[On September 9, 1739, enslaved African Americans began a brief but bloody rebellion in South Carolina. So this week on the 280th anniversary I’ll AmericanStudy Stono and other rebellions and contexts, leading up to a weekend post on cultural representations of such revolts.]
On two historical lessons from a largely forgotten colonial-era revolt.
By various historical measures, the slave revolt that began on this date two hundred eighty years ago was the largest and most significant in the British mainland colonies. Roughly 60 enslaved African Americans took part, following the lead of an enslaved man known alternately as Jemmy and Cato (the latter likely due to his slave-owners, the Cater family whose plantation was located near the Stono River). Over the following week Jemmy and his fellow rebels took part in multiple armed encounters with South Carolina whites as they marched toward Spanish Florida and the promise of freedom (more on that in a moment), with 25 whites and nearly 50 rebels killed in those conflicts. Although the rebels did not achieve their goal, the revolt resulted in a number of important changes in the colony: especially the passage of the restrictive Negro Act of 1740; but also various attempts to mitigate the harshest treatment of slaves by South Carolina slave-owners. Yet while the warehouse where the rebellion began has since 1974 been designated a National Historical Landmark, I would argue that outside of that area the revolt has not been well-remembered (as an example, I had never heard of it until I was searching for historic anniversaries as topics for weekly series).
For all those significant aspects, and for the simple fact that it happened, the Stono Rebellion should be better remembered (and I was happy to see panels about it at the National Museum of African American History & Culture when my family and I visited a few weeks back). And better remembering the revolt likewise helps us engage with complexities to colonial American history and identity. For one thing, the Spanish influence on the rebellion highlights the multi-national realities of colonial America: as part of their ongoing conflicts with England, both in the Americas and in Europe, Spain had proclaimed that any enslaved African American held in an English colony would be free if he or she were to make it to Spanish territory; just a year prior to the revolt, free African Americans had indeed founded a settlement of their own, Fort Mosé, near the Spanish city of St. Augustine. Of course the history of Spanish imperialism and settlement in the Americas was entirely intertwined with the foundational and ongoing histories of slavery, and this particular proclamation and era can’t be viewed outside of those larger contexts (or as an idealistic, abolitionist stance from the Spanish). But all those factors simply add to a nuanced narrative of multi- and trans-national communities and relationships across the 18th century Americas.
At the heart of nearly all of those transnational communities by the 18th century, of course, were enslaved African Americans. And what the Stono Rebellion especially helps us remember is just how significantly multi-national the community contained in the reductive phrase “African Americans” truly was. Jemmy was described in a contemporary account as “Angolan,” which historians such as John Thornton have argued makes it likely he, along with the cohort of enslaved men with whom he began the revolt, had been born in and kidnapped from the West/Central African kingdom of Kongo. Long linked to Portuguese traders, the Kongolese had converted to Catholicism as early as the 15th century, and the kingdom maintained its own relationship with the Vatican. Those factors made it more likely both for these Portuguese-speaking enslaved people to have learned of the Spanish offer of freedom and for them to be drawn to Catholic Florida as a religious as well as social alternative to South Carolina. Moreover, the rebels began their revolt on the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, a choice that seems clearly to have linked the rebellion to their Catholic identity and ideals. Besides helping contextualize the Stono Rebellion, those details remind us that the community of enslaved African Americans was, in reality, a profoundly multi-national collection of cultures, all of which had already become part of an evolving American community by September 1739.
Next rebellion tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
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