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This Day in Labor History: January 8, 1811

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On January 8, 1811, the largest armed slave uprising in U.S. history took place. The German Coast Uprising in Louisiana had up to 500 participants marching to New Orleans to attempt a Haitian Revolution in the United States. Only 2 whites died in this uprising, showing the extreme difficulty any slave revolt had in succeeding or even making a dent in the slave power within the United States. Yet for the significance of this event, it is almost completely unknown in popular American history, even compared to the rest of slavery history.

Louisiana developed a significantly different slave tradition than the rest of the United States. Whereas most early British North American slavery was in tobacco (and rice in South Carolina) and then cotton in the 19th century, Louisiana money was made in sugar. This made it much more like the Caribbean. There was a lot more money in sugar than the other crops. This meant wealthier planters and higher concentration of slaves. The German Coast of Louisiana, generally speaking St. Charles Parish and St. John Parish, had these concentrations. Some have estimated a 5:1 ratio although census records suggest a more even ratio. This matters because the larger the predominance of the slaves, the better the conditions were for organized rebellion, something whites knew and a fact that scared the bezeejus out of them, especially after the success of the Haitian Revolution.

From the perspective of the United States government and the nation’s white supremacist ideology, Louisiana was also a troubled place. While Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had close relationships with the French, after purchasing Louisiana, they did not believe the Creoles of Louisiana could govern themselves (they used the typical rhetoric of children needing to learn good government from the Americans that would be used against Native American tribes, the Philippines, and Latin America). Part of the discomfort was Louisiana’s different racial hierarchy, with a wealthy free black community and common consensual interracial sex that led to skin tone rather than one drop rules dominating the racial hierarchy. Jefferson and Madison resisted granting Louisiana statehood, clearly guaranteed in the Louisiana Purchase agreement, until 1812. So when the slave revolt took place, it happened in a Louisiana undergoing rapid changes.

As for much about the history of slavery in this period, the specific details of even such a major event are pretty hazy. Planning for the revolt began on January 6, just after the end of the brutal sugar harvest. The leader seems to have been Charles Deslondes, with men named Quamana and Harry also playing major roles. Quamana and another slave named Kook were Asantes, evidently warriors, who had been imported from Africa around 1806. Deslondes summed up the fear of race mixing and the French system of slavery for American whites, a green-eyed man with greater education and access to the world than the average slave. He was the son of a white planter and black slave and evidently was used as a slave driver.

The revolt began at the home of plantation owner Manuel André, about 36 miles north of New Orleans along Lake Ponchartrain in an area known as the German Coast because of a number of German planters in the area. André was struck with an axe and wounded and his son chopped to death. Deslondes brought the slaves from a plantation owned by widows where he was enslaved. Deslondes led the slaves into the plantation cellar for muskets and militia uniforms.

The precise numbers of slaves involved are unclear and estimates varied. The original revolt consisted of between 64 and 125 participants. As these slaves marched toward New Orleans, they picked up people along the way, leading to a final number of between 250 and 500. It’s thought that between 10 and 25% of slaves from the various plantations affected joined the rebellion, mostly single young men under 30. Armed with hand tools, knives, and a few guns, they marched for two days, covering twenty miles. The historical documentation is sketchy. But there is at least limited evidence that the slaves were aware of the Haitian Revolution and modeled this after that, a possibility given that many Haitian planters had fled to Louisiana with their slaves during the Revolution. It also seems that some of the slaves had military experience in Ghana and Angola before their capture. We do know that the slaves marched in military formation so someone had some military training at some point.

Area whites panicked, fleeing to New Orleans, fearing a Haiti in their midst. And in fact, it does seem that Deslondes and the slaves wanted to conquer New Orleans. Later, after this was over, a slave named Jupiter was asked why he participated. He answered that he wanted to kill white people.

The response to the uprising was utterly brutal. Whites came at the slaves with maximum force. The U.S. military combined with French planters to suppress the rebellion. They came close to New Orleans before being turned around at Jacques Fournier’s plantation and crushed near modern-day Norco, Louisiana, on or very near the site of what is today the Waterford 3 Nuclear Power Plant. As they fled into the plantation backcountry and bayous, whites hunted them down. Another 44 were tried and executed. The total number of dead was around 95. What makes this response different than other slave rebellions is the brutality. Slave owners recognized the rebellion as a very real threat and wanted to be clear of the consequences. So they cut off the heads of the slaves, placed them on pikes, and lined the roads with them, in the most public and brutal suppression of slave agency in the nation’s history. The territorial legislature compensated the owners for the loss of their property by paying them $300 for each dead slave.

The federal-planter alliance to crush the rebellion helped smooth over the hard feelings about the federal treatment of the territory. Louisiana would become a state the next year. It also helped commit the federal government to the defense of slavery. Slowly Louisiana’s system of race and slavery would become more like the rest of the American South.

The most prominent book I know of on the 1811 rebellion is Daniel Rasmussen’s American Uprising, and some of the information for this post comes from there.

This is the 88th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Patricia Kayden

    Never heard of this incident before. Sad to say that such uprisings were uniformly doomed in the American South. Thanks.

  • witless chum

    It doesn’t get mentioned much, compared to the revolt led by Nat Turner or even the Denmark Vessey conspiracy. First I heard of it was in James Loewen’s Lies Across America, but I can’t remember the specific historical site he was critiquing. Maybe it was the lack of one marking the battle?

    • Todd

      As to the Nat Turner rebellion:

      1. The Turner rebellion was really much bloodier (comparatively)
      2. A purported memoir of it was published in the aftermath
      3. A Pulitzer-winning novel of the rebellion brought it and the controversy around it back to the public perception.

  • Murc

    Always worth mentioning: sugar plantations, both in Louisiana and in the Caribbean, were so much more brutal than any other kind of slave farming it isn’t even funny. Slaves on cotton and tobacco plantations could at least theoretically live long and healthy lives, subject to just how evil the plantation owner was; sugar farming was specifically predicated on working your slaves to death and then getting more slaves to replace them.

    I believe in fact that idiomatically, the phrase “sold down the river” is drawn at least in part from the fact that being sold down into sugar country (the lower Mississippi) was basically a death sentence.

    (I am aware that both these facts are most likely known to much of the commentariat here. I just feel they’re always worth reiterating.)

    • Malaclypse

      Always worth mentioning: sugar plantations, both in Louisiana and in the Caribbean, were so much more brutal than any other kind of slave farming it isn’t even funny.

      And always worth plugging in this context: Mintz, Sweetness and Power and O’Shaughnessy, An Empire Divided.

    • Yeah, I always emphasize this to my students–as horrendous as slavery was in most of the United States, in sugar it was even worse. Which is hard to imagine.

      • Nathanael

        It’s particularly hard to see how it was maintained, given that harvesting sugar cane required arming the slaves with machetes.

        • Nathanael

          Maybe that’s why the slaveholders tried to kill the slaves as fast as possible.

    • oldster

      This is where the family in “Mansfield Park” has made their money, isn’t it? Not in NOLA, but in Antigua.

      I share Fanny’s indignation that the lives of slaves were squandered so that the children of their masters could put on theatrical performances! Theatrical performances, I tell you!

      • Patricia Kayden

        Is Fanny’s indignation about slavery actually in the novel, or was that just added for dramatic effect in the 1999 film version?
        Seemed like a lot of customers feel that Fanny’s disdain for slavery was not in the novel and shouldn’t have been in the film. (Never read the novel but loved the film).

        http://www.amazon.com/Mansfield-Park-Frances-OConnor/product-reviews/B004XVMCMQ/ref=cm_cr_pr_hist_1?ie=UTF8&filterBy=addOneStar&showViewpoints=0&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending

        • oldster

          No, as I recall there is no mention of slavery whatsoever in the book, and so no opportunities for Fanny to be indignant about it. If they added that into the film, then…well, it may be a good thing, but it’s not one of the good things that Austen is responsible for.

          Fanny’s indignation in the book is entirely directed as I indicated i.e. towards the theatrical productions. But she’s right–that Henry Crawford really is a bad one!

          • Patricia Kayden

            Okay. Thanks.

          • peggy

            Wrong and wrong again. I am on a LGM thread, correct?

            The subtext of Mansfield Park is slavery. The estate in Antigua provides luxuries and the father’s journey there allows for the famous play making plot. Fanny Price reminds her cousin that after asking Sir Thomas about the slave trade, “there was such a dead silence”. One might add a guilty silence.

    • Also Brazil was a major producer of sugar using slaves. Nearly 10 times as many slaves were sent from Africa to Brazil as to the what became the US.

    • atheist

      (I am aware that both these facts are most likely known to much of the commentariat here. I just feel they’re always worth reiterating.)

      I was actually unaware of either of these facts, so thanks for mentioning them.

  • Nobdy

    I have been lead to believe by various conservative commentators that African Americans were happy under Jim Crow and even, sometimes, under slavery. If they were so happy why would they lead a doomed revolt against a larger, much better armed, organized, and determined military force? It’s very irrational and seems almost desperate. This kind of irrationality is probably why they needed the plantation owners’ guidance.

    If you had told me, as a child, that in 2014 we would still be talking about whether systems of racial oppression were evil, brutal, and harmful, I would have laughed at you, because 2014 is the future, and people aren’t bigoted or stupid in the future. They drive hovercars!

    This post is important because it reveals the truth behind slavery (and the systems that followed it.) They were based on unthinkable violence and people were willing to march to almost certain death (or later almost certain brutal violence and arrest) for a shot at resisting them.

    • Origami Isopod

      I have been lead to believe by various conservative commentators that African Americans were happy under Jim Crow and even, sometimes, under slavery. If they were so happy why would they lead a doomed revolt against a larger, much better armed, organized, and determined military force?

      It’s not dissimilar to how feudalism in medieval Europe is romanticized — all the peasant revolts are shoved down the memory hole.

      • What’s the point of building an oubliette if you don’t use it?

        • oldster

          Oh yeah. I forgot.

          • Joseph Slater

            +1.

      • It is? There are people romanticizing the poverty, illiteracy, and horrible conditions of European peasants under feudalism? I thought it was called the “Dark Ages” by most people.

        • wjts

          Society for Creative Anachronism, Renaissance Faires, etc.

        • Origami Isopod

          The Dark Ages was the early Middle Ages, so called because of the dearth of information about it (although perhaps that’s changed in recent decades; I’m not sure).

          The later Middle Ages are what tend to get romanticized. The SCA stuff mentioned by wjts doesn’t bother me as much, though maybe it should. SCA members tend to be pretty well educated about history. I was thinking about an essay by Gene Wolfe, the s/f writer, glorifying the relationship between lord and villein and “the natural order” and so forth, but I couldn’t find it by Googling.

          To be fair, the Middle Ages were no more a thousand years of stagnation, any more than they were a thousand years of Renaissance Faires. I am told that this book is a pretty good overview of what was true and what wasn’t.

          • Tucker

            Well it may have been the so called “Dark Ages” because people of color were carrying forward culture. Learning was only lost among the Europeans. It was fine it Africa, in which the Islamic world exists and Asia, China.

            • Well then are we in another Dark Ages where Asia, Africa will again dominate scholarship? ;-)

          • wjts

            The use of the term “Dark Ages” to convey the idea that little historical documentation exists for the fifth to ninth centuries C.E. is a relatively recent one. The term as it was originally used was meant to denigrate the period after the fall of Rome as a time of ignorance and barbarism, full of people who didn’t speak Latin properly and couldn’t write an epic poem if their miserable dung-eating lives depended on it (I think it was Petrarch that coined the term; he certainly shared the sentiment).

            • Origami Isopod

              I stand corrected on the etymology. That said, the idea that the Middle Ages in general and the Early Middle Ages in particular were nothing but wall-to-wall barbarism got a boost from Protestants with religious axes to grind.

              Don’t get me wrong: I carry no water for the RCC, and I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to live in the Middle Ages. But I wouldn’t have wanted to live during the Enlightenment, either. I’m just saying that it was a long period of history that is considerably more dynamic than it is credited as being in the popular imagination.

              • wjts

                I’m just saying that it was a long period of history that is considerably more dynamic than it is credited as being in the popular imagination.

                Yes, absolutely.

          • wjts

            I was thinking about an essay by Gene Wolfe, the s/f writer, glorifying the relationship between lord and villein and “the natural order” and so forth, but I couldn’t find it by Googling.

            This one?

            • Origami Isopod

              That one. Thanks.

          • Rhino

            The people in the sca who are genuinely interested in the recreation of medieval history tend to be very up front that they are celebrating the best of the era, not the reality.

            There were a lot of remarkable things in that period of history. And honestly I doubt the mass of the peasantry were all that more miserable than they are now. It always sucks to be on the bottom, whether that means a ghetto in LA or subsistence farming in Botswana.

            • Strange that you should choose Botswana which has the highest PPP of any country in Africa with $15,000. It is 62 out of 187 countries. One would have thought Congo ranked 187 with a ppp of only $365 would have been a better choice. Botswanans are on average richer than Romanians and Bulgarians both of which are Europeans.

              • Rhino

                Typically of North Americans I know next to nothing about Africa and picked the name randomly.

  • So they cut off the heads of the slaves, placed them on pikes, and lined the roads with them

    The classics never go out of style.

    • Joseph Slater

      I’ve heard Loomis repeats some of them for modern issues.

    • cpinva

      if they’d really wanted to be “classic”, they’d have crucified a few, on the road to NO. just go full on roman.

      • Ahuitzotl

        Im kinda surprised they didnt, actually

  • Long time ago, I read a very brief reference to this revolt that stated that 500 slaves marched on New Orleans lead by fife and drums.

    There is a whole series of references to fife and drums (and just drums) being connected to rebellion and similar impulses from the black community, going all the way through Reconstruction and just after, when whites demanded in more than one community in North Mississippi that blacks cease the use of fife and drum to call together political meetings. These references are from quite near the area where the last survival of traditional fife and drum (which, if you are familiar with military fife and drum, would probably come as a great surprise to you) persists to this day.

  • Ronan

    Very interesting. Did Louisiana’s distinctivness in how racial hierarchy is measured remain over the next few centuries, does anyone know? Or did it just become consumed into the larger national norm (one drop)?

    • Yes and no. Louisiana became the first Vegas of America, by which I mean its unusual racial formulations meant all that interracial mixing which meant exotic sex for 19th century Americans. Louisiana captured the American imagination because it scared them and tantalized them. Louisiana’s place in the American imagination descends from this today, although obviously under very different terms.

      American whites couldn’t immediately shift the racial hierarchy of Louisiana, but they certainly worked at it. By 1860, the percentage of blacks in slavery had gone up and rights for free blacks had gone down. The mulatto elite in New Orleans had seen significant decline in their economic status. After the Civil War this would only continue. Louisiana whites, by this time primarily Anglo-American, would use extra violence, even compared to the rest of the South, in putting down black resistance at the end of Reconstruction, a resistance in no small part supported by the declining mixed-race elite.

      Homer Plessy was a 1/8 African member of the Louisiana black elite and it was his test case against Louisiana’s segregation laws that led to Plessy v. Ferguson.

      • Ronan

        These differences in how racial hierarchies are measured in the americas, is it an outgrowth of who colonised where (afaik theres significant difference between latin america and north america? and im sure across latin america) or is it something that emerges semi naturally on account of the areas demographics etc .. if you know what Im getting at?

        also if you Dont mind me asking you have any book recs on reconstruction (bear in mind this is going to just sit on my amazon wish list for a while, but its something id love to know more about at some stage) i have one at the m minute, beyond redemption by carole emberton, do you know is it any good?

        • Ronan

          emerging naturally wouldnt be the way i would have framed it if i had a better way of explaining myself
          obviously theres a huge amount of centralised ideology and violence used to create and maintain such hierarchy..

        • The key book on Reconstruction is Eric Foner’s book. There’s a long and a short version. I recommend the long, but obviously the short is more manageable.

          The English seem pretty unique in their way of conceptualizing race in the Americas, much more concerned with interracial sex than the Spanish, French, or Portuguese. Others here probably know more about the details of this than I.

          • Ronan

            thanks

          • wjts

            I think I’ve got some stuff on “early modern” race ideologies somewhere at home. If I can find it, I’ll post details this evening.

    • dp

      After Reconstruction, Louisiana turned hard, hard racist. I believe it was the Constitution of 1890 (I might have the year wrong; Louisiana has changed constitutions like most states have changed their calendars) that stripped African-Americans of as many rights as they could think of.

  • oldster

    Can I just point out that Southern Pride is all about Heritage, not Hate, okay?

    Furthermore, I wish old Neil would remember that Southern Man don’t need him around, anyhow.

    (I mean, sure: I’ve heard screaming and bullwhips cracking, sure: who hasn’t? What’s the big deal? What’s his point? Why won’t he let us alone? Damned Canadians, shoving their mythical polar vortices down our heterosexual throats.)

  • dp

    As a Louisianian, I can confirm Madison’s and Jefferson’s suspicions about our ability to govern ourselves.

    • DrDick

      However, isn’t that at least partially the massive influx of anglophone crackers into the northern part of the state?

      • dp

        It didn’t help!

    • Ahuitzotl

      Just a shame they didnt extend their suspicions to places closer to home

  • SteveHinSLC

    I myself am appalled that the territorial government compensated slave owners for their lost property.

    Just another example of dependence on Big Government.

  • cgrego

    Great post. I do want to point, however, to the Stono Rebellion in SC in 1739, after which the captured and executed slaves also had their heads mounted on stakes lining major roadways to serve as a gruesome warning–simply in that the treatment of slaves in the aftermath the German Coast Uprising was not unique.

    The Stono Rebellion is an interesting case in itself: led by native Africans (their leader was named Jemmy) who spoke Portuguese and were Catholic, they eventually gathered 80 recruits as they marched south along the coast, presumably to Spanish Florida. Along the way, they killed about 25 whites until they were stopped by a local militia; in the ensuing battle, 44 slaves and 20 whites were killed. The rest of the slaves were, of course, executed or sold, and South Carolina passed a number of tougher restrictions on slaves as a result.

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