Home / General / This Day in Labor History: September 9, 1739

This Day in Labor History: September 9, 1739


We sometimes don’t immediately think of the history of slavery as labor history, but of course, it’s absolutely fundamental to any understanding of labor history in the American South (and to a lesser extent in the North) both before and after the Civil War. This series will cover major events in the history of slave labor as well as events more typically thought of as labor history.

On September 9, 1739, the largest slave rebellion in the American colonies before the American Revolution took place in South Carolina, when a group of recent arrivals from Africa, probably the Congo, under the leadership of a man named Jemmy, rose up in arms, deciding that death was preferable to slavery. About 20 men started, but they recruited about 60 more as they marched. They began on a plantation about 20 miles southwest of Charleston, along the Stono River. They hoped to reach the Spanish fort at St. Augustine, which they had heard offered freedom.

September 9, 1739 was a Sunday. The South Carolina legislature had recently passed the Security Act of 1739, which made it law that plantation owners must carry weapons to church on Sunday, fearing slaves would revolt on Sunday when their masters were at church (isn’t really only a matter of time before South Carolina passes a similar law again). Knowing this, the Stono slaves chose one of the last remaining Sundays before the was to go into effect (September 29, 1739) to launch their desperate rebellion.

Probably Jemmy’s men had military experience, as the slave trade had encouraged raiding and kidnapping and the Congo was heavily affected by this during the early 18th century. One interesting part of this history is that you can make a strong argument that the modern slave trade was in part a result of better nutrition. This argument goes that corn was imported into west Africa during the Columbian Exchange, when organisms were moving all over the world. It grew well there, leading to higher survival rates, population growth, overcrowding, and peoples butting heads more and more for available land. This led to war and an increase in traditional African slavery. Thus when the Europeans decided to turn to African labor, they found ready sellers of human labor, which the traders then transformed into the destructive practice that devastated western Africa for two centuries. I don’t specialize in this period so I won’t necessarily vouch for the theory, but as an environmental historian, it is interesting.

Over the next couple of days, the Stono freedom fighters killed somewhere between 22 and 25 whites before being defeated in a bloody battle by a group of South Carolina militia near the Edisto River; 20 whites and 44 blacks died that day. After their defeat, some of the rebellious slaves were executed, others sent to the death traps of the Caribbean. One of the interesting stories of North American slavery is that, while unbelievably horrible, it was possible for slaves to actually survive in North America, whereas the incredibly wealthy sugar planters of the Caribbean bought slaves, worked them to death, and then bought more since they had money to burn. One of the escaped slaves did manage to remain a fugitive for three years before capture.

The South Carolina legislature responded harshly to the Stono Rebellion, inaugurating some of the first truly restrictive slave laws in the North American colonies. The Negro Act of 1740 banned reading in English for slaves, the right to assemble in groups. raise food, earn money, and allowed slaveowners to kill their slaves. South Carolina also made it more difficult to free slaves, forcing slaveowners to ask the legislature for permission in order to manumit their human property. Some of this wouldn’t be enforced much. For instance, owners of South Carolina’s lowcountry rice plantations found they could make more money if they allowed their slaves to have rifles and hunt for themselves rather than provide food. But the Negro Act became one of the first steps toward making South Carolina not only the center of North American slavery, but the leader in suppressing black rights and the use of maximum violence toward slaves.

Another outcome of the Stono Rebellion was that slaveowners intentionally began mixing the ethnic background of their slaves, rightfully assuming that rebellion would be more difficult if people couldn’t understand each other, or even better, came from enemy tribes. This later became a strategy for capitalists in America’s 19th and early 20th century industries to prevent unionization. It also helped convince slaveowners that keeping slaves alive had value, since American-born slaves were less likely to revolt than recent purchases.

I understand you can visit the site of the Stono Rebellion today and that there is at the very least a historical marker there, but I have never been to that part of South Carolina.

For more information on the Stono Rebellion, I strongly recommend Peter Wood’s Black Majority, the classic book on the subject.

Previous entries in this series have included the Bisbee Deportation and the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

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  • c u n d gulag

    Interesting, isn’t it, that almost every time you find some racist bullshit in this country, the roots are usually from South Carolina?

    Sadly it’s not the only state. Probably just the one most responsible. My guess would have been MS or AL. But, then, none of the Southern states have anything but a long and bloody record on the subject.

    I lived in NC for almost 9 years, and it’s a far different state from SC. I always felt as though I were going back over a century every time I had to go there, even though I went by car and not by horse. I can’t even tell you why – it was just a feeling.

    • Malaclypse

      This is a pretty interesting book, although I have not read it in ages. One thesis is that slavery in SC had a lot more in common with the Caribbean than with the rest of the Colonies, such that it would not have been surprising had SC stayed in the Empire.

      • osceola

        The Caribbean connection began with Charles Town’s founding in the 1680s. (It’s the original name of Charleston.) The first settlers were originally English planters from Barbados who moved to the mainland.

      • Barry

        Ta-Nesi Coates has had a long series of blog posts and discussions on slavery and the Civil War.

        One term he liked to use was ‘slave society’. When a large proportion (e.g., SC, MS ~50%) of the population is slaves, the *entire society* is built around slavery. These places were not societies with slavery, but slave societies.

    • Sean

      I also lived in NC for a while, and felt that crossing the southern border was a trip back in time, maybe not a century, but at least a couple of decades.

      Also, every time I visit, or even read anything about, the palmetto state I’m reminded that it’s “too small for a republic, and too large for an insane asylum.” That just about sums the place up, in my experience.

  • Doug M.

    “one of the first steps toward making South Carolina not only the center of North American slavery”

    We-ell, South Carolina was already weird and different before 1740.

    Little known true fact: SC was the only one of the 13 original colonies that wasn’t founded either from Britain or from another American colony. South Carolina was founded from Barbados.

    Barbados was one of those slave-powered Caribbean hellholes. It was incredibly rich — sugar — but by the 1660s, Barbados was running out of land; it’s not that big an island. So a bunch of ambitious younger sons and displaced small farmers decided to found a new colony on the North American mainland. A small colony had already been founded near modern Charleston by some Bermudans; the Barbadians took it over and expanded it.

    By 1700 a couple of thousand whites had emigrated from Barbados to SC. They were the single largest group among the first-generation white settlers, and they set the tone. Unlike the (relatively!) milder tobacco slavery of Virginia, South Carolina was modeled on the much more brutal and vicious Caribbean sugar slavery. As a result, SC was just meaner and more violent from day one.

    Note that part of the Caribbean model was a very high slave/master ratio. In Virginia, slaves were important, but they were a minority of the population. In South Carolina, they were in a clear majority from the beginning. This would be true right up through the Civil War. In 1860, slaves were about a third of the population of Virginia. In South Carolina, they were nearly 60%. That’s statewide, though. If you look only at the coastal lowlands, it was more like 75% — there were counties where slaves outnumbered whites by three, four or five to one.

    The higher slave/master ratio helped make SC’s plantation agriculture insanely profitable. But it also made whites ever more paranoid, security-conscious, and truculent. So, it’s not really surprising that SC evolved along its own strange sociopolitical trajectory. Traces of this can still be seen today, but that’s a story for another post.

    Doug M.

  • firefall

    Somewhat tangential, but … the slave trade was that deleterious to West Africa? Any cites, I hadn’t read anything like that (not disputing, curious)

    As for SC/Barbados, as I was told sugar harvesting is insanely unpleasant work compared to (say) tobacco or even cotton, requiring much larger consumption of human resource, and much harsher discipline required to enforce the use (HR-speak for killing lots of slave and treating them unmercifully in order to drive them into the harvest fields).

    IIRC Haiti had the same problem, which is a part of why its political evolution post-Toussaint is so …. fucked.

  • I am not an expert on the African slave trade. But, I do work with people who are so maybe I will ask. The maize theory sounds hokey to me, however. I have heard a similar maize theory regarding the expansion of the Chechen population as well. Maize is not the only or even principle source of food in West Africa. Cassava and rice are both more popular staples. Also the export of slaves from Africa pre-dates the discovery of the New World. The trans-Saharan slave trade was quite large and existed centuries before maize was introduced. As far as I can tell the Atlantic slave trade became so large because Europeans had a high demand for slaves, a lot of gold to pay for them, and introduced firearms to facilitate the capture of slaves.

  • snarkout

    If you haven’t read Sidney Mintz’s “Sweetness and Power”, Erik, you really should.

    • Malaclypse

      I’d forgotten that book, but yes, second the recommend.

    • A classic in the field for sure.

      • I’ve benefitted from Robin Blackburn‘s works, Making of New World Slavery and Overthrow of Colonial Slavery. In one of them there are good tables on death rates in tobacco vs sugar slavery.

        Garry Wills, “Negro President” (on Thomas Jefferson) makes the case that positive population growth of the slaves in Virginia / Chesapeake region allowed for the internal US slave trade to the cotton south in the early 19th C, which takes off after the US joins Britain in ending their participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1808 (or so).

  • herr doktor bimler

    whereas the incredibly wealthy sugar planters of the Caribbean bought slaves, worked them to death, and then bought more since they had money to burn.

    The sugar plantations were death camps plain and simple, but the Caribbean indigo industry was just as bad. Indigo extraction had the added attraction of massively toxic stages of processing.

  • shah8

    There was also a major Native American conflict called the Yamasee War in 1716 surrounding the NA slave trade. That one was the big one, as lots of settlers died and there was actually a chance South Caroline would have been wiped off the map. A bunch of indian countries consolidated power and drove the formation of Georgia. This war happened right after the Tuscarora war that enveloped both NC and SC.

  • jonnybutter

    One of the interesting stories of North American slavery is that, while unbelievably horrible, it was possible for slaves to actually survive in North America, whereas the incredibly wealthy sugar planters of the Caribbean bought slaves, worked them to death, and then bought more since they had money to burn.

    Just to be clear, I don’t think they did it because they just had money to throw away. I believe it was economic. It was called ‘Factory Slavery’, and the idea was to feed the slaves just enough to avoid starvation and enable them to do the incredibly hard work, but not enough to maintain health in that context. They would be worked to death in (I believe) about 7 years. It made economic sense to just get fresh ‘workers’ rather than deal with old, sick slaves. Maximum ROI, since the price of sugar was sky high. Some thoroughly Christian accountant-type figured it out, no doubt.

    I didn’t know that white Barbadians (is that it?) settled SC early. Interesting.

  • There was also a large influx of upper class French colonials into Charleston in the late 1700s who were refugees from the massive slave rebellions in Haiti. No doubt that contributed to the literally frightful slave paranoia in the area.

    • Would that have been an issue as early as 1739? It’s possible, I just don’t really know.

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