In the predawn hours of August 22, 1831, slave Nat Turner stormed into history with a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other. Leading a small army of fellow slaves in an uprising that left more than fifty whites dead, Turner became a tragic hero and a lightning rod for abolitionists. His rebellion put Virginia in the national spotlight and tore a nation’s trust.
In Part I: The Witnesses, Harriet Beecher Stowe encounters a mysterious runaway slave who recounts stories of people who knew Nat Turner, both friends and enemies. In their words are the truth of the mystery and conspiracy of Turner’s life, death, and confession. Part 2: The Testimony, relates the whole story—from Turner’s early slave years with his Ethiopian-born mother through the uprising, his trial, and hanging—from Nat’s perspective. It’s a story full of greed and betrayal, faith and courage, villains and heroes.
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Cross Keys Area, outside Jerusalem, Virginia
Nat Turner felt in his pocket to be certain the gunpowder mixture was still dry. He knew exactly the time and place he would use it. He had been planning for months. He was on his way to meet the others.
It had been a cruel winter. Snow in Virginia was most often one or two fingers deep or none at all, but this winter it had been heavy and so cold that the top of it was frozen. When he stepped, for an instant he stood above it. Then, shoeless, he was calf-deep again in the icy powder. At first cold pain shot up his knee and through his body with each step he took. Soon his feet were frozen and he numbly made his way past isolated farms and houses where he smelled the aroma of meat roasting outside. But he could not breathe deeply; the frozen air stung his lips, the membranes of his nose, ached his teeth.
The snow had snapped the brittle backs of withered corn plants. It covered the roads like a thick blanket so he barely recognized the fences and places he knew. The trees were his guide.
The trees were in the beginning and they had witnessed it all. They had seen husbands and sons dragged from their homes, castrated men dripping from their branches. They had seen women torn from the breast of their families and raped underneath the moon and stars. They had seen them beaten, burned, starved, and mutilated. The trees had witnessed it all. Their arms had borne the weight of the tortured.
He followed the trees, each one a signpost and a threat. Past sleeping apple trees—their feet and hair covered by the snow blanket—he ducked under leafless boughs and touched aged trunks covered with bark, rough even against his numb, bare hands. The trees were black and crooked against the snow’s stark white. In warmer times, their hands and arms gave fruit and all the while told stories of death, strange fruit dangling from their limbs.
If the trees held the land’s memories, then his mother held his. “You are a man of two continents,” she had told him. “Your father is a man of America. They are the people of justice. An eye for an eye. At least that is what they say. But I am African. Ethiopians are children of mercy. It does not yet appear which will be strongest in you.”
Ethiopian memories were rich, ancient, and deep. The images went back, his mother told him, before the ferengi, the foreigners, began to count time.
His mother told him that her mother’s mother had told her that the Ethiopian highlands were waves, disobedient waves that had come crashing too far inland from the sea. The wayward waves had been abandoned by the others who returned to their watery home. Those left behind dried out and hardened, blanketed by green grass. But if you looked closely, you could see that the mountains were really only waves who’d gone too far and lost their way, his mother said. Heathen strangers.
Most of what he knew about life his mother had taught him. He had a grandmother who had helped raise him, but she was not really his grandmother. She was the old woman who tended all the slave children too old to nurse but too young to work, while their parents slaved in the fields or kitchens. But it was his mother who had taught him most about life, teaching him to honor his elders.
“They carry the wisdom and history of a people,” she told him. “In Ethiopia they teach us the elders have learned to live a long time, and if we honor them they will teach us the way.”
Ethiopia was a great nation—armies with twelve hundred chariots, threescore thousand horsemen, with a host of a thousand thousand—and at her name other nations quaked.
He was born of a nation of great warriors; the world’s first warriors—men who possessed the bravery of lions. Birthed from a nation of warriors who were also holy men, leaders at the world’s great councils of holy men. She told him of the warrior priests and saints, like St. Moses of Ethiopia.
From the beginning, she told him, Ethiopia had God’s favor. They were not rich in currency, but they were wealthy in greater things. There were great cities like Lalibela, Gondar, and Aksum. The spirit of God hovered over Ethiopia, and God had given Ethiopia’s people to Maryam, the Mother of God, as a precious gift. The proof was in the emerald hills and the ruby valleys; the golden lions and leopards dotted with onyx; exotic birds of topaz, amethyst, and sapphire. The proof was in God’s choice of Ethiopia as birthplace of the majestic Nile. God had crowned her with rainbows like jewels.
She told him the Nile’s names—Blue and White—and as a child he had tried to imagine how the water divided into two colors, separated one from another. When he told her, she laughed and told him that in the old language the word for blue was the same as black. The color was not important. What was important was generosity: It was Ethiopia’s gift to Egypt, birthed from Ethiopia’s Lake Tana. It was the gift that gave Egypt her beautiful flowers.
From the beginning Ethiopia had been part of God’s Great Church. She told him of the paintings, Bibles, and crosses that dated from the earliest centuries. She told him of Masqal-Kebra, the beautiful and merciful Ethiopian saint and wife—a great queen who advised her husband, good King Lalibela, on issues of state, with gentleness and mercy.
She told him the story of Moses and his Ethiopian wife and of the Ethiopian who rescued the prophet Jeremiah. Yes, there were Jews in Ethiopia, she told him. Families, thousands and thousands of them, who had been followers since the time of Solomon, Candace, and Menelik—and there were also others who followed the new religion, Islam. But all were brothers, Abraham’s children, she reminded him as her mother had reminded her.
She shared the story of the Ethiopian Jew who, while reading Isaiah, had met the apostle Phillip and carried the good news of Iyyesus Krestos back to Ethiopia. His mother told him of the ancient bond between Egypt and Ethiopia—holy men had traveled the Nile, the Red Sea, and the Sahara for aeons between the great nations.
She shared stories of the great churches of Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, Armenia, and India—all sisters to Ethiopia and part of God’s Great Church. She told him about the Ethiopian priests and their families. She told him about the wise men, shimaghellis, who lived their lives to serve the people—about people whose prayers awoke thunder and storms thousands of miles away.
She told him how St. Frumentius, a fourth-century Greek from Tyre—the Kesate Birhan, the “Revealer of Light,” and Abba Salama, “Father of Peace”—brought Ethiopia the sacraments and helped spread the glory. She taught him of castles, palaces, and of Ethiopian cathedrals carved from stone. His mother whispered to him of the Holy Ark of the Covenant. “It rests in the Cathedral of Saint Maryam of Zion in the great city of Aksum,” she told him.
The Ethiopian people believed in God and in miracles, in His mercy and in His love. What kind of person could look at the sun, the moon, the stars, the water, and not believe? she asked him. Only a fool of the worst kind would think himself greater than all the wonder and not believe, she said. God was a spirit and all mankind—all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues—were made in His image. God dwelled among His people and He was to them all things: Father and the Many Breasted One.
Nat Turner continued following the trees. Cold shot up his shins like steel spikes.
His mother told him that God heard prayers and always answered; He was not bound by space or time. God spoke to people now as He had spoken to their forefathers more than a thousand years ago. God spoke to King David, to the prophets Daniel and Jonah, and they were no different from the people of today. She shared stories of how God had answered prayers in her family’s life and in the lives of others. “If you open your eyes and your heart, you will hear Him. If your heart is honest and humble, you will understand.
“God always answers, but He does not always say what we desire.” Her hope and prayer had been to stay in Ethiopia with her family. She had prayed to never leave. “If God always speaks what you want to hear, then you only speak to yourself!”
She always frowned then. “I did not want to leave.” His mother told him the stories over and over and she always sighed. “I did not want to leave.” But other people had prayed and their groans and cries reached God’s ears. “They were captive Africans, like us, taken from their families.” God had heard and sent her in the belly of a ship on a journey, like Jonah, to plead with the captors to free the captives and repent. His mother had been stolen from Ethiopia. She often cried when she told him of the rapes, the humiliation, and bondage, and of Misha and of her baby floating to their graves.
She could not bear to speak of her daughter, the sister he did not know, the little girl she had left behind, could not speak his sister’s name. “Sometimes the things we must do for others are more important than our own lives.” Her eyes seemed focused on a place far away that he could not see. Then she shrugged and came back to him.
“Egzi’ abher needed you born here—he needed me to be the ship that carried you.” He was born to be a deliverer, a prophet, a man of mercy. “God is lover of us all, the oppressed and the oppressor.”
She told Nat Turner—the son she called Nathan, secretly calling him Negasi, her prince—that he was a living answer to the captives’ prayers. It was a heavy burden for a little boy to bear. But he was born to it.
It was a family debt he owed.
Nat Turner brushed past a clump of barren trees. Not far away he saw a squirrel scurrying, desperately scrambling for food. Nat Turner’s stomach rumbled. He had not eaten since early the previous day. His mother’s stories helped fill his stomach and his heart. He felt in his pocket again. He must keep the black powder dry.
He was born of men who possessed the bravery of the lion, his mother said. They were men who would give their lives to protect their families or their country.
She told Nat Turner he was born of a nation of beautiful people—women so beautiful that Moses, running in fear, stopped and fell to his knees before the lovely Zipporah. Moses was captivated, as King Solomon was taken by the Queen of Sheba.
She told him of the Empress Berham Mugasa Mentewab, whose name reflected her beauty. She told him of the brown-faced Maryam cradling her holy son, Iyyesus.
His mother told him of Ethiopian men browned by the sun and more handsome than eagles in flight. She told him of the paintings and crosses that dated from the earliest centuries.
He was descendant of a nation of people who were readers and writers, thinkers and builders, she said. The Americans believed no Africans read, wrote, or had language. So, it was Nancie and Nathan Turner’s secret that before he could read English, she taught him to write and read Amharic—printing out the words on precious scraps of trashed paper. Pages were called leaves, she told him. When there was no paper, she used a stick, drawing the letters on the ground. She had taught him what she could remember of Ge’ez, the holy language. He had taught himself English.
She taught him the prayers. She told him about the great church at Gondar with the brown-faced angels in the ceiling.
Nat Turner was a child of rape, the child of two peoples locked in struggle, and the seed of revolution burned in his belly. He was his mother’s shame and her glory, and the weight of it sometimes seemed to crush him. When he looked at her, he saw the affection she had for him, the hope that was so much more than love. He was the hope of her triumphant return to Africa. He was the hope of his mother’s village. He was the hope and dream of all the captive people. She told him she saw her father and her grandfather, and strangely even glimpses of her Ethiopian husband, in him.
Nathan Turner was born in Southampton County, without her it was all he knew. His mother was his memory of Ethiopia—the shepherds, the lambs, and the tall lion-colored grass. His mother was his Ethiopia. He saw it in her eyes. After more than thirty years, her tongue still lived in Ethiopia, her English still broken—it was her revenge on her captors. But her Amharic, when they were alone, flowed like the Nile he imagined.
When he was a boy he had dreamed a dream. He had dreamed of a family, of a simple farm, and preaching God’s word. He dreamed a dream of Africa, of returning to his homeland, the highlands of Ethiopia. But the One God had spoken to him and now he knew in this lifetime he would never journey there.
His mother had taught him the story of his African forefathers and taught him to number the generations. “King Solomon loved the Queen of Sheba and she bore him a child, Menelik. Solomon begat Menelik, Menelik begat Menelik the Second.” She counted on her fingers. “And then Meshech begat your grandfather….” He numbered them until she was certain he remembered.
“We are the people of the spirit, the people of God,” she told him. “It is our inheritance.” The roots of the faith, she told him, were buried in love. “If you have and your brother has not, you must share. To do otherwise is a sin, my Negasi.”
Sometimes when they were alone, she asked him to whisper her Ethiopian name, so that she would not forget. “You are Nikahywot,” he would answer. “Nikahywot, my source of life,” he reassured his mother.
“A man of two continents,” she would repeat. “One foot firmly planted in mercy and the other in judgment.”
Nat Turner followed the trees—the oaks, the pines, the cypresses, and the slumbering fruit trees—to a small cabin on a far patch of Nathaniel Francis’s land. Smoke curled from the chimney. He heard people inside talking and laughing. He felt in his pocket again for the gunpowder. He knocked and then stepped inside.
He looked around the room.
They were all heroes.
Nat Turner had heard the word of God: This would be his last Christmas.
© 2012 Sharon Ewell Foster