Christopher Tomlins’s new book, In the Matter of Nat Turner: A Speculative History, is a tour de force. It retells the history of Nat Turner’s famous rebellion with a focus on Turner’s religious motivations. The book begins by explaining the shortcomings of previous accounts of Turner, attempting to reconstruct what might have motivated Turner to decide in August 1831 to lead a group of fellow slaves on a campaign in Southampton, Virginia, “to rise up and kill all the white people.” Tomlins’s book shows how historical speculation and conjecture can be done in a way that is nonetheless solidly grounded in biblical, philosophical, anthropological, and historical context. The book is about Turner, yes, but insofar as it demonstrates the approach—call it “grounded speculation”—it is also a reflection on history itself and what to do as a historian when the historical event you are interested in is simultaneously under-documented and over-interpreted.
Tomlins begins by outlining the problems with two widely-relied upon accounts of the Turner Rebellion, both titled The Confessions of Nat Turner, which co-opted Turner in the service of other agendas. First, there was the contemporary account given by white county lawyer Thomas Ruffin Gray to whom Turner confessed while in prison awaiting trial. Gray produced a very complicated text about which Tomlins writes, “[it] is undoubtedly evidentiary, but evidence of what?” (P. 31.) What follows is a very nuanced reading of the work and what can and cannot be inferred from it. Continue reading "A New and Challenging History of Nat Turner and His Rebellion"