rights which had been granted to the slaves included: going to church, having praise meetings, dancing and singing.

Furthermore, it is said that most slave owners were not particularly cruel to their slaves, but actually gave them opportunity to exercise some of their freedoms. In fact, many of the slave owners allowed their slaves to go on offs, and also gave them an opportunity to spend time in the evenings with their families.

The state of Virginia had the slave masters who were more lenient on their slaves than the slave owners at the Deep South. This was partly due to the fact that one-third of the white farmers in the Southampton owned no slaves. Additionally, the farmers in the state of Virginia had not experienced slave rebellion. For this reason, the white slave owners of Southampton considered insurrection to be a far fetched thing, which could only happen to other people.

The absence of insurrection among the slaves in Southampton helped in propagating the belief that the slaves under the care of their white masters were satisfied. While many slaves had been brought up believing that they were destined for slavery, “General Nat” exhibited exceptional qualities from the time he was born.

When he was born, his body possessed birthmarks which were considered to be marks of leadership in the African society. Additionally, Nat was able to know about events that had taken place in the past without being told. His masters also allowed him to study the bible, a privilege that was not given to other children.

In addition to his brilliance, Nat had an impeccable behavior which made his white masters to give him an opportunity to entertain their white friends. Unwittingly though, this special treatment that was accorded to Nat somehow helped to fuel a belief in him that he would one day be freed from the shackles of slavery. Consequently, when the time came for him to start the hard labor at the fields, it was a very painful moment for him.

In as much as the option of abolishment of slavery was always available, the white farmers had grown so much accustomed to it because of the economics benefits, that they were unwilling to stop the practice. Another thing which seemed to discourage the abolishment of slavery was the Christian influences.

While it is true that some Christian sects denounced slavery, there were other sects which used the Bible to justify it. In this regard, some white owners were pleased with the version of Christianity which emphasized to the slaves about the best life that lay ahead after death.

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This seemed to imply that the slaves had to endure the suffering, which they encountered daily as a result of slavery. In order to salve their conscience, some white masters decided to treat their slaves with kindness. This was informed by the fact that they considered the slaves to be instrumental in sustaining their economic status in the society and they did not want to get rid of them.

It is said that slavery was widely practiced in the southern part of the United States. In fact, it was considered to be a normal part of life by the citizens in that part of United States. It is even claimed that the governor of the state of Virginia only disapproved of it only on economic grounds.

This is because it resulted in tariff reductions for the states concerned. In addition to helping their white master to attain their economic objectives, slavery was also used as a means of “racial control”. In this way, the slaves would be kept busy to the extent that they would not have time to organize for revolts against their white masters. In spite of the fact that the slave owners in the state of Virginia allowed their slaves some freedoms, the slave behavior was reinforced through the use of military guard.

However, it is evident that the slaves were of the opinion that their slave masters were oppressing them. Subsequently, there arose among those slaves a man by the name “General Nat”, who was instrumental in organizing an uprising against their white slave masters. In addition, “General Nat” was considered to be very intelligent and was believed to be a prophet. “General Nat” was born as a property of Benjamin Turner, who later sold him off to another slave master, Joseph Travis.

It is claimed that Turner was brilliant and all the people who came across him were of the opinion that his brilliance would be wasted if he remained to be a slave. Probably due to the influence of the Christian teachings which had been given to him since childhood, at some point in time, Turner began communicating with the spirits who kept on urging him to fight for freedom.

One day, the spirits advised him to break away from the shackles of slavery to gain freedom. As a result of the privileges which had been accorded to him by his slave masters due to his aptitude, Nat realized that he had to continue to play the role of a subservient slave as he prepared to launch an attack on the cruel slave masters.

Turner was known to be a very obedient slave and also a very devout Christian. This helped Nat to obtain favors from his masters. Nat was later bought by another slave master called Joseph Travis, who continued to give privileges to him just like was the case with his previous master.

Joseph Travis was also under the impression that Nat was the most well behaved slave that he had ever come across. As a result, Travis allowed Nat to continue attending unsupervised church meetings which provided an opportunity for Nat to recruit and teach some people about the need to break away from slavery.

The whites in the state of Virginia were afraid of a rebellion, but they failed to grasp the reason why the slaves resorted to violence in a bid to free themselves from slavery. The white slave masters failed to recognize that it was morally wrong to control the life of another human being. The slave masters in the state of Virginia failed to address the plight of their slaves, and it is this failure which provoked the slaves to stage an uprising against them.

Consequently, Turner was able to organize a group of about eight men, who went about killing all the unscrupulous white masters, including their children and infants. The reason why Turner preferred a much smaller group was that, earlier attempts to use larger groups had always failed because word would leak out before the mission could commence.

For this reason, Turner was optimistic that his small band of men would be in a better position to have a huge impact on their white masters as they would get them by surprise. To commence their operation, the men in that group had to go and kill their slave masters. Among those killed at the commencement of the operation included Turner’s slave master and his infant.

It is said that Turner and his men used silent weapons which would not wake the other people in that town, thereby aborting their plans. After Turner and his men had gone about killing their white masters, they were rounded up by a group of militia and the town citizens. However, Turner was able to escape arrest, but all his accomplices were caught, jailed and subsequently hanged.

The operation of Turner and his men came to be referred to as the “march of destruction”, and it lingered in the mind of the citizens for a very long time. This is because it left an indelible mark in the minds of the people, who were afraid that such an incidence could recur with disastrous results, just like in the first instance.

As a result of that insurrection, the slave masters became even stricter with their slaves, and a very strong militia was formed to deal with such an incident in future. Nonetheless, inasmuch as the slave masters intensified their fight against insurrection, this incidence increased the chances of freedom in future.

For this reason, Nat Turner is considered to be a hero because he helped in ending discrimination against the African Americans. Had he not helped in enlightening his fellow slaves, they would probably have remained to be slaves for a very long time. This seems to support the notion that everybody, despite their status in life, can help in bringing about change in the society in which he lives.

Review of the book

The book is very interesting to read as it gives insight as to how the slaves in the state of Virginia were able to rise above slavery. It gives a captivating story about Nat Turner, who helped in organizing his fellow slaves to rise against their slave masters in a bid to end slavery.

This book helps me to realize that everybody stands a chance in helping to challenge the status quo and creating a better world for all devoid of discrimination. In addition, I have leant that even though an uprising might result in reprisals by the powers that be, it may very well be the start of the changes that are required.

Furthermore, the book points out that the absence of an uprising is not always indicative that the people are satisfied with the status quo. For this reason, had the slave masters in the state of Virginia been aware that their slaves were discontent, perhaps they would have instituted measures to ensure that such an uprising would not have taken place.

This book can be particularly valuable to any person who wishes to study the history of the abolishment of slavery, and the various milestones which have taken place towards the exterminating discrimination of the African Americans by their white counterparts.


It is clear that the emancipation of slaves was as a result of standing up against their white masters. Without those uprisings, the white masters would have taken long to realize that the slaves were not satisfied with the conditions under which they were living. It was through the contribution of people such as Nat that the slaves were enlightened. This facilitated their emancipation. This also gave them an opportunity to enjoy the freedoms which they could only dream about during their time under the yoke of slavery.

In as much as it was dangerous to organize such an uprising, the benefits of that action can be seen up to this day. This is because it laid the foundation which facilitated an end to slavery, and facilitated the elimination of discrimination of the African Americans in the United States, as well as in the rest of the world. This implies that one has to be courageous in challenging any injustice which could be prevalent in the world. In addition, there is a need for people to work together to end injustices in the world.

Works Cited

Oates, Stephen. The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion, New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990. Print.