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.