On January 23, 1749, a supposed slave conspiracy was reported in Charleston, South Carolina. This probably nonexistent conspiracy is a good window into the complexities of the slave labor system and the paranoia of slaveowners.
That slaves would revolt in the New World was well known. South Carolina had survived the Stono Rebellion in 1739 and were certainly determined to not let that happen again. But other slave revolts throughout the early eighteenth century kept slaveowners across the Americas on edge.
There probably was not in fact an organized attempt by slaves to revolt in 1749. But slaves were seething with anger and slaveowners were paranoid and scared of their Africans. In 1748, a slave named Joe burned down a barn on the plantation of his owner, James Akins. A trial ensued and Joe was convicted and hanged. A woman named Kate who was supposedly involved in this action was ordered to be sold. But Akins evidently didn’t want to sell her. It’s possible that it was Kate herself that told Akins there was a larger plot led by Joe, in order that she not be sold. She and Joe’s wife, named Susannah, said that Joe and others were planning a wide-scale revolt that would then capture ships and flee the colony. They then perhaps claimed that Joe’s co-conspirators were going to launch an attack on the anniversary of his death. It’s not possible to know if there’s any truth to this claim or not.
In any case, Akins did not sell Kate and several months went by. Probably Akins was having sex with her. In fact, this is almost certain. Neighbors of his testified that he cared for her more than “his own Wife and Children.” Sex slavery was an enormous part of the system of chattel slavery, one that if anything is understated in our public discussion of it, in part because it’s hard to talk about rape. Of course, we have no idea what Kate thought of all this. She may have wanted to kill herself, she may have had feelings for Akins, who knows. But we do know that she did not have anything approaching modern ideas of consent–or 18th century ideas of consent for that matter. After all, while rape was a far too common event at this time, it’s not as if it was openly accepted. It was still seen as a bad thing to do.
On January 23, 1749, Akins came into town with a slave named Agrippa, who was forced (tortured perhaps) to confess to a plot the previous year with six other men and three other women to come to town, start a fire that would engulf the town magazine, and then flee out of the colony. Poorer whites were suspected of involvement as well. This was not uncommon in eighteenth century slave revolts. While this was a partly pre-capitalist society without modern notions of class, there were often fears that landless whites would unite with slaves. In this case, the belief was that white boatmen and cobblers were involved. The governor of South Carolina, with the Stono Rebellion very much in his mind, send soldiers to collect anyone implicated. Soon, 18 slaves and 7 whites were under arrest.
Much of this fear came down to the spatial reality of early slavery on these plantations. The plantations were far apart. In many areas, the African population far surpassed that of the white population. Among other things, this meant that slaves had more autonomy than they did in Virginia. This didn’t mean more freedom per se. What it meant might mean that instead of getting some pork and corn from their masters like in Virginia, they had guns and were required to go hunt their own food, at least to some extent. But it also meant that they day to day watch over all slaves was not possible to enforce when slaves were doing much of the business of the colony by traveling between plantations. This meant news could travel. It means sympathetic ears to your plight. It meant the possibility of planning for something better without white ears to overhear you. The slave owners knew this and it made them very uncomfortable. That was at the root of their paranoia over slave revolts, that in many ways it would not be that hard for slaves to do this if they didn’t care whether they lived or died. Among the people implicated in this plot alone, they traveled between 24 plantations.
The trial itself surprisingly didn’t lead to a lot of punishments. Akins testified in favor of Kate and Susannah. He claimed that Joe had threatened both of them before the barn fire and they fled to him for protection. Whether Akins was having sex with Susannah as well is unknown, but it’s obviously possible given the lengths he went for her. In any case, this testimony and her reporting on her own husband did give her some credibility in the court. Testimony in the trial demonstrates the culture of slaves in this time and place–because they traveled so much, they attended weddings, had dinner together, and plotted resistance.
The trial ended in February. Susannah was banished from the colony, despite her testimony. Two other slaves named Robin and Sue suffered the same fate. Perhaps this was good for Susannah, or less bad than other results, as she could not have easily faced her fellow slaves after implicating them in an almost certainly non-existent plot. None of these three slaves appear in inventories of South Carolina slaves again and we have no idea where they were sent. It seems that everyone else was let go with no punishment. Kate was still with Akins a full decade later when he died. One can wonder whether she was also completely shunned by her fellow slaves, but who can tell.
This post borrowed from Jennifer Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery, published in 2004. Thanks to all the historians who tell these stories and provide the material for me to popularize them a bit.
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