Mutinies on slave ships with the exception of The Amistad have been largely ignored. And the African-American uprisings that have occurred in the past one hundred years have invariably been called "riots" and used to suggest that Black folks are just...well...like that ...you know?
Though one of the best known volumes on American Negro Slave Revolts (by Herbert Aptheker) has had six editions released since it was first published in 1943, most of us would be hard put to name even one person we know who's read it. Few, if any, Blacks have revolted and lived to tell about it from their side of the story, leaving us with little to ponder outside of cases White history touts, such as Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner -- all of whom were rapidly identified and executed, of course.
I watched two documentaries on the Black Panther Party yesterday: Merritt College ~ Home of the Black Panthers and the third episode from the VH1 series entitled Lords of the Revolution. I had seen them before, but I am always struck afresh by the panic-stricken brutality the White power structure in the U.S. unleashes whenever Black Americans rise up. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense, as one example, was the last full-tilt boogie organized attack on White power in this country. And we know what happened to them.
So I paid particular attention when I was made aware that, beginning January 8,1811 -- for a period of four days -- a free mulatto driver from Santo Domingo named Charles Deslondes with two Asante warriors named Kook and Quamana led what has been called the largest slave revolt in American history. Hundreds of Black men and women armed themselves with hoes, axes and cane knives and set out to take over New Orleans. Starting at Woodland Plantation in LaPlace, Louisiana, about thirty miles west of their target, the revolutionaries (that's what people who revolt are called, y'all), burned plantations and crops, collected weapons and ammunition, killed two White plantation owners -- sparing their wives and children (unlike the White slaveholders) -- and proceeded to Jacques Fortier's planation in what is now Kenner, just thirteen miles from their goal.
In Rivertown, the insurrection was met by military fire power and beaten back to St Charles Parish where they were routed. Somewhere between 40 and 60 died in the fighting, while an additional 45 were tried at Destrahan Plantation and either sentenced to death or sent on to New Orleans for subsequent legal proceedings. Those executed were first shot to death and then beheaded, with their heads placed on pikes along the route from LaPlace to New Orleans as a warning to others who might share their passion for freedom. As for Deslondes, he didn't make it to trial, but was dealt with by the militia as soon as he was captured. First, his hands were cut off; then, he was shot in both thighs and the abdomen, and, while still alive, set on fire.
It should be remembered that Louisiana was not even a state until a year later and the Haitian revolution twenty years before had freed an entire nation from European control. So we could surmise that the brave men and weomn who took on the world on this day in 1811 probably had dreams of establishing a Black republic in New Orleans. Some might argue that the insurrection is still in process.
In any case, Harvard-trained historian Daniel Rasmussen has written a new book entitled American Uprising: the Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt. And in honor of the 200th anniversary of this page in U.S. history, events and exhibitions will be held all year at the Destrehen Plantation, the New Orleans African American Museum of Art, Culture and History, and other venues.
I've lived in Louisiana for nearly five years without visiting a single plantation. It ain't my thing. But I might just make it a point this year to do something to honor the memory of the valiant souls who reached so sacrificially for a dream still dreamed by so many.
NOTE: The painting featured above is by renowned River Parishes artist Lorraine Gendron and depicts the revolt discussed in this post. It will hang among other pieces in the Destrehan Plantation exhibit for the duration of this year.