I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
One estimate is that there were 250 slave rebellions in America before abolition in 1865; one of the biggest took place in Louisiana in 1811. About 150 slaves (some sources say the number was as high as 500) joined a march on New Orleans as they chanted “Freedom or Death;” a battle cry that had deep resonance among people who had been stripped of their dignity and value as human beings.
The German Coast Rebellion
An area on the east bank of the Mississippi River to the north of New Orleans was known as the German Coast. It was a place of sugar cane plantations worked, of course, by black slaves.
One plantation was owned by Colonel Manuel Andry, and he had more than 80 slaves. In the evening, January 8, 1811, while a fierce wind was blowing and heavy rain was falling the uprising began (it was indeed a dark and stormy night).
Under the leadership of Charles Deslondes, many of Andry’s slaves broke into his mansion. The slaves assaulted Andry, killed his son Gilbert, and looted the house of guns.
In his 2012 book, The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt, historian Daniel Rasmussen says Deslondes and several other slaves had been planning their rebellion for many years.
After the attack on the Andry plantation, they began their march on New Orleans, about 30 miles away.
As they passed other plantations more slaves, already alerted to the revolt, joined their ranks. Apart from a few firearms stolen from Andry’s house they were mostly equipped with cane knives and cudgels. On their way, they killed another slave owner.
Charles Deslondes was born in Haiti and he saw that nation’s revolution as a model for American slaves.
Under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the enslaved Haitians rose up against their French colonial masters in 1791. The revolution lasted 13 years at the cost of about 300,000 lives. By 1804, black ex-slaves emerged as the leaders of what had been called Saint Dominigue and is now called Haiti.
The Haitian rebellion had itself been inspired by the French Revolution of 1789, and some of the Louisiana rebels were found to have copies of The Rights of Man hidden in their quarters.
Deslondes had ambitious plans to seize New Orleans and set up a revolutionary government and an independent black state. Terrified white settlers fled to the city for protection or hid in the backwoods and swamps while the slaves burned crops and looted houses.
The White Response
Rutgers University Professor Wendell Hassan Marsh has researched the uprising and says the German Coast Revolt had a real chance of success. Its leaders had military experience from civil wars in Africa and the revolution in Saint Dominigue.
However, the plantation owners had a well-armed militia, joined quickly by federal troops, while the slaves had hoes, clubs, and a tiny number of firearms. It took the militia a couple of days to quell the insurrection.
Gwendolyn Midlo Hall is a Michigan State University historian and author. She says the revolt “was really brutally put down. It was incredibly bloodthirsty in the way the elite put it down, cutting people into little pieces, displaying body parts.”
By January 10, the fighting was over; at least 60 slaves were dead and the rest escaped into swamps. Tracker dogs found about 16 rebels; the rest remained hidden in the marshes and formed colonies.
One of the most pernicious allegations made against the African-American people was that our slave ancestors were either exceptionally ‘docile’ or ‘content and loyal,’ thus explaining their purported failure to rebel extensively.”
Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Punishment of Slave Rebels
Among the slaves that survived the fighting, retribution was swift and ugly. Charles Deslondes was caught after about two days on the run and was made to suffer the most of those who joined the uprising.
He was horribly tortured so that his cries of pain would be heard by other slaves and act as a deterrent to any further insurrections. Planters believed other examples needed to be made to discourage any other slaves from entertaining ideas of freedom.
Within two days, a tribunal went through the motions of a trial for 16 captured rebels. It took a couple of days for the death sentences to be delivered and carried out by firing squad. There were “trials” in New Orleans with 11 more slaves executed summarily. One 13-year-old boy was spared the death penalty, but was forced to watch a fellow slave die, followed by a whipping.
About 100 people were either shot or hanged. Then, they were decapitated and their heads displayed on poles along the river over a distance of 60 miles. More than 50 slaves were sent back to their plantations, their owners recognizing they were more valuable alive than dead.
Louisiana Governor William C. C. Claiborne seems to have wanted clemency shown to those who had taken part in the rebellion and told parish courts that he would look favourably on recommendations for mercy. The parish courts ignored the governor, who was able to pardon only two slaves.
Suppression of the Story
The vicious treatment of those involved in the revolt may have pricked the consciences of the white community because efforts were made to keep the events quiet. It was sufficient to frighten the blacks into passivity; no need to let anybody else know how cruel and inhumane they were.
Historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall is quoted by The New Orleans Times Picayune as saying “There’s been a historical amnesia about anything that showed a really bitter exploitation and violence directed on the slave and former slave population. A lot of historians didn’t want to talk about it and a lot of the public didn’t want to hear about it. But that’s evidently changing and I’m glad I lived long enough to see it.”
- Fifty-six men signed the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 in which the following assertion was made: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Forty-one of the signatories owned slaves.
- The best estimate is that 12.5 million Africans were captured and transported to the New World between 1525 and 1866. Of these, about 1.8 million died on the dreadful passage across the Atlantic Ocean. Only about 388,000 were shipped directly to North America, the vast majority were enslaved in the Caribbean and South America.
- According to the anti-slavery group Free the Slaves, “Researchers estimate that 40 million are enslaved worldwide, generating $150 billion each year in illicit profits for traffickers.”
- “Slave Rebellions.” History.com, August 21, 2018.
- “Slave Insurrection of 1811.” Robert L. Paquette, 64 Parishes, undated.
- “How a Nearly Successful Slave Revolt Was Intentionally Lost to History.” Marissa Fessenden, Smithsonian.com, January 8, 2016.
- “America’s Largest Slave Revolt.” Rhae Lynn Barnes, U.S. History Scene, undated.
- “The Largest Slave Revolt in U.S. History Is Commemorated.” Littice Bacon-Blood, New Orleans Times Picayune, January 4, 2011.
- “How Many Slaves Landed in the U.S.?” Henry Louis Gates, Jr., PBS, undated.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor