Can you name the largest slave revolt in United States history? If you're thinking Nat Turner, try again.
This week I am diving into the little known revolt of 1811, the largest slave revolt in American history. Estimated forces of up to 500 strong marched towards New Orleans, determined to free themselves and their brethren from the chains of slavery.
Episode marked explicit due to the violence covered in the episode. Exercise caution with younger listeners.
Fessenden, Marissa. “How a nearly successful slave revolt was intentionally lost to history.” Smithsonian Magazine. Jan. 8, 2016. (LINK)
Paquette, Robert L. “Slave Insurrection of 1811.” 64parishes.org. January 10, 2011. (LINK)
Rasmussen, Daniel. American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt. Harper Perennial, New York. 2011
“Slaves Rebel in Louisiana.” African American Registry. (LINK)
Waters, Leon A. “Jan. 8, 1811: Louisiana’s Heroic Slave Revolt.” Zinn Education Project. (LINK)
Woodruff, J., & Muhammad, K. G. (2019, August 22). Before cotton, SUGAR established American reliance on slave labor. PBS. (LINK)
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Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey peeps, welcome back.
This week I am continuing the topic of slavery and am covering an event few may be aware of. Last time I focused on efforts to prohibit the international slave trade; as I mentioned in that episode, the banning of the importing of african bodies to work the fields did not spell the end of the practice. Instead, domestic slave trading exploded, leading to millions of people being held in bondage in the run-up to the civil war. Part of the history of slavery includes those who rebelled, sometimes violently. Many probably remember the name Nat Turner and recall his attempt at revolution, however few know about the largest slave rebellion to occur in the United States, along the Louisiana coast.
So this week, I am diving into the German Coast uprising of 1811. What was it? Who was involved? And why isn’t it more widely known?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
Flanking the east bank of the Mississippi River near the port city known today as New Orleans, sat several miles of sugar plantations. Sugarcane cultivation started in the territory that would become Louisiana in the late eighteenth century and before long was producing nearly a quarter of the world’s sugar supply. The crop was very lucrative, but labor intensive to produce, the can itself was bulky and hard to handle and the refining process was very dangerous. To fill the need, black bodies were imported into the territory and forced to work long hours in humid, wet conditions in the Louisiana sun. Rich planters used extreme violence to force compliance from their bondsmen to ensure a smooth harvest.
The area making up the territory of Orleans as it was known was acquired as part of Jefferson’s land purchase from France in 1804. Working towards statehood, Governor William Claiborne was trying to lobby the sugar planting elite into supporting joining the United States. They had thus far been ignoring his overtures, unmotivated to acquiesce to a federal government feeling they knew how to run their territory best. But one event would change their attitude and send them running towards Claiborne and the guarantee of United States military protection.
While plans were developing to launch the largest slave revolt in history, the local planters lived about their daily lives. They managed their ledgers and attended mass; socialized with their neighbors and prepared for the upcoming Carnival festivals. But while the plantation owners milled about, the men who they deemed their property were quietly making plans to not only overthrow their bonds, but to take over the city and establish a black republic of their own.
Charles Deslondes, an enslaved man at the Manuel Andry Plantation, is believed to be the instigator and major planner. His origins seem to be in disagreement, with some referring to him as Haitian and others claiming he was a mulatto likely born in Spanish held Louisiana. Either way, he was a trusted bondsman, exemplified by the confidence placed into him by his title of overseer. Manuel Andry was the largest slave owner in St. John Baptist parish, laying claim to eighty bodies.
The revolt began on a rainy night in January, 1811. Planters were attending Carnival and the American military was over in Baton Rouge fighting the Spanish. With the plantation owners distracted and the area left unprotected, the time seemed right. The revolt began at Manuel Andry’s plantation, who had an armory in his basement, filled with guns and ammunition and military uniforms, which Deslondes and his comrades donned in their march towards New Orleans.
The Andry plantation was just over forty miles from the city, but that did not stop the bondsmen from making taking that city their ultimate goal. The word of the insurrection spread throughout the slave verbal network. It remains unclear how much pre-planning was done or how many individuals were told ahead of time. Before the revolt, bondsmen and women were given a bit more freedom, allowed to attend dances on Sundays and grab a drink at the local tavern. Some speculate that these small, short opportunities of relative freedom provided the window for Deslondes to devise and share his plan for a rebellion.
Deslondes likely knew he had to be very careful who he shared his plans with. Given the retribution in previous rebellions, enslaved individuals knew full well that if they were caught in planning an uprising, they would face grave violence. Knowing this, some slaves who heard of rumored plots spoiled them in their infancy by sharing the information with the men who claimed ownership of their body. The risks in planning a revolt against the plantation owner were high and Deslondes likely kept this at the front of his mind while hatching his plans.
Two other bondsmen have been identified as likely culprits in the planning of the revolt, Kook and Quamana. Both men were Akan warriors with Asante heritage and were physically intimidating. Their experience as warriors made them perfect candidates to recruit for the efforts.
As night fell on January 8th, Deslondes and about twenty five other bondsmen gathered at the Andry plantation and advanced onto the main house. Silently entering the plantation and advancing upstairs towards the bedroom of their “owner,” Deslondes and his force entered Andry’s bedroom, armed with an axe and ready to exact their vengeance. At the last minute, Andry awoke and leapt out of bed towards the door. The rebels were able to slash Andry three times before he escaped, leaving his son Gilbert in the house, who was not as lucky as his father. Gilbert faced the rebels and was axed to death.
Once Andry fled and Gilbert was dead, the rag tag force moved towards the basement to gather extra materials. Andry’s basement served as a makeshift armory, housing the necessary materials to arm a volunteer militia in the event of a domestic dispute. Deslondes and his men made quick use of the materials, grabbing the muskets and ammunition and dressing in the uniforms available.
Now dressed in official military guard and armed with more than a sickle and an ax, the force advanced toward their goal. As they moved forward and came upon the plantation owned by local judge Achille Trouard and several more men looking to join the fight. The leader of the group, a man named Mathurin, sat astride a horse as he pledged he and his ten rebels to the cause.
Word spread quickly and as planters heard of the revolt, they quickly escaped their property, fleeing across the river to the safety of the city. This enabled the rebel force to continue in their forward march, banging drums and chanting while walking in a military formation. As they arrived at the plantation of James Brown, the fighters found a mostly empty estate. Two of Brown’s bondsmen, the African fighters Kook & Quamana, were on hand and ready to join the fight.
Not everyone decided to retreat, however, as Francois Trepagnier decided to stay and guard his property against men he didn’t even consider human. In doing research for this episode, one source mentioned a rather grotesque urban legend regarding Trepagnier and his treatment of the humans he called property. The story went Trepagnier kept a young boy by the name of Gustave, in the house and treated him like a dog, throwing scraps of food on the floor for him to eat. This is of course an urban legend so there is no way to determine if this was accurate, but regardless, Trepagnier armed himself and prepared for his last stand.
Holed up in the plantation, Trepagnier prepared his musket, ready to shoot the invading army. As they appeared around the bend, he aimed and fired. Of course, guns in this day and age were highly unreliable so he didn’t hit anyone, but the hope was to frighten the rebels off his property. It did not work; the makeshift army continued to advance, with a unit of men starting a fire at the base of the house. While the fire worked its way across the foundation, another unit made their way upstairs and killed Trepagnier with an axe. In another part of the legend, the enslaved boy Gustave apparently got a few whacks in himself.
By this time, word began to spread about the invading force of savages and concern for the city became paramount. Memories of the Haitian Revolution, a slave rebellion on the island of what was then called St. Domingue, were fresh in the minds of the white elite. There was real fear this rebel force would soon lay claim to their precious city and their entire way of life would be destroyed. This prompted the Governor of the territory, William Claiborne to seal the city and cut off communication amongst the enslaved. In his orders to General Wade Hampton, Claiborne wrote: “Sir, I pray you to have the goodness to order, a guard to the Bayou Bridge, with instructions to the office to permit no negroes to pass or repass the same.”
With all attention now focused on repelling the armed insurrection, General Hampton called a force of regular and volunteer troops. While not a large force, this marked the first time in United States history federal troops were called to suppress a slave rebellion. Not willing to go down without a fight, the planters formed a voluntary cavalry and joined Hampton’s group in preparing to stop any further advancement.
Hampton’s original plan involved utilizing two units of men to squeeze the rebels from two sides. They marched towards a plantation they believed housed the rebel forces, only to be surprised by their retreat. However, the rebels' luck was about to run out as the volunteer planter militia crossed the Mississippi and managed to surprise the group, surrounding the men. After a brief squirmish, the slave rebellion was over and nearly 100 enslaved men lay dead.
In total, the ragtag group of bondsmen, ranging in estimates of two to five hundred strong, burned five plantations and killed at least two men. In the aftermath of the attempted rebellion, the plantation owners exacted some of the most grotesque and vicious “justice” imaginable.
Not satisfied with simply killing the rebels in battle, the planters decided to use their bodies as a warning to anyone else who might be thinking of attempting another uprising. I will say, this next part is a bit gross, so you may want to skip forward 10 or 15 seconds.
Of the men killed on the battlefield, the planters mutilated their bodies, severing their heads and put them on spikes throughout the road towards New Orleans. As local planter Samuel Hambleton wrote, “they were brung here for the sake of their heads, which decorate or levee, all the way up the coast… they look like crows sitting on long poles.” By the end of January, nearly one hundred heads were on display.
Anyone they didn’t murder was put on “trial” for their crimes. Of course I use the phrase trial loosely here as the planters already knew the verdict and exactly how they were going to punish the rebels. Both Kook and Quamana were among those tried and convicted; during their sham of a trial - held on one of the plantations mind you - the planters demanded they provide details for how the plot was hatched and who was involved. Both were killed.
And what about Charles Deslondes? He attempted to escape, fleeing towards the swamp in an effort to lose the scent of tracking dogs. However, he was captured and his punishment proved quite brutal - he was shot, burned and mutilated.
So why is this story not known more broadly? Well, one can point to the desire to make Louisiana a state. Louisiana, like much of the south, had a large black population and fear of slave uprisings was palpable. Trying to pave the way towards statehood,
Governor Claiborne went right to work in trying to downplay the size of the forces and their overall success. Since the rebels did not keep diaries of their plans or of the engagements, we only have one side of the story remaining. And that side had every reason to downplay the importance of the rebellion.
Another reason could be the racist sentiment of the time. White plantation owners believed themselves to be superior to their black skinned property. How embarrassing would it be to admit these savages, according to them, would gain the upper hand?
Whatever the reason, the bondsmen who risked their lives and paid the ultimate price were dealt with the extra insult of being forgotten by history for several years. While the details of the failed insurrection are scarce, what is known plays a key role in the evolution of slavery in American history and deserves more attention.
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