On September 9, 1739, the Stono Rebellion took place in South Carolina. It stunned the white South Carolinian plantation owners. Slaves from West Africa decided to revolt against the oppressive South Carolina slave culture. As revolutionaries, they were impressive and fierce. In no uncertain terms, they demanded their “liberty”. It is likely the most important slave rebellion in American history.
This rebellion is particularly meaningful for me. For years, I have worked with Black farmers and cooperatives in south, including South Carolina. The Stono Rebellion began on the property of one of the cooperatives I’ve worked with, which is close to Charleston and near to the Stono River. I visit the site often and reflect about these incredibly brave Africans who demanded their freedom.
Here’s a description of what happened that day when some 20 enslaved Africans revolted against the South Carolina slave culture.
“On Sunday, September 9, 1739, a group of Kongolese slaves broke into a storehouse about fifteen miles south of Charles Town in the colony of South Carolina. The slaves, now rebels, killed the two storekeepers and took all the guns and powder they could carry. Led by a man named Jemmy or Cato, the rebels moved southward and killed about twenty-three white colonists, destroyed property, recruited other slaves to join them, and marched toward Spanish Florida where they expected to find freedom. Before the day ended, they encountered, of all people, South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor William Bull, who hastened away to alert the local militia. In the meantime, the rebels were spotted in an open field dancing and playing drums – a call to arms, a preparation for battle. They were soon surrounded by the militia, and in the battle that ensued militia members noted that many among the rebels, fought like well-trained soldiers, using flags and fighting in formation. And yet they were outnumbered. The rebellion was put down and many slaves were executed. Some of the rebels escaped into the woods; one was not captured for several years” (Shuler, 2009, p. 3-4).
By the time the Stono rebels reached the open field, about 100 slaves had joined them. They had, in fact, spared the life of a slaveholder who was good to his slaves. In the end, approximately, 23 whites were killed by the Stono rebels and ultimately 44 Africans were killed by the militia. Some have ventured to assume that a few members of the Stono group did, in fact, find their way to Florida.
But first, a history is relevant regarding European antagonisms, and African history as it intersects with these events.
In the early 1700’s, the southern part of North America was embroiled in the conflicts between European countries – in this instance, primarily Britain and Spain – that wanted control of the vast resources in colonized North America or the Caribbean. In 1739, the Spanish controlled the Florida territory and Britain reigned over the rest of the east coast of the Atlantic and in particular, in this instance, South Carolina and Georgia close to the Florida border.
In 1693 and 1733 the Spanish royalty and government sent edicts to the colony in Florida stating essentially that African slaves, who were able to escape and find their way to Florida, not be sold or returned to the British colonies. And further, the edict also required that the Africans become Catholic and provide four years of service to the Spanish crown.
The intent of the Spanish was obviously to destabilize the British colonies as much as possible and also add to their military personnel in their battles or skirmishes against the British.
An untold number of slaves from South Carolina did find their way to Florida, fought for the Spanish crown, and in 1737 populated the first free Black town in America. It was created by the Spanish government and known as “Garcia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose”, close to St. Augustine. It is now referred to as Fort Mose.
Reviewing African history is particularly essential to understanding this rebellion. It is thought these slaves were most likely from the Kingdom of Kongo in West Africa. The “Kingdom” at the time was broadly defined to include the present-day Angola, Senegal, Congo, etc.
South Carolinians were interested in obtaining West Africans as slaves because of their skills in rice cultivation. African rice, in fact, is estimated to have been grown in West Africa for some 3,000 or even up to 6,000 years ago. West Africans were skilled rice growers and they were in demand, albeit as slaves, for aspiring white rice plantation owners along the South Carolina coast.
The Portuguese had established relationships with the Kongo in the 1480’s. Not long after, Christianity spread throughout the country. The Kongolese ultimately built numerous Catholic churches in the late 1400’s and early 1500’s and at one point had diplomatic relations with the Vatican. The Pope also ultimately appointed a bishop for the area. All of this, in fact, finally resulted in conflicts with the Portuguese by some Kongolese who were opposed to the Portuguese intervention.
It is possible, therefore, that the Stono rebels spoke Portuguese and were familiar with the Catholic religion. It is thought, then, they would have been able to speak with Spanish visitors in South Carolina (a language close to Portuguese), if the opportunity availed itself. In fact, it appears that the Spanish deliberately sent envoys to South Carolina to surreptitiously explain these opportunities to the Africans. Prior to 1739, however, as mentioned, many slaves had already escaped to Florida and the word about this would have spread throughout the slave communities.
Further, at the time the Stono slaves were brought to South Carolina there had been excessive fighting in West Africa with some of the fighters being caught and sold to slave merchants. Indeed, it is thought, when they arrived in South Carolina, that the Stono rebels were likely already skilled fighters from their West African battles who knew how to use weapons and engage in military strategies (Shuler, 2009).
The military engagement would also have included African traditions of warfare such as the drumming and dance-like engagement to build excitement and courage for battle (Shuler, 2009).
The rebels also waved flags and shouted what many have said was “liberty”. Shuler notes that “To be sure, this is a complicated moral truth; the Stono rebels committed some acts of horrific violence. And yet there are countless examples of American letters of such acts being approved and praised…but not others like Stono” (Shuler, 2009, p. 9). As freedom fighters, Stono rebels represented a vast array of narratives. Shuler states further regarding the event:
“The narrative that Stono represents has always been in the hearts and minds of many Americans. For a moment, the Stono rebels sliced open – literally and figuratively – the public sphere in South Carolina, speaking directly to the philosophical concerns of many Enlightenment figures: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be free? The rebels responded to both these questions” (Shuler, 2009, p. 182 ).
The significance of this rebellion was immense even though there had, in fact, been numerous other smaller revolts prior this. In fact, before the Stono rebellion South Carolina had already demanded that all white males carry guns on Sundays when at church and if found without a gun they would be fined. This mandate was to be enforced not long after the Stono rebellion and is considered one of the reasons why the Stono leaders decided to hold the rebellion when they did – on a Sunday before this policy was enforced.
A few scholars have also questioned whether going to Florida was the intent of the Stono rebels. The inference has been that perhaps they wanted to make a profound statement about the injustice of the system and a demand for liberty for all. In fact, the Stono leader Cato’s great-great grandson, George Cato, was interviewed during the New Deal’s Federal Writer’s Project in 1937. The story of what happened in the rebellion had been transferred from generation to generation. Cato said of his great-great grandfather, that he was willing to lay down his life for that was right and “not for his own benefit as it was to help others.”
After Stono, South Carolina passed the draconian Negro Acts that restricted African behavior in ways never before enacted and also placed demands of whites not to be as cruel as before that then might prevent further outbreaks. They no longer allowed for the importation of slaves from the Kongo.
The rebellion seemed to be the start of a narrative in South Carolina to justify the dreadful system of slavery. Prior to that there had been some meaningful dialogue in the country that, for one, questioned the morality of the system. Some South Carolinians had engaged in that dialogue as well. No more. Greed and fear, it appears, won the day. South Carolinas slaveholders were not about to give up on their money making venture of extracting wealth from the oppression of others (Kelly, 2013).
Stono also scared the white South Carolinians. They wanted to blame the Spanish for this rather than acknowledging the demands of the slaves themselves. They obviously found it hard to believe that Africans acted in a way they, as whites, would have had they been the ones enslaved. A quote from the C.L.R. James is quite appropriate here. Regarding the Haitian revolutionaries, he said, “The slaves have revolted because they wanted to be free. But no ruling class ever admits such things” (Shuler, 2009, p. 85).
Shuler asks the question about the nature of human rights. “What are human rights? In short, human rights are those rights or entitlements one has simply by virtue of being human. Human rights are prior and above civil rights, which are contingent on one being a citizen of a country. They are moral claims, ultimate protections of human dignity.” This is a dialogue that continues to this day, of course, and the Stono rebels helped to build the narrative.
Slavery, in the end, is war against human nature and human liberty. The Stono fighters were in a war against this injustice. And where did these Stono rebels stand within the context of the human rights struggles and narrative? The Stono rebels joined the huge international struggle and debate for freedom and revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries from America to Haiti to France and on.
Finally, Shuler notes the importance of Stono regarding the advent of capitalism, also within the context of human and economic rights. He says:
“(The Stono rebels) learned to perceive changes in the social climate of whites so that they might gain some advantage….At a moment of extreme social anxiety the Stono rebels created uncanny networks that featured a counter narrative to that of those in power in South Carolina….This rebellion exemplifies the social possibilities embedded within moments of cultural and technological transformation – in this case the transformation brought on by a growing Atlantic capitalist economy and its development of international communications networks. At Stono, a counterpublic emerged promoting a revolutionary alternative to the offered discourses of the South Carolina white colonial public. And this counterpublic effectively piggybacked, although unwillingly, on the infrastructure of capitalism – most notably the slave ship. The Stono rebels then rose up on September 9 and delivered their communications to the people of St. Paul Parish, South Carolina, and to the world” (Shuler, 2009, p. 84).
HEATHER GRAY is the producer of “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kelly, Jospeh – “America’s Longest Seige: Charkeston, Slaverry, and the Slow March Toward Civil War”, 2013, The Overlook Press
Shuler, Jack – “Calling Out Liberty: the Stono Slave Rebellion and the Universal Struggle for Human Rights”, 2009, University Press of Mississippi