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The Stono Rebellion

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Site of Stono Rebellion, near Charleston, SC
Henry de Saussure Copeland hdes.copeland/ Flickr CC

The Stono Rebellion was the largest rebellion mounted by slaves against slave owners in colonial America. The Stono Rebellion's location was near the Stono River in South Carolina. The details of the 1739 event are uncertain, as documentation for the incident comes from only one firsthand report and several secondhand reports. White Carolinians wrote these records, and historians have had to reconstruct the causes of the Stono River Rebellion and the motives of the slaves participating from these biased descriptions.

The Rebellion

On September 9, 1739, early on a Sunday morning, a group of around 20 slaves rendezvoused at a spot near the Stono River. They had pre-planned their rebellion for this day. Stopping first at a firearms shop, they killed the owner and supplied themselves with guns.

Now well-armed, the group then proceeded to marched down a main road in St. Paul's Parish, located nearly 20 miles from Charlestown (today Charleston). Bearing signs reading "Liberty," beating drums and singing, the group was headed south for Florida. Who was leading the group is unclear; it might have been a slave named Cato or Jemmy.

The band of rebels hit a series of businesses and homes, recruiting more slaves and killing the masters and their families. They burned the houses as they went. The original rebels may have forced some of their recruits to join the rebellion. The men allowed the innkeeper at Wallace's Tavern to live because he was known to treat his slaves with more kindness than other slaveholders.

The End of the Rebellion

After journeying around 10 miles, the group, around 60 to 100 strong, rested, and the militia found them. A firefight ensued, and some of the rebels escaped. The militia rounded up the escapees, decapitating them and setting their heads on posts as a lesson to other slaves. The tally of the dead was 21 whites and 44 slaves killed. South Carolinians spared the lives of slaves who they believed were forced to participate against their will by the original band of rebels.

Causes

The rebelling slaves were headed for Florida. Great Britain and Spain were at war (the War of Jenkin's Ear), and Spain, hoping to cause problems for Britain, promised freedom and land to any British colonial slaves who made their way to Florida. The slaves themselves were from an area of Africa, either Angola or the Kongo, that was Catholic and Portuguese-speaking. The offer from Catholic Spain might have been more attractive to the escaping slaves as a result.

Reports in local newspapers of impending legislation may have also prompted the rebellion. South Carolinians were contemplating passing the Security Act, which would have required all white men to take their firearms with them to church on Sunday, presumably in case unrest among a group of slaves broke out. Sunday had been traditionally a day when the slave owners set aside their weapons for church attendance and allowed their slaves to work for themselves.

The Negro Act

The rebels fought well, which, as historian John K. Thornton speculates, may have been because they had a military background in their homeland. The areas of Africa where they had been sold into slavery were experiencing intense civil wars, and a number of ex-soldiers found themselves enslaved after surrendering to their enemies.

South Carolinians thought it was possible that their African origins had contributed to the rebellion. Part of the 1740 Negro Act, passed in response to the rebellion, was a prohibition on importing slaves directly from Africa. South Carolina also wanted to slow the rate of importation down; African Americans outnumbered whites in South Carolina, and South Carolinians lived in fear of insurrection.

The Negro Act also made it mandatory for militias to regularly patrol, to prevent slaves from gathering the way they had in anticipation of the Stono Rebellion. Slave owners who treated their slaves too harshly were subject to fines under the Negro Act, in an implicit nod to the idea that harsh treatment might contribute to rebellion.

The Negro Act severely restricted the lives of South Carolina's slaves. No longer could a group of slaves assemble on their own, nor could slaves grow their own food, learn to read or work for money. Some of these provisions had existed in law before but had not been consistently enforced.

Significance of the Stono Rebellion

Students often ask, "Why didn't slaves fight back?" The answer is that they sometimes did. In his book American Negro Slave Revolts (1943), historian Herbert Aptheker estimates that over 250 slave rebellions occurred in the United States between 1619 and 1865. Some of these insurrections were as terrifying for slave owners as Stono, such as the Gabriel Prosser Slave Revolt in 1800, Vesey's Rebellion in 1822 and Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831. When slaves were unable to rebel directly, they performed subtle acts of resistance, ranging from work slow-downs to feigning illness. The Stono River Rebellion is tribute to the ongoing, determined resistance of African Americans to the oppressive system of slavery.

Sources

Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts. 50th Anniversary Edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Smith, Mark Michael. Stono: Documenting and Interpreting a Southern Slave Revolt. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2005.

Thornton, John K. "African Dimensions of the Stono Rebellion." In A Question of Manhood: A Reader in U.S. Black Men's History and Masculinity, vol. 1. Ed. Darlene Clark Hine and Earnestine Jenkins. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999.

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