The Unknown Slave Rebellion
— Derrick Morrison
The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt
By Daniel Rasmussen
Harper, 2010, 276 pages, $27 hardcover.
“Destrehan did not mention the spiked iron collars, cowhide whips, and face masks that he and the other planters used to encourage the slaves’ ‘natural habits.’ Though the planters had no difficulty reconciling the wealth they enjoyed and the price the slaves paid, the region’s black laborers did. By aborting their own children, poisoning livestock, lighting fires, and escaping to the cypress swamps, the slaves struggled to dilute, deflect, and if possible demolish slaveholders’ authority. Even open revolt was not beyond question. While it was a card that slaves played only rarely — planters tended to take a dim and deadly view of armed rebellion — the German Coast teemed with violent possibilities. The planters’ world rested on a powder keg to be ignited by the smallest of sparks. Unbeknownst to those who crowded the ballrooms and attended the season’s festivities, that spark had already been lit.” (American Uprising, 18)
SO WRITES DANIEL Rasmussen in this gem of a book. American Uprising is a relatively easy read, covering lots of ground from the 1811 rebellion to the 1960s in North Carolina. There are major holes in the scholarship on slave resistance and rebellion; Rasmussen’s study of the nearly-forgotten monumental uprising of 1811 began with his research for an undergraduate term paper at Harvard.
Since the 1960s the academy has created an improved climate for the study of slave revolts — after decades of suppression and efforts to wipe out any mention of such acts. Of course, this opening came against the backdrop of the Black rights, student, and global anti-colonial rebellions.
Rasmussen devotes a whole chapter to the historical cover-up of the 1811 rebellion. He must depend on lots of circumstantial evidence on slavery and slave revolts, given that the participants in the 1811 rebellion were not interviewed and allowed to tell their story before the regime of the slaveholders chopped up their bodies and placed their heads on poles stretching from what is today Jackson Square in the city of New Orleans to points 40 miles up the Mississippi River along River Road.
The area up the river is where the sugar plantations stood. It was called the German Coast because the French government had used German speakers to settle and colonize in the early 1700s. The Bourbon rulers — unlike the government in Britain where the rise of capitalist agriculture had cleared peasants from the land, pushing them into the cities, thereby creating an “excess” population ripe for colonizing the “New World” — faced a situation where the peasants were still tied in feudal relations to the land, leading French government officials to grab anyone, even Germans, and send them across the Atlantic.
“The French colonization of Louisiana became to a great extent a penal colonization. During 1717 and 1718, the sentences of prisoners who had been condemned to the galleys were commuted, and these prisoners were sent to Louisiana to work for three years.” (Africans in Colonial Louisiana, The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, 1992: 5)
Thus, the French settlements were unstable. In contrast, a major factor in the British settlements along the Eastern seaboard were groups of tightly organized religious dissenters.
Despite the obstacles, French planters eventually established a foothold along the Mississippi River through the use of African slaves, and New Orleans became a thriving port and city through the use of the same type of labor. According to Hall (177), in 1746 the population of New Orleans consisted of 800 French males and 3,000 Black males, females and children.
As given in Caryn Cosse Bell’s book Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana, 1718-1868 (1997), the population of New Orleans in 1810 included 17,242, with 6,331 whites, 4,950 free people of color and 5,961 slaves. (37-38)
The Stage for Rebellion
A few more salient facts set the stage for our story. In 1789, Saint Domingue (now Haiti) exported 70,000 tons of sugar yearly. After 10 years of war and revolution, in 1801, St. Domingue exported only 9,000 tons of sugar. In 1802, Louisiana had 70 sugar plantations producing over 3,000 tons of sugar. (Rasmussen, 46-47)
The demise of sugar production in St. Domingue corresponded with its rise in Louisiana. The New Orleans area saw an influx of St. Domingue sugar planters, slaves and free people of color in the first decade of the 19th Century due to the social turmoil that produced Haiti in 1804. Some of the planters left St. Domingue early in the decade and went to Cuba, then a Spanish colony. Later in the decade, expelled by the Spanish government, they came to New Orleans. (Bell, 37)
In short, the system that produced the St. Domingue Revolution was now transplanted to Louisiana — and not only the system, but the memory of the Revolution.
Up river from New Orleans, the German Coast was thinly populated with plantations on both sides of the Mississippi River. “By 1810, slaves constituted more than 75 percent of the total population, and close to 90 percent of the households owned slaves.” (Rasmussen, 17)
In the production cycle of sugar cane, January was an opportune time of the year in many ways. By Christmas, the cane had already been harvested and processed in the sugar mills. January and February was a time for plowing the fields and planting the cane seed. For the slaveholders, these two months were also a time of grand dinners and socials that led up to Mardi Gras.
The slaves were allowed to celebrate the season. In the French tradition, slaves from all over were allowed to gather in an area that became known as Congo Square — today part of Louis Armstrong Park — on most Sundays. In addition, the slaves brought produce from their small plots on the plantation to barter and exchange at nearby markets in what we today call the French Quarter.
A few months before the celebrations, the U.S. government was making plans to seize West Florida, a colony of the Spanish government composed of the Gulf Coasts of present-day Alabama, Mississippi and parts of Louisiana. Baton Rouge was part of West Florida.
When the U.S. government bought the Louisiana Territory in 1803 — stretching from the the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border — the land size of the United States doubled. The new acquisition was divided into the Territory of Orleans — roughly corresponding to the present state of Louisiana — and the District of Louisiana, the rest of the territory up to the Canadian border. (On to New Orleans! Louisiana’s Heroic 1811 Slave Revolt, Albert Thrasher, 1996: 128)
The governor of the Territory of Orleans, William C. C. Claiborne, felt surrounded by the Spanish empire. So in the fall of 1810, with backing from U.S. President James Madison, a plot was hatched to start a settler revolt against the Spanish empire, out of which came the brief Republic of West Florida, subsequently annexed by the U.S. government in December 1810.
In January of 1811, word spread that the Spanish government was sending troops to take West Florida back, thereby causing the garrison in New Orleans to move eastward.
World Upside Down
Then, on that rainy night of January 8, at the plantation of Manuel Andry in St. John the Baptist Parish, about 40 miles from New Orleans, the world suddenly turned upside down. About 25 slaves, African-born and American-born, seized the plantation, took weapons, militia uniforms and horses, and proceeded to march down River Road toward New Orleans.
Although Andry took a few blows from a slave-wielded axe, he escaped, hid out, and after the slaves marched away, took a pirogue across the river to warn plantation owners on the west bank.
The nucleus of this slave army was led by Charles Deslondes, an overseer and the chief organizer of the rebellion, according to Rasmussen. The uprising was not a spontaneous affair; Rasmussen shows the extraordinary achievement of clandestine organization and communication networks that prepared it.
As they marched down River Road in the rain, groups of slaves joined the incipient force. At the plantation of James Brown, two other organizers, Kook and Quamana, African-born slaves, got over half the labor force to join the revolt, pushing the number from 75 to well over 100. The estimate is that over 300 slaves joined the insurrection.
Pandemonium broke out all along the river and in New Orleans. Slaveholder families, warned by loyal slaves, hid in the cypress swamps inland. Others crammed horse-drawn carriages and carts and fled toward the city. Daybreak of January 9 saw a traffic jam miles long heading to New Orleans. Governor Claiborne and the few military commanders present frantically tried to pull together an armed force.
Suffice it to say that by the morning of January 10, this anti-slavery army got within 20 miles of New Orleans. A militia of well-armed slaveholders from the west bank had crossed upriver from the rebel army. They clashed and dispersed the insurrectionary force the same morning.
A byproduct of the 1811 uprising was that the French planters, who had not previously been loyal to the U.S. government, reconsidered their position and quickly regarded themselves as “American” in recognition of their dependence on the U.S. military to suppress the danger of further slave revolts.
The Ovethrow of Slavery
Rasmussen tells the story of the uprising, its heroism and suppression, well. However, there are two items I have to raise in a friendly dispute. On pages 44 and 45, Rasmussen refers to the people who defeated the expeditionary army of Napoleon Bonaparte that invaded St. Domingue in 1802 as slaves. I’m sure this is an inadvertent mistake.
Juridically, these were not slaves: They had been slaves in August of 1791 when the Haitian revolt began, but after 10 years of war and revolution these human beings were transformed into an independent Black army commanded by Toussaint L’Ouverture and his generals.
The French government, under the leadership of the Jacobins — the maximalist faction of the bourgeois leadership that emerged from the revolution of 1789 — outlawed slavery in February of 1794. This action by the Convention, the national legislative assembly of France at the time, led Toussaint to break with the Spanish empire and forge an alliance with this new French government. The rise of his army made the anti-slave legislation a reality.
Napoleon’s intention in early 1802 was to re-impose slavery. This aim was not declared until July, when slavery was restored on the island of Guadeloupe, a French colony. Three months after that declaration, the generals of the army Toussaint built turned on the French invaders. (The Making of Haiti, The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below, Carolyn Fick, 1990: 215, 227).
It’s true that the masses of Black plantation laborers were working under binding contracts after slavery was outlawed. However, the position of contract laborer — not yet owner of the soil — was qualitatively different than the position of slave. Napoleon indeed understood this — that’s why he concealed the aims of his invasion force.
Coupled with the restoration of slavery in Guadeloupe, the French government re-legalized the slave trade. These measures made the situation in St. Domingue white-hot, spurring the Black masses to expel the French and rename St. Domingue as Haiti, an independent republic.
My other dispute is in the title of the book. The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt should have been followed by the proviso, Before the Civil War. The Civil War saw the largest uprising and revolt of the slaves. Tens of thousands of slaves went on strike whenever the Union Army approached.
Two years into the war, in 1863, the Federal government started training and arming the ex-slaves for military service. Black soldiers were a key part of the force that took and occupied Richmond, the Confederate capital. I don’t think Rasmussen would disagree with this proviso.
So let’s celebrate the bicentennial of the 1811 uprising. Get the book, and let’s hope the publishers bring it out in paperback soon. It illustrates how urgently we need a Federal Commission set up for the study of slave resistance and revolts.
January/February 2012, ATC 156