The best books about slave rebellions

7 authors have picked their favorite books about slave rebellions and why they recommend each book.

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Tacky's Revolt

By Vincent Brown,

Book cover of Tacky's Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War

Tacky’s Revolt, a slave uprising in Jamaica in 1760-1, is not widely known outside the Caribbean, but Brown’s book should change that situation. Written with great attention to the significance of physical spaces as well as historical sources, Tacky’s Revolt provides insights into the lived experiences of enslaved people, and in particular how some drew upon their experiences as warriors in west African societies to stage a rebellion that aimed to overthrow plantation society. It depicts both the terrifying power and the surprising fragility of white authority in an island in which at this time 9 of 10 residents were of African descent, and nearly all of those were enslaved.

Who am I?

Americans view the Caribbean as a place apart, ideal for a beach vacation, but I see it as a region settled by the English in the same era and for the same reasons as the “Thirteen Colonies,” and separated less by physical distance than by the fact that the West Indies chose not to enter the American Revolution. Questions about racial identity and the effects of slavery play out there in ways both comparable to and distinct from these processes in the U.S. I have studied the English Caribbean for 25 years, and am especially interested in how its histories connect with those of colonial America and Georgian Britain.


I wrote...

Settler Society in the English Leeward Islands, 1670-1776

By Natalie Zacek,

Book cover of Settler Society in the English Leeward Islands, 1670-1776

What is my book about?

Settler Society is the first study of the history of the federated colony of the Leeward Islands – Antigua, Montserrat, Nevis, and St. Kitts – that covers all four islands in the period from their independence from Barbados in 1670 up to the outbreak of the American Revolution, which reshaped the Caribbean as well as the mainland American colonies.

Natalie A. Zacek emphasizes the extent to which the planters of these islands attempted to establish recognizably English societies in tropical islands based on plantation agriculture and African slavery. By examining conflicts relating to ethnicity and religion, controversies regarding sex and social order, and a series of virulent battles over the limits of local and imperial authority, this book depicts these West Indian colonists as skilled improvisers who adapted to an unfamiliar environment, and as individuals as committed as other American colonists to the norms and values of English society, politics, and culture.

The Slave's Cause

By Manisha Sinha,

Book cover of The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition

When I was growing up, I got the impression that abolitionists were either Englishmen or Quakers. While Manisha Sinha’s comprehensive, encyclopedic, and gripping chronicle of abolitionism is international, intergenerational, and interracial, The Slave’s Cause recognizes enslaved Americans and their descendants as the principal agents in the epic struggle to end slavery and establish freedom in the modern world. Sinha clarifies and connects the long, complex, and multitiered movement for abolition in the United States as she situates its Black and white protagonists, men and women, in a transnational context.


Who am I?

After growing up in South Florida, a longstanding crossroads of Southern, Latin, and Caribbean culture, I became a student of the African Diaspora in the Americas. I learned that Africans preceded the English in the Americas and arrived in greater numbers than Europeans until 1820. As a history professor and researcher, I continually came across the stories of Black men and women, enslaved and free, who started independence movements, fought in revolutions, established schools, businesses, newspapers, and political organizations - men and women who challenged slavery and discrimination and championed freedom at every opportunity. The number of individuals was overwhelming and fundamentally altered how I understand American history and democracy.


I wrote...

American Founders: How People of African Descent Established Freedom in the New World

By Christina Proenza-Coles,

Book cover of American Founders: How People of African Descent Established Freedom in the New World

What is my book about?

Spanning 1500-1950, American Founders reveals men and women of African descent as key protagonists in the story of American democracy. Sixteenth-century Africans and Afro-descendants accompanied campaigns from Canada to Chile, inaugurating a continuous tradition of Black military service. Seventeenth-century Afro-Americans continued to shape American history as explorers, soldiers, servants, slaves, cowboys, pirates, priests, proprietors, artisans, rebels, and maroons.

While resistance to slavery began in the 1500s, the 18th century saw major military and legal actions for freedom – Afro-Americans paved the way for and participated in the independence wars of the Age of Revolution. Nineteenth-century Afro-Americans negotiated citizenship as soldiers, entrepreneurs, educators, journalists, professionals, and activists. Twentieth-century Black Americans continued to champion universal rights, equality, justice, and civic engagement through endeavors and innovations in politics, law, academia, science, medicine, business, journalism, and art.

A Colony of Citizens

By Laurent Dubois,

Book cover of A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804

During the Age of Revolution, enslaved and formerly enslaved residents of the French Caribbean were among those who most vigorously insisted that the “rights of man” were universal. This book focuses on the colony of Guadeloupe, though Laurent Dubois has written about the Haitian Revolution as well, an event that resulted in the first nation in the Americas to outlaw human enslavement. Enslaved and free Afro-French men and women engaged colonial assemblies and militias to stake their claims to the rights of citizenship. As they endeavored to turn Enlightenment ideals into political realities, Afro-Americans in the Caribbean championed the rise of freedom in the West.


Who am I?

After growing up in South Florida, a longstanding crossroads of Southern, Latin, and Caribbean culture, I became a student of the African Diaspora in the Americas. I learned that Africans preceded the English in the Americas and arrived in greater numbers than Europeans until 1820. As a history professor and researcher, I continually came across the stories of Black men and women, enslaved and free, who started independence movements, fought in revolutions, established schools, businesses, newspapers, and political organizations - men and women who challenged slavery and discrimination and championed freedom at every opportunity. The number of individuals was overwhelming and fundamentally altered how I understand American history and democracy.


I wrote...

American Founders: How People of African Descent Established Freedom in the New World

By Christina Proenza-Coles,

Book cover of American Founders: How People of African Descent Established Freedom in the New World

What is my book about?

Spanning 1500-1950, American Founders reveals men and women of African descent as key protagonists in the story of American democracy. Sixteenth-century Africans and Afro-descendants accompanied campaigns from Canada to Chile, inaugurating a continuous tradition of Black military service. Seventeenth-century Afro-Americans continued to shape American history as explorers, soldiers, servants, slaves, cowboys, pirates, priests, proprietors, artisans, rebels, and maroons.

While resistance to slavery began in the 1500s, the 18th century saw major military and legal actions for freedom – Afro-Americans paved the way for and participated in the independence wars of the Age of Revolution. Nineteenth-century Afro-Americans negotiated citizenship as soldiers, entrepreneurs, educators, journalists, professionals, and activists. Twentieth-century Black Americans continued to champion universal rights, equality, justice, and civic engagement through endeavors and innovations in politics, law, academia, science, medicine, business, journalism, and art.

The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part I

By Sharon Ewell Foster,

Book cover of The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part I: The Witnesses

Until I read The Resurrection of Nat Turner, I considered myself a pacifist. I ended this novel and its sequel rooting for violent resistance and for Nat Turner, the man who led the most famous slave rebellion in American history, a man who was responsible for the deaths of women and children. In a culture of violence and unequivocal evil, turning the other cheek cannot be the only recourse. Foster left me forever changed.


Who am I?

I am an American novelist and a lifelong, enthusiastic student of American history. To me, history is people. In addition to first-hand accounts and biographies, one of the best ways to understand those people is historical fiction. For the last two decades, I’ve lived in the Southern United States, surrounded by the legacy of slavery, America’s “peculiar institution” that claimed an unequivocal evil was a positive good. Because both the enslaved and their enslavers were human beings, the ways that evil manifested were as complex as each individual—as were the ways people maintained their humanity. These are a few of the novels on the subject that blew me away.


I wrote...

Necessary Sins

By Elizabeth Bell,

Book cover of Necessary Sins

What is my book about?

In antebellum Charleston, a Catholic priest grapples with his family's secret African ancestry and his love for a slaveholder's wife. Joseph Lazare grows up believing his black hair and olive skin come from a Spanish grandmother, and he’s shocked to learn she was an enslaved African. At thirteen, Joseph allows racial prejudice to limit his future and chooses the seminary. At twenty-three, he is ordained “a priest forever.” When he meets the passionate Tessa Conley, Joseph’s ordered world cracks at its foundation.

Necessary Sins is the first book in the epic Lazare Family Saga, a quartet of literary historical novels about a multiracial family struggling to understand where they belong in the turbulent decades before the American Civil War.

The Confessions of Nat Turner

By William Styron,

Book cover of The Confessions of Nat Turner

A great and controversial novel—aren’t great novels always controversial?The Confessions of Nat Turner takes as its starting point the mind of a slave, Nat Turner, as he awaits his execution for leading a failed slave rebellion in 1831. Even when it was published in 1967, the novel inspired a strong backlash from the African-American community, who were upset, in part, because of the portrayal of a Black man lusting after a White woman. Written by a Southern White, the novel is a powerful story, powerfully told, one that remains as relevant today as it did when it was first published. 


Who am I?

I’m the author of seven novels, including Soul Catcher, a Booksense and Historical Novels Review selection; A Brother’s Blood, which was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book and an Edgar Award Finalist; The Blind Side of the Heart, A Dream of Wolves, and The Garden of Martyrs, a Connecticut Book Award finalist and made into an opera. My historical novel Beautiful Assassin won the 2011 Connecticut Book Award for Fiction. I’ve also published a collection of his short stories, Marked Men, in addition to over 50 short stories in national journals.  I was the founding editor of two magazines, American Fiction and Dogwood, as well as the founder and former director of Fairfield University's MFA Creative Writing Program. I’ve just completed a new historical novel set during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.


I wrote...

Soul Catcher

By Michael C. White,

Book cover of Soul Catcher

What is my book about?

Augustus Cain is a man with a past he wants to forget, a present without prospect or fortune, and an uncertain future marred by the loss of his most prized possession: the horse that has been his working companion for years. He is also a man haunted by a terrible skill—the ability to track people who don’t want to be found. Rosetta is a runaway slave fueled by the passion and determination only a mother can feel.  Her flight is her one shot at freedom, and she would rather die than return to the living hell that she has left behind.

In the perilous years before the Civil War, the fates of these two remarkable people will intertwine in an extraordinary adventure—a journey of hardship and redemption that will take them from Virginia to Boston and back—and one that will become an extraordinary test of character and will, mercy and compassion. It is an odyssey that will change them both forever.

All Souls' Rising

By Madison Smartt Bell,

Book cover of All Souls' Rising: A Novel of Haiti

As I prepared to write my own novel on Haiti, I searched for a novel of merit already written as part of my preparation. I found this work of Madison Smartt Bell, which was nominated for the National Book Award. This author proved to be a master of the language. I admired his ability to bring Toussaint alive, as well as picturing the culture of the time, and the complexities of a war that changed history.  


Who am I?

From the time I heard of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed over 200,000 people, my heart was drawn to that country. From 2012 to 2017 I lead five mission trips to Cap Haitian, where we toured mission work, helped Haitians build an elementary school, and met so many of these beautiful people. I ate the great cooking of “Mama Jo” who, along with her husband, hosted us. I gave “horsey” rides to children at a Port-au-Prince orphanage; and shared in prayer and singing with churches near Cap Haitian. In short, I fell in love with these people. How could I not write a novel of hope about them? 


I wrote...

The Sons and Daughters of Toussaint

By Keith Madsen,

Book cover of The Sons and Daughters of Toussaint

What is my book about?

In The Sons and Daughters of Toussaint, Isaac Breda seeks to renew the revolution of his famous forefather, Toussaint Louverture. He is discouraged that a revolution that had cost so much, now had so little to show for it, and he determines to make Haiti’s freedom real. He enlists his friends, including his beautiful girlfriend, Marie-Noelle. In pursuing this quest, they are inspired by the words of Margaret Meade: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” They fight against the poverty and corruption in Haiti, and for the people and land they love. Taking on this challenge transforms both themselves and their country.

The Spartacus War

By Barry Strauss,

Book cover of The Spartacus War

Nobody embodied the grit and glamor of Rome quite like gladiators. Forced to fight half-nude before audiences numbering into the thousands, they oozed confidence and sex appeal. Most famous of them all was Spartacus, who in 73 BCE broke out of a gladiatorial school in southern Italy and became the leader of what was probably the greatest slave uprising in antiquity. Even slave-owning Romans saw nobility in Spartacus. In modern times he has been a hero for all kinds of people struggling for freedom. I can never stop thinking about Spartacus and learned a lot from Barry Strauss’ absorbing book. An expert in military history, Strauss helps you understand what it was like to fight as a gladiator and how Spartacus’ remarkable insurgency was finally defeated by a savage counterinsurgency.


Who am I?

I am a historian of ancient Rome. My interest was sparked in my high school Latin classes. On my first trip to Rome, several years later, I truly fell in love. I could see the famed orator delivering his fierce attacks against Catiline amid the grand temples of the Forum and its surrounding hills. I could imagine myself standing in a crowd, listening. In Washington DC, where I now live and teach at Georgetown University, there are classical buildings all around to keep me inspired. I have written a number of books about Roman political history and have also translated the biographer Suetonius and the historian Sallust.


I wrote...

Rome and the Making of a World State, 150 BCE–20 CE

By Josiah Osgood,

Book cover of Rome and the Making of a World State, 150 BCE–20 CE

What is my book about?

Rome and the Making of a World State offers a clear and lively account of the fall of the Roman Republic. By moving beyond the conventional stopping date of Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, this book traces not only political breakdown but also a longer arc of cultural transformation. In the midst of violence and civil war, the Romans reimagined citizenship and extended it widely, developed a more inclusive vision of empire, and turned the city of Rome into an artistic center with a lively literary scene. With rich descriptions of Rome and also Pompeii in southern Italy, Osgood shows how marble temples, lavish baths, and vast sports arenas sprang up among dingy, disease-filled streets in which large numbers of people lived enslaved. 

The Common Wind

By Julius S. Scott,

Book cover of The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution

Taking as its title a line from the sonnet William Wordsworth wrote in 1802 in honour of the then imprisoned Toussaint Louverture, Julius S Scott’s work – like that of Carolyn Fick – gives us a powerful sense of just how revolutionary the Haitian Revolution was. Focusing on how sailors, runaway slaves, soldiers, and others spread revolutionary ideas of the Radical Enlightenment across the Caribbean during the 1790s, Scott gives us another brilliant ‘history from below’, full of inspiring examples of internationalism. Leaders of other slave revolts across the Caribbean took on names like ‘Toussaint’, while even the English radical Thomas Paine came to inspire Francophone blacks in this period – such as the imprisoned ‘John Paine’ detained by British authorities in colonial Jamaica in 1793.


Who am I?

When we are thinking of the origins or roots of contemporary movements like #BlackLivesMatter, the Haitian Revolution represents a foundational, inspirational moment but one of also wider world-historical impact and importance – ‘the only successful slave revolt in history’ – and so as the most outstanding leader to emerge during that revolutionary upheaval Toussaint Louverture will always retain relevance and iconic significance. I've had an interest in Toussaint and the Haitian Revolution ever since undertaking my doctorate on how the black Trinidadian revolutionary historian C.L.R. James came to write his classic history of the Haitian Revolution. I currently teach history, including the history of Atlantic slavery and abolition, in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Brighton. 


I wrote...

Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions

By Charles Forsdick, Christian Høgsbjerg,

Book cover of Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions

What is my book about?

Heroic leader of the only successful slave revolt in history, Toussaint Louverture is one of the greatest anti-imperialist fighters who ever lived. Born into slavery on a Caribbean plantation, he was able to break from his bondage to lead an army of formerly enslaved Africans to victory against the professional armies of France, Spain, and Britain during the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804. 

In this lively narrative biography, Louverture’s fascinating life is explored through the prism of his radical politics. Charles Forsdick and Christian Høgsbjerg champion this ‘black Jacobin’ whose revolutionary legacy has inspired people and movements in the two centuries since his death up to and including the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement.  

Wake

By Rebecca Hall, Hugo Martínez (illustrator),

Book cover of Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts

This book brings the format of a graphic novel to the subject of women's resistance during enslavement and the trans-Altantic slave trade—and the result is fresh and compelling. As a historian myself, I appreciated the interwtined narratives of Hall's own research quest as a historian following the documentary record—and her reconstruction of the extraordinary revolt of the women held captive in 1772 on the slave-ship Unity. Both the search for truth and the dramatic uprising are conveyed with great skill and emotional power. The account of the Unity revolt calls attention to what we know, how we know it, and what we don't know. But Hall refuses to stop there. Instead, carefully marking speculation as such, Hall offers a fascinating, well-informed, effort to imagine a fuller account of what might have actually happened. We are left with a powerful sense of why this history matters two and a half…


Who am I?

I'm an American historian and former director of UNC-Chapel Hill's Program in Sexuality Studies—and former pizza maker, gas pumper, park ranger, and tour guide at the house in which Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women. As a historian, I've spent my career trying to understand the lives of people in early American history who weren't well known at the time. In writing the Sewing Girl's Tale, which focuses on a survivor of a sexual assault, it was especially important to keep her at the center of the story. Ultimately, I wanted to know: What was life in the aftermath of the American Revolution like—not for some Founding Father—but for an ordinary young woman.


I wrote...

The Sewing Girl's Tale: A Story of Crime and Consequences in Revolutionary America

By John Wood Sweet,

Book cover of The Sewing Girl's Tale: A Story of Crime and Consequences in Revolutionary America

What is my book about?

On a moonless night in the summer of 1793, a crime in the back room of a New York brothel transformed Lanah Sawyer’s life. It was the kind of crime that even victims usually kept secret. Instead, the seventeen-year-old seamstress did what virtually no one else dared to do: she charged a gentleman with rape. The trial rocked the city and nearly cost Lanah her life. And that was just the start.

The Sewing Girl's Tale is the story of an extraordinary prosecution in the aftermath of the American Revolution—and its contemporary relevance. Reviewers have hailed the book as “a masterpiece” (Wall Street Journal), “decidedly pro-woman” (Atlanta Journal Constitution), and “excellent and absorbing” (New York Times).

Property

By Valerie Martin,

Book cover of Property

A thin, little book and a true masterpiece!

Narrated by Manon Gaudet, the mistress of an 1830s plantation outside New Orleans, the novel forced me to adopt the perspective of a person who is both oppressed, as a woman in the 19th century, and oppressor, as a slave-owner, who is keenly observant and stunningly blind. Manon’s body-servant, Sarah, has given birth to a deaf wild-child who Manon cannot ignore, given his striking resemblance to her own husband. Manon, who is obsessed with Sarah too, is incapable of recognizing her as someone being victimized by her husband. She only sees a rival.

I teach Property in my classes. My students hate Manon. They also love the book!


Who am I?

For me, the American story is about “mixedness”—about the ways in which people of various backgrounds and beliefs have come together, oftentimes despite themselves, to make up our modern racial stew. It has been true since the Founding and is all the more so now, even as we, as a society, continue to want to resist it. These novels achieve what I aspire to in my own writing: the white characters are as complex as the Black ones. And in their struggles to make sense of the world, they all reveal the complexity and contradictions of American identity.


I wrote...

Black Cloud Rising

By David Wright Faladé,

Book cover of Black Cloud Rising

What is my book about?

Mixedness—explored in a Civil War story.

By fall 1863, Union forces had established a toehold in eastern North Carolina, including along the Outer Banks. Thousands of runaways flooded the Union lines, but Confederate irregulars still roamed the region. The newly formed African Brigade, a unit of these former slaves led by General Edward Augustus Wild—a one-armed, impassioned Abolitionist—set out to hunt down the rebel guerillas, and also to free the slaves who remained in bondage. For Sergeant Richard Etheridge, the son of a slave and her master, raised with some privileges but constantly reminded of his place, the raid is an opportunity to reunite with Fanny, the woman he hopes to marry one day. It also means an inevitable Cain-and-Abel confrontation between Richard his white half-brother, Patrick.

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