Friday, 24 January 2014

The Largest Slave Revolt in the US

Louisiana has a dark past. One inevitably intertwined with the history of enslavement, brutality and death. Many stories remain lost, undiscovered or hidden; when I visited Destrehan Plantation, 40-50 miles from that vibrant, soulful city of New Orleans, I learned about a little-known slave revolt in 1811. I had never heard of this, despite researching the theme of slave revolts for a university essay. After my visit I purchased a book by Daniel Rasmussen, which I have just devoured in the last few days in my lunch hour. It is an amazing book, and it should be on every university reading list for American history. Rasmussen not only describes the revolt in detail, but also weaves together its consequences with the history of American expansion and how African American history is remembered through a filtered lens. 

In January 1811, Charles Deslondes, Koot and Quamana, slaves on neighbouring plantations outside New Orleans, led a revolt of 200-500 slaves against their masters. Deslondes began by hacking the son of his owner to death and marched in the direction of the city. Mass panic ensued. As news spread from plantation to plantation, (sometimes betrayed by fellow slaves, hoping their loyalty would win them favour), the white population fled into the swamps or made for New Orleans as well. Refugees led a 9 mile traffic jam into the city to escape these insurgents. Federal troops were called to protect New Orleans -  an action which confirmed the young American republic as a slave nation – but the French plantation owners decided to take matters into their own hands. 80 white men, armed to the teeth with muskets rode out to meet the slaves and charged – only half of the slave army had guns and this exchange was little more than a massacre. The planters fired and hacked the wounded to pieces. They unleashed bloodhounds to chase Deslondes and after one seized him in the chest, the vengeful planters broke both his legs, severed his head and burned his body. The other ring leaders were rounded up for trial and over one hundred were executed. Their heads were stuck on pikes and placed all along the River Road from New Orleans, reminding the enslaved of the authority of white men. This revolt was suppressed quickly and brutally; William Claiborne, the governor of the New Orleans territory prevented the revolt from being a talking point in Congress and so avoided a national discussion. The country’s largest slave revolt was lost to the history books.
This injustice deserves to be righted. These men fought for freedom and equality, and were prepared to die for it. But why have these men been forgotten? Rasmussen makes the point that the non-violent Martin Luther King has been remembered but men like Deslondes – who challenged the status quo – do not fit with American ideals and thus, ignored. Deslondes and his army were freedom fighters and Rasmussen puts them in context with other powerful black figures who tried to seize their freedom – like the black slaves who fled plantations when the Union army came to the Louisiana shore, or those who fought in the black regiments in the Union. This book strikes at the very heart of the debates within American society – over the hypocrisy of American society, its willingness to hide those who are not ‘safe’ to remember and above all what Americans were prepared to do to protect their ‘domestic institution’ = slavery.

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