Why not start the New Year with a revolution? American Uprising by Daniel Rasmussen recounts the 1811 slave revolt that turned New Orleans and the rest of the country upside down. If you are rattling your “Black History” memories trying to recall the details of this event, don’t be ashamed. While names like Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey are the go to guys when it comes to rebel bravado, Charles Deslondes, Kook, and Quamana, the masterminds behind the 1811 revolt, are not — but should be.
Daniel Rasmussen, a summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University, sets out to bring these bold men and the history of their efforts to the forefront. The New Orleans revolt involved more slaves and more deaths than any other and it indeed merits much more than a footnote in American history. Rasmussen uncovers what he calls, “a vast collective amnesia” about the events of that day. “Prior to the sugar boom, New Orleans was a poor, multicultural city with very few social controls. The lines between slavery and freedom were not clearly drawn, and slaves frequently escaped into the swamps to form maroon colonies. There was a history of armed resistance in these areas that drew on French, Creole, and Kongolese traditions. These insurrectionary traditions shaped the lives of the slaves and represented an alternative political culture to that of the planters.” The energy from other revolutions was also in the air, specifically the overthrowing of San Domingue by the black Haitians that began in 1791, and the American slaves drew on the strength of that rebellion. They knew what was possible.
On January 8th, 1811 during the period proceeding Mardi Gras, as plantation owners celebrated the season with grand dances and revelry, a plot had been set in motion. Charles Deslondes, a mixed race slave, along with two other slaves, Kook and Quamana, led the march from the sugar plantations of the German Coast into the city of New Orleans. Enlisting additional slaves along the way, this brave group, which eventually garnered 500 men armed with cane knives, axes, and guns, left a path of devastation as they burned down mansions and set fire to crops, in their goal to establish a free black republic. Each of these men brought different abilities to the fight. As the overseer and right-hand man of plantation owner Manuel Andry, Charles Deslondes, held a trusted position that afforded him a great deal of freedom. He was able to travel from plantation to plantation and communicate with other slaves, letting them know what was going to happen. Kook and Quamana, probably from the Akan, a warlike African Empire were soldiers who had been trained for battle since birth. Intelligent and skilled, they were a formidable trio.
The Andry mansion was first on their list, and while the wounded Manuel Andry managed to escape across the river and warn others, his son was killed. The rebels gathered up horses and raided the planter’s mansion, taking muskets, knives, and militia uniforms that had been stockpiled in case of domestic insurrection. Deslonges felt that uniforms would help give their revolt the authority that he intended, and Rasmussen says that many of the slaves knew how to shoot muskets from African civil wars. The twenty-five rebels were just over forty miles from the gates of New Orleans and as the word spread, slaves had to make a choice. While the majority of them chose not to fight, the roughly one-quarter of the slaves on plantations along River Road joined the insurrection, and the violent rainstorms of that night didn’t hinder them in the least.
Out of fear, many slaves reported the uprising to their masters and most of these white planters had time to head towards the city on horseback, hide in the swamps, or take boats to other side of the river where they could still be safe. One bold and prosperous planter, Francois Trepagnier, decided to stand his ground, and lost his life. The army grew to several hundred strong, with men transplanted from Cuba, Kongo, the Asante kingdom, Senegambia, as well as Virginia and Kentucky. The long suffering governor of the Louisiana Territory, William C.C. Claiborne took action to secure his city, putting it into lockdown and marshaling two companies of volunteer militia and thirty regular troops under Commodore John Shaw. Many feared that they would meet with an army as treacherous as the Haitian revolutionaries.
Danielle Rasmussen recounts the fascinating details and complex dance of this battle which eventually ended some two days later. Many of the rebels were killed on the spot, but others were captured, along with Deslonges, Kook, and Quamana. There were interrogations and judicial proceedings which ended with 100 dismembered rebel corpses adorning the levee from the Place d’Armes in the center of New Orleans running forty miles along the River road into plantation district, a gruesome warning, the white men hoped, against future resistance.
While the planters and politicians tried to write the rebellion off as a mere act of savagery, they did not see that it was more of a perfect storm. This attack was intelligent, sophisticated and highly strategic. Not only had these slaves taken inspiration from the 1791 uprising on the Island of Saint Domingue, and the ideals of the French revolution, many of these men were warriors, trained from birth and hailing from African countries in constant battle. They greatly underestimated them. “Claiborne stripped the rebellion of revolutionary or geopolitical meaning by dismissing it as an act of base criminality. Refusing to cede to the slaves what from other perspectives and through other eyes might appear as a deeply political act.” He chose to use the events as a way of portraying himself as a strong governor and the events to emphasize American power and civil structure.
After the loss Saint Domingue, sugar, the most lucrative product of France was gone. Louisiana, once known for its more diversified crops such as cotton and indigo, focused on sugar, prompting planters in to convert their fields for sugar production as the demand for sweets and sugar increased. By 1801 Louisiana was home to seventy sugar plantations and produced over 3,000 tons of sugar annually. The state had also became one of the most exploitive brutal place where slaves worked longer hours, received harsher punishments, and lived shorter lives than other slaves in North America. New Orleans was a strategic place in the North American continent, controlling the Mississippi River moving crops from the center of the continent out to the ocean and around to the East coast and to Europe.
Interestingly enough, Rasmussen notes, that while Nat Turner revolt in Virginia in had brought about debates of emancipation, the 1811 uprising did not. No one seemed to question slavery. Instead, they focused on how to strengthen the society using martial law. Claiborne sought support to militarize Louisiana society and requested regular troops to be stationed permanently in New Orleans to protect its interests. Economic expansion through slave-based agriculture was the American government’s top priority and new alliances formed after the revolt.
While prior to the uprising, the French aristocracy opposed the American government and displayed particular displeasure toward governor Claiborne, the events had caused a shift. The once haughty French planters now listened to Claiborne and recognized the importance of a strong American presence in the region. By 1860 New Orleans became the second largest port and the largest slave market in the United States.
Rasmussen’s final chapters cover the continued expansion of the country, the events leading up to the civil war, and the abolition of slavery. While these points of history are well told, the book’s true beauty is its telling of that little known rebellion, which everyone tried to cover up and to write out of history to prevent the spread of the slaves’ revolutionary philosophy.
American Uprising began as the author’s Harvard thesis, “Violent Visions: Slaves, Sugar, and the 1811 German Coast Uprising.” Rasmussen, so fascinated by what he discovered, decided to save much of the material for this book. He shares the details of his research and how challenging it was to unearth information regarding these events.
Rasmussen writes with a youthful enthusiasm and is very passionate about this material, and it shows. His detailed descriptions of life during that time, garnered from very thorough research, put the reader in the center of the action and it’s hard to put the book down. While the author does at times have a tendency to be a little heavy handed with dramatization and foreshadowing, (many chapters end with cliffhangers like ”…or so they thought.”) This is, never the less, a riveting, empowering account of one of American history’s best kept secrets, told through the eye of a promising young historian whose desire set the record straight makes for a compelling and informative read.