Jonathan Yardley

Rebel slaves, silenced

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, January 30, 2011

Reading Daniel Rasmussen's interesting if flawed account of a violent slave uprising in Louisiana in 1811, I found myself repeatedly recalling Samuel Johnson's dictum on women in the pulpit. The good doctor's words are totally incorrect, of course, but when one considers that the author of this book is all of 23 years old, they do seem to apply: "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

As it happens, Rasmussen has done more things well than poorly, but the phenomenon of a person of his tender years writing and having published a serious work of history cannot go unnoticed. Perhaps it is unfair to Rasmussen to raise the matter, but his publisher's publicists have done so, as will, no doubt, others who review "American Uprising." The historians' guild is not an easy one to crack; that Rasmussen has done so only two years after reaching the age allowing him to raise a glass in his own honor is, in and of itself, rather remarkable.

The book itself is somewhat less so. Presumably researched and written during Rasmussen's undergraduate years at Harvard, from which he graduated festooned with honors in 2009, it is carefully researched, especially with regard to daily life on the early 19th-century sugar plantations of Louisiana, and its account of the slave rebellion is vivid and, considering the dearth of hard evidence, convincing. On the other hand, although he clearly is a gifted prose stylist, he has a taste for overwrought dramatization and foreshadowing, both of which could and should have been discouraged by his editors and academic mentors. He also dwells gratuitously and excessively on "how [America's] ideals have at times been twisted and cast aside for the sake of greed and power," on what he calls this country's "hypocrisies, evils, and injustices," lending a shrill political cast to a narrative that should be able to stand on its own.

"With little attention from scholars," Rasmussen writes, "North America's largest antebellum slave revolt has languished in the footnotes of history for two hundred years. While historians jostled to write about Nat Turner, who had mobilized fewer than 100 slaves, this diverse band of Louisiana slaves has been remembered by only a few." Well, the dark recesses of history are crammed with untold stories that deserve serious scrutiny, but Rasmussen is right to regard it as strange that this particular story has gone virtually unnoticed. He believes that the blame lies with William C.C. Claiborne, appointed governor of the huge Louisiana Territory after its purchase from Napoleon in 1803. On the evidence presented by Rasmussen, Claiborne really does not seem to have been "distinctly lacking in qualifications," but he was an ardent advocate of the western expansion of the United States who "wrote the slave-rebels out of history, believing that all that was important was the rise of American power."

Whether this interpretation is based in historical fact or is merely a figment of Rasmussen's somewhat overheated imagination is unclear, but with rare exceptions historians have overlooked the events of January 1811 in the Louisiana sugar country. Though the slave army's ultimate goal was New Orleans, its uprising began in "one of the wealthiest and most fertile stretches of agricultural land in North America: Louisiana's famed German Coast." Originally settled by Germans but largely French by the early 19th century, the area was dominated by a small number of large plantations, all of them dependent on slave labor. Great rewards were gained by the plantation owners, but "at immense human cost." Rasmussen writes:

"Force, or the threat of force, was as necessary an investment as land in making a successful sugar plantation. For slaves would not work without coercion. The planters seemed to focus their attention less on the methods and tremendous injustices of their chosen lifestyle and more on the results; perhaps this was the only way to rationalize the tremendous risks. Yet this heavy investment in violence created a fundamental risk: that the violence would backfire, wreaking uncontrollable havoc on the architects of this brutal system."

The planters saw themselves, and were widely seen, as "manly independent patriarchs, as gentlemen farmers, and as powerful aristocrats," and to them "slavery signaled status and wealth, not immorality or danger." Though they were well aware of slave rebellions elsewhere, particularly the fierce one earlier in the century that ousted the French from Haiti, these French settlers were more concerned about the new American governor's efforts "to introduce the principles of liberty and republican self-governance" than about "the tremendous danger posed by the rapidly growing slave population." Nor did they "notice the increasingly radical tenor of the political discussions in the slave quarters."

Three men were the principal leaders of the slave revolt. Two, Kook and Quamana, "brought with them from Africa the memories and stories of the powerful and warlike empire in which they most likely grew up." The third, Charles Deslondes, "served as a slave driver, a member of the slave elite . . . a notoriously conservative group with a bad reputation as traitors to the slave cause." Deslondes, however, "was not the contented slave he appeared" but "one of the key architects of an elaborate scheme to kill off the white planters, seize power for the black slaves, and win his own freedom and that of all those laboring in chains on the German Coast."

Deslondes and his followers had a dream: "Inspired by the stories of the Haitian revolution and flush with the philosophies of the French Revolution, the diverse band of slaves that joined insurrectionary cells believed they could secure freedom, equality, and independence through violent rebellion. As the heads of the whites rolled through the streets, they could form a new republic - a black outpost on the Mississippi, guaranteed by force." They might well have succeeded, or at least made white Louisiana pay heavily for the slave society on which it depended, had one planter not managed to escape during an attack on his house, severely wounded but able to row across the river for help. A number of planters organized a militia, took the rebels by surprise, and began the appallingly bloody process of exterminating them, chopping off the heads of captured slaves and putting them on poles as gruesome reminders of "where power resided."

With that, Rasmussen is off and running. Claiborne "stripped the rebellion of revolutionary or geopolitical meaning by dismissing it as an act of base criminality," using it "to dramatize American civil and institutional power, portraying himself as an effective governor and representative of federal authority." He persuaded the formerly skeptical but now fearful French planters of "the value of a strong American presence in the region," one that upheld and protected the slave society. The achievement of statehood for Louisiana in 1812 "was the key to a new and stronger American nation that would spread its imperial tendrils across the continent."

Excise "its imperial tendrils" from that passage and you have a reasonably accurate portrayal of what the absorption of the Louisiana Territory meant to the inexorable move westward, but "imperial tendrils" injects a note of the political and/or ideological special pleading that has been too common in the history departments since the 1970s. It seems to be a lesson Rasmussen learned at Harvard, but it's one best unlearned.


The Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt

By Daniel Rasmussen

Harper. 276 pp. $26.99

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