William Davidson
William Davidson
Sketch of William Davidson, circa 1817

Full Name

William Davidson


1781, Jamaica, British Colonies


June 22, 1834, Atlanta, Georgia


Lawyer, Sailor, Slave, Revolutionary

William Davidson (c. 1781- June 22, 1834) was an African-Caribbean radical and a key leader in the Great Slave Revolt of 1832.

Davidson was born to a local black woman and Jamacian attorney general in British Jamaica. Raised on the island, in 1795 Davidson was sent to Glasgow, Scotland to study law. In his late teenage years, Davidson became a proponent of parliamentary reform and bringing change to the British government. In 1802, he was pressed into the Royal Navy against his will, and fought for the entire duration of the Second Seven Years War at sea. At the end of the war in 1809 he returned to Scotland. After a failed business venture, he moved south to London, the nation's capital. Post-war Britain was a very chaotic state, filled with food rationing, martial law, and the constant use of British troops against civilians. It was under these conditions that Davidson turned into a radical reformist, wanting a complete overhaul of the system of government.

In 1817, former General and Prime Minister Arthur Wellesley (later Arthur Wellington) overthrew the British monarchy and installed himself as head of state in a new Commonwealth. Davidson, like all blacks in the British isles, were forced into slavery and into work camps where they improved British infrastruture. Davidson later said this is when he gave up faith in God. Four years later, in 1821, Davidson was sold to a plantation in Georgia, which had become a British ally. While there, he made a new friend; Reverend Jethro Shakespeare. Shakespeare wasn't an actual Reverend, just a slave preacher who styled himself as one. He had been born and raised in Georgia, and had a deep hate for the white race and what they had done to his people. And like Davidson, he was also a radical. After several months, he told Davidson he planned to lead a slave uprising in early 1822, and asked if he would join as his second-in-command. Davidson agreed, but on one condition; they would postpone it. Unlike Shakespeare, who thought in local terms, Davidson thought with a bigger picture in mind: a national slave revolt, that would overthrow the Georgian government and institute an all black republic. His inspiration was the October Revolution of the Commonwealth, mixed with his growing hatred for the white man and his belief in republican ideals (as long as they were only black republicans, however). Shakespeare agreed, and the two began their plans.

Over the next decade, an entire system was set up across the Georgian countryside. Slaves from all corners of the nation were let in on the "secret" and told to prepare for whenever the uprising would come. It even crossed borders; both slaves in South Carolina, and the southern URAS were informed. In 1827, Davidson was sold west to a plantation along the Mississippi River. Both he and the Reverend remained in touch however, through the use of written messages passed by slaves throughout the country. Finally, in the summer of 1832, a date was set: on Christmas Eve, 1832, tens of thousands of slaves across Georgia, South Carolina, and the URAS would revolt on mass and kill their white overlords. Davidson would lead a revolt in Greenville, while Shakespeare would lead one in Butler; when the slaves had destroyed the Georgian government, they would meet to take control and form their own black republic.

When Christmas Eve arrived, the spark was light. That night, thousands upon thousands of slaves dug out weapons, some nearly a decade old, and struck at their masters. Entire families were murdered as they slept, their throats slit, while whole towns of whites were set a blaze. The countryside became a hell on earth, with whites and blacks killing each other endlessly. Unfortunately for Reverend Shakespeare, his personally led revolt wasn't so lucky. His uprising was crushed that very night by Georgian regulars, led by General and future President Jeroboam Calvin Moses Towns. Every black caught was publically impaled by the side of the road, except for the Reverend. Shakespeare was fed to hunting dogs on Christmas morning, and for the rest of his life Towns was given the title the "Butcher of Butler."

With Shakespeare dead, Davidson took control of the revolt. By spring, 1833, most of the blacks in eastern Georgia had been defeated or killed; they were shot on mass by Georgian troops, led by Towns, and those who surrendered were allowed to return to slavery (or sometimes be killed as well). In South Carolina the revolt had been botched by slaves, religious zealots as much as their masters, allowing the secret to get out; the revolts never got off the ground. While in the URAS, their standing army had crushed the few isolated revolts in less than two weeks.

Davidson still held strong for the future. Most of western Georgia was either in chaos or controlled by minature slave republics and the Georgian Army would have to conquer all of it. And even after they did, there would be a rebel movement kept alive. This left the revolutionaries in good spirit. Unfortunately, they didn't count on the sheer verocity of the Georgian troops. Blacks, whether men, women or children, were shot on mass. Entire villages were cleared, and burned down to hide the bodies. Regions of the country were became barren of human life. This wasn't crushing a rebellion; this was extermination. As for the loss of so many slaves and workers, more were merely imported cheaply from Africa, replacing the dead ones. The rebellious were merely slaughtered and new ones were brought in to take their place. By early 1834, all of the slaves had been defeated, killed, or simply dropped their guns and gone into hiding except for a few patches along the Mississippi River. One of those patches was headed by Davidson, who refused to give up the fight. On May 3, in the Battle of Natchez, the last of the slave revolutionaries were defeated and killed by the Georgian Army, once again under the command of General Towns. Davidson, despite his best efforts, was captured.

A true spectacle, William Davidson had led a massive slave revolt that spanned most of a continent, and was now in the hands of the Georgian government. Despite outcrys for his immediate death, Georgian President George Troup put him on trial. Or at least what was termed a trial; it would be a public show to present to the world the crimes committed by Davidson, and how he deserved death (which had already been predetermined). After this "trial of the century" that went on for several weeks, William Davidson was sentenced to death. Tied to wooden stake and set ablaze, thousands watched as Davidson was burned alive for his actions as a revolutionary.

William Davidson has become a historical pariah. Known as the key leader of the Great Slave Revolt of 1832, he was an inspiration to blacks everywhere, and a real life boogeyman for whites. Called by historians as a terrorist and murderer, he none the less brings race relations to the forefront of issues whenever his name is mentioned.