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Two hundred years ago this month, hundreds of slaves along the Mississippi River set out to conquer New Orleans. They were willing to die rather than continue the grueling labor on their masters’ sugar cane plantations. This makeshift army was ethnically diverse, politically savvy, and highly organized. And for two days they staged the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history. But unlike the uprisings of Nat Turner and John Brown, most people have never heard of the slave revolt of 1811. That fact prompted an undergraduate student at Harvard to find out why. The story of America’s largest slave revolt…and the reasons it has been largely forgotten.
- Daniel Rasmussen He is the winner of the Kathryn Ann Huggins Prize, the Perry Miller Prize, and the Thomas Temple Hoopes Prize for his research on the 1811 New Orleans slave revolt.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Students of American history are familiar with the names Nat Turner and John Brown. Far fewer know the story of Charles Deslondes, Quamana and Harry Kenner. In 1811, after years of plotting, these Louisiana slaves led an insurrection on the road to New Orleans in the hopes of gaining their freedom.
MS. DIANE REHMA new book tells their story and why so few have studied the largest slave revolt in American history. The book is titled, "American Uprising," and the author, Daniel Rasmussen, joins me in the studio. He has been awarded several prizes for his research on the 1811 Slave Revolt of New Orleans. This is his first book. You can join us, call us, e-mail us, send us a tweet or join us on Facebook. Good morning to you, it's good to have you here.
MR. DANIEL RASMUSSENGood morning, Diane, thank you for having me.
REHMThis is 1811, long before the Civil War you say there's a certain historical amnesia about this. Tell us about that amnesia.
RASMUSSENAbsolutely, Diane. Well, as you said, figures like Nat Turner are well known today, but the 1811 Revolt largely finds itself in the footnotes of history. Most historical books carry maybe three or four sentences about the revolt. They say it's the largest revolt in American history, happened in New Orleans and we know next to nothing about it.
RASMUSSENAnd, you know, it's really the result of what happened right after the revolt. The slaves owners, the planters, the military officials -- the American military officials first executed the slave rebels and then they tried to write it out of history and they succeeded.
REHMExcept that you were at Harvard as an undergraduate student, you saw some reference to this. Tell me about the process.
RASMUSSENAbsolutely. So there are a number of references in history books, as I mentioned. And when I started reading this, I got very curious. You know, what was this revolt? Had it really happened? And when I read the first accounts, I thought maybe it hadn't happened. The accounts by the governor, William Claiborne, say essentially, you know, there's a group of brigands, he calls them, just criminals who are rioting. And I said, well, was this really a slave revolt?
RASMUSSENAnd I started to dig further looking at court transcripts, at financial records from the planters, newspaper accounts, letters and diplomatic correspondence and what I found, Diane, was just you know incredibly exciting, which was the story not only of the largest slave revolt in American history, but a story that demonstrates the political sophistication and organizational complexity of the slaves. These men, you know, had 11 separate leaders. They drew on many different ethnic groups from men born in Louisiana, men born in Virginia, Akan slaves, Congolese slaves and Haitian slaves.
RASMUSSENAnd they worked together over, you know, carrying out this long plot and then launched the largest slave uprising in American history. They came within 15 miles of conquering New Orleans and establishing a black republic on the shores of the Mississippi.
REHMHow many people were involved?
RASMUSSENWell, eyewitness accounts suggest between 200 and 500 and it's hard to say anywhere in-between there, you know, what the exact number was. Around 100 were killed in the uprising and so that's a number we know for certain.
REHMAnd they had been planning this, as you say, with 11 separate leaders for how many years?
RASMUSSENYou know, again, we don't know, Diane. One of the problems of slave history is that the slaves didn't leave diaries or letters behind, so the way we have to learn about this revolt is through the refracted stories the planters tell about their slaves. And so one of the reasons that this revolt has been left out of the history books is that it's hard to go back into those sources and try to figure out what the slaves were thinking or how they were planning it. And a lot of that requires a lot of detective work.
RASMUSSENIt requires going into these court transcripts and financial records and pulling them together and assembling a sort of mosaic about what happened. But what emerged was these slaves with real political ideals. You know, the slave quarters in 1811 were abuzz with news, with information about Haiti, the great slave revolt in Haiti, which happened from 1793 to 1804, in which black Haitians defeated Napoleon Bonaparte, the greatest army in Europe and established a black republic there.
RASMUSSENThere the planters found copies of documents from the French Revolution in the slave quarters in the years leading up to the revolt. These slaves were politically aware. They were sophisticated and they knew what they were doing. And the first step in what they were doing, you know, was violence. They had to win their freedom through violence.
REHMWhat was the catalyst for the uprising?
RASMUSSENSo they really -- the slaves timed the revolt perfectly. It sort of all happened in January 1811. So this is actually the bicentennial this month. And they chose January 11 for three reasons. And the first was that it was carnival, so January 6 is Epiphany night and that's when Mardi Gras starts in New Orleans or carnival starts in New Orleans, which means all the planters were celebrating.
RASMUSSENAnd there were these wonderful descriptions of the parties they used to have, you know, partying until 3 a.m. You know, tables 70 people long with gumbo and turtle and so the night after one of those parties was a pretty good time to launch a slave revolt.
REHMAnd lots of liquor, I would assume, as well?
RASMUSSENAbsolutely, (laugh) so that was the first reason. The second reason was that William Claiborne was waging a proxy war with the Spanish over West Florida. West Florida, it's more, you know, Baton Rouge, Alabama, that area. So he'd actually sent the bulk of the American military force out of New Orleans in December of 1810. So there were only, at the time the slaves launched the revolt, a mere 68 regular troops in New Orleans that the Commodore John Shaw describes as quote a "weak detachment."
RASMUSSENSo New Orleans was basically defenseless when the slaves launched their revolt. The planters were hung over, the American military was outside of the city and finally, on January 4, a rainstorm blew in. And why is that significant? Well, for a couple of reasons. The first of which is that it made the roads clogged with mud so that the Americans couldn't move their artillery out of the city. And so a planter army -- I'm sorry, a slave army, armed with muskets, cane knives, axes would have a much better chance because they didn't have to go up against canons, all they had to go up against was the 68 regular troops.
REHMWhere did they manage to get those muskets, those weapons that they had?
RASMUSSENSo as soon as the revolt began, it began at the plantation of Manuel Andre, who was a militia commander. And so after the slaves had killed Manuel's son and driven him away, they let him escape, unfortunately for them. They broke into his military stores and they took muskets. They took militia uniforms and so the slave army, descriptions of it, recount an army in military formation, dressed in military uniforms, slaves mounted on horseback, some on foot waving flags, beating drums.
RASMUSSENThis was a political movement. This was an army. These men were consciously evoking military and political symbolism in order to say, we're no longer slaves, we're free and we stand for something more than just our freedom. We stand for a real vision of what we will become and who we are.
REHMDaniel Rasmussen, his new book is titled, "American Uprising: The Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt." Do join us, 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to drshow.org, send us a tweet or join us on Facebook. You said, Daniel, there were 11 leaders. You especially focus on Charles Deslondes, Cook and Quamana. Tell us about these folks.
RASMUSSENThey're fascinating men. Charles Deslondes was the son of a white planter and a black slave woman. And Charles had risen up in his plantation to become a slave driver, which is basically the planter's right-hand man. He administers the punishment to the other slaves. He chases the slaves that try to escape. He holds the keys to all locked doors. He met with the planter, Manuel , every morning to decide where the sugar would be planted.
RASMUSSENAnd so he was in the eyes of many slaves the ultimate betrayer of the slave cause, right? This man who would, you know, work for his own benefit to rise up in the hierarchy, but Charles Deslondes was more than that. And what he earned from that hierarchy and that position of power was more freedom, freedom to travel up and down the coast, to meet with other slave leaders, to talk about what the slave planters thought was maybe the sugar crop planting season or when they should bring it in, but that was not what he was talking about.
RASMUSSENAnd as he traveled up and down the coast and met with other leaders, he was also meeting with two men, Kook and Quamana or Kwaku (ph) and Kwamina (ph) in their native Ashanti tongue who had been brought over from Africa in 1806. They were from the Ashanti kingdom, which is a war-like empire which spread across much of the coast of Africa. And these men Kwaku or Kook was over six feet tall which at that time was, you know, the average height was 5 foot 4, a looming powerful figure. And he met with them as he traveled and they began to plot this revolt together taking advantage of the freedoms that they were allowed.
REHMNow, what documentation do you have to tell us all this?
RASMUSSENYep. So a number of sources, the planters kept very good records of their slaves, what their slaves were doing, how many slaves they had, when the slaves died, how much they bought them for. Unfortunately, all those documents are in list form. They'll essentially say, you know, I owned Kook who was worth $600 and I bought him in 1806 and, you know, that's about it. And then they might say, another record would say, you know, Kook died in an insurrection in 1811. He was an infamous brigand who swung an axe.
RASMUSSENSo what I did is I took all of these varied records, these court transcripts, these financial records and I put them into databases in Excel, actually, and so you could track and cross reference, you know, which slave came from what plantation and what role they played in the uprising. And once I had those databases, I mapped those databases onto old 19th century land maps, so you could figure out which slaves were coming from where and when and what roles they had in the plantations.
RASMUSSENAnd once I'd mapped it out and worked it using the letters and the newspaper accounts -- and there's actually a Spanish spy who writes an incredible account of the revolt. And I used those accounts to triangulate and start to build a picture of when things happened and where and how the revolt developed over time and space.
REHMDaniel Rasmussen. I think our listeners should know, Daniel, that you are 23 years old, that you, in fact, took this on as a project as an undergraduate at Harvard. It's a fascinating story and we'll take your calls in just a few moments, 800-433-8850.
REHMAnd if you've just joined, us the book we're talking about, "American Uprising: The Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt," by Daniel Rasmussen. We started off our conversation by talking about how this 1811 insurrection has gone largely unnoticed in history. There's a paragraph in the opening of the book, Daniel, that I'd like to read.
REHMYou say, "Because of the brutality and because of a shared belief in the importance of a specific form of political and economic development, government officials and slave owners sought to write this massive uprising out of the history books to dismiss the bold actions of the slave army as relevant and trivial. They succeeded. And in doing so, they laid the groundwork for one of the most remarkable moments of historical amnesia in our national memory." Tell me about the newspaper accounts of this uprising at the time.
RASMUSSENWell, it's amazing, Diane, that on the bicentennial of the revolt, you know, so few people have heard about this. And the reason is, those newspaper accounts and letters from William Claiborne describe an insignificant insurrection led by slave criminals. So let me tell you about the strategy they used to suppress the news and cover up what happened. The first thing they did was to kill as many of the slaves as they could identify who participated in the revolt. They beheaded about 100 of them, put their heads on poles, dangled their dismembered corpses from the gates of New Orleans. And then in newspaper accounts and letters, they wrote about these brigands. They described them as guilty as criminals.
RASMUSSENBecause by calling them criminals, they were able to assert not only the power and justice of their legal system, but to pretend that the slaves in their goals were simply criminals rather than political revolutionaries, which is what they really were.
REHMBut were there any trials? You talked about trial records.
RASMUSSENThere were indeed. There were a set of court trials, but these were court trials meant with a very specific purpose, Diane. They weren't meant to decide who was innocent or who was guilty or really what had happened. They were there to simply say, these men are guilty and they should be executed. And to provide through the sort of ritual of a court trial to reassure the planters of its supremacy of their own power. But also, their righteousness after you behead 100 people, after your fill the river road for 40 miles outside of New Orleans with heads on poles. I think there is a need to say, we're not the savages, you know, we are rightful, we are the just ones. And the law says that this is the punishment for a slave revolt.
REHMHow many did those within the slave revolt kill along the way?
RASMUSSENYou know, they only killed two white planters and that's because almost as soon as the revolt began, there were also betrayals. The fastest way to earn your freedom in slave society was not to participate in a revolt, but to betray one. The planters made that clear that the reward for betraying a revolt was freedom. And so as soon as the revolt began, slaves began warning their masters. So even though roughly, you know, 25 percent of the slaves or 30 percent of the slaves on the German coast outside of New Orleans participated, there were a few, a small number, who told their masters, the slaves are coming. And so the masters evacuate. They head for the city in droves. There were traffic jams miles long heading into New Orleans of planters fleeing the slave revolt.
RASMUSSENSo the slaves were able to force the evacuation of about 30 miles of territory, the richest most profitable sugar plantation in all of America at the time, to force the outer evacuation, to take control of it and the planters fled and they were grouped in the city. And I mentioned Manuel Andre, who they let escape, and he actually leads a planter militia, gathers them above the slave army.
RASMUSSENSo as the slave army moves towards New Orleans, towards the American military, which as I mentioned before was a weak detachment, the city's largely defenseless, but the planters come from behind and they catch the slaves. And so the slaves are not expecting to be flamed and they meet in this tremendous battle of canfields. And there's a Spanish spy who recounts it. And he said, the slaves were not intimidated by this army and they formed themselves in a line.
RASMUSSENThese men were not afraid. And not only were they not afraid, but they knew exactly the right thing to do for a military perspective, to form up in a firing line. They were sophisticated and they knew military tactics. Some of them were warriors from Africa, some had been influenced by the story of the Haitian revolution and some were Haitian themselves and they knew what to do and they were willing to die for their freedom.
REHMSo of the two to 500 of these slaves, how many were killed in that battle?
RASMUSSENHow many were killed in the battle? Probably 40 to 60. Again, the numbers range, were killed on the spot. Charles Deslondes, they chase into the swamps, they capture him, they shoot him in both thighs, chop off his limbs and then burn him alive.
REHMOh. And to others, the treatment was no less horrific.
RASMUSSENAbsolutely. You know, the punishment was decapitation, one's head on a pike.
REHMAnd everything sort of went back to normal for the plantation owners after that.
RASMUSSENWell, you know, it's interesting, Diane. It didn't go exactly back to normal. I think one of the big impacts of this revolt was -- the French planters had been very rebellious about their interactions with the Americans. They weren't particularly comfortable with William Claiborne, who was the governor. They accused him of not speaking French, of being ignorant to their customs of treating them like Native Americans or slaves and they were quite upset with the Americans and they said, you know, in the years leading up to this revolt, very uncertain about whether and how they would really fit into America, the United States. But after the revolt, the Speaker of the House of Representatives says, we will cling to the United States as an ark of safety.
RASMUSSENAnd so what you see here is this revolt forces the planters into the hands of the American military 'cause the American government are the ones that are willing to protect slavery here. They're the military force that is going to secure the planter's property and to prevent further revolts from happening. So it changes as a solidification of the white population. They come together because out of fear, really. And you can see the tremendous fear of the head of the salve rebels by their actions, right. You don't behead 100 people unless you are absolutely terrified.
REHMAnd at the same time, cementing that slave/master relationship.
RASMUSSENAbsolutely. The very idea of the slaves as political revolutionaries was so unsettling to the ideology of the planters, right. The whole basis of slavery is that these slaves are not people, that they're property, that they're chattel. And yet, these slaves are saying, no, not only are we not property, we are political revolutionaries. We are willing to fight and die for our freedom. And these slaves are heroes and they're martyrs, really, for that freedom. Standing up for, you know, ironically those greatest values of our country, for freedom, for equality and they're the ones fighting for it and it's us that suppresses them, it's the Americans.
REHMDo we know whether there were any women among those slaves who marched?
RASMUSSENNow, there's no evidence, so there's no female slaves named in the records, which isn't to say that they didn't participate. And so if you look at actually the documentation about other slave revolts, slave traders on slave ships said that the most dangerous voyages were the ones with the highest population of female slaves 'cause female slaves played a key role in organizing slave revolts. They shared information, they acted as messengers, they pressured their husbands and their sons into participating.
RASMUSSENAnd so that -- well, we don't have direct evidence of female participation. I have few doubts that women were central to the planning of this revolt. And when Charles Deslondes, actually, his movement up and down the coast, when he met with Kook and Quamana, one of his rationales was he was going to see his woman, his wife on another plantation.
REHMAnd his master was fine with that.
REHMDid your mouth drop open many, many times during this research?
RASMUSSENAbsolutely. I think the most shocking thing was the contrast between the stories I saw from Claiborne in the history books, which painted this either as an insignificant as the salves as criminals, and then to start reading about this. And especially as a 23-year-old guy, you know, to see the heroism of these men. And their political sophistication was just so striking. You know, and as I read about the tactics they used and followed the revolt and as I built up the pieces and I started to see tactically how effective and smart their strategies were and just how perfect their timing was. You know, and I was just so struck.
RASMUSSENAnd ultimately, Diane, one of the main takeaways I want people to have from my book is to realize how politically aware these slaves were, how sophisticated they were. And how they were able to organize and launch this revolt. And we should see this, I think, as one of the great moments that we should be proud of in American history. To be proud of these slaves and to claim them as, you know, great figures in American history, 'cause they were.
REHMI find myself wondering whether there are any descendents of those slaves that you might have come across.
RASMUSSENThere are and I was down in New Orleans last weekend and I met several of them, which was just an amazing experience for me. And, you know, what's remarkable, Diane, is that as forgotten as this revolt is outside of New Orleans, and even in the city of New Orleans, out on the German coast where this revolt actually happened, there have been people that have passed on this story for generations. There's a powerful oral history and the residence of the area have formed historical societies and organizations, assembled books of documents to commemorate and remember their own past. And now, even though everywhere else in the country this is totally forgotten, here it's a central part of the folklore and their family stories, which is really amazing.
REHMAbsolutely amazing. As you can imagine, we have many callers waiting. So let's open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Scottsdale, Ariz. and to Maleek (sp?). You're on the air, good morning.
MALEEKThank you, Diane. And I'd like to say to the author, you did a wonderful job by presenting America with a side of information that's truly lost. African Americans in this country need to have more of a sense of where they come from, who they are, so that they can develop a better perspective of who they are as people nowadays. I just wanted to say thank you for the research that you've done and the information that you've provided for African Americans to look into the history and develop a true understanding of where we can go to as a people.
REHMYeah, that last part is very important, Daniel.
RASMUSSENThank you so much. You know, well, it's really wonderful. You know, I think when I read about slavery when I was younger and when I read about the stories of African American past, I think often slaves are betrayed as victims. And today we feel ashamed and we feel guilty when we think about slavery. And when I wrote this book, I said, I want to change the tone in which we think about slaves and the way we think about slavery because we should be ashamed, we should feel guilty, but we should also celebrate what these slaves were able to achieve.
RASMUSSENKook and Quamana, Charles Deslondes, these were heroes, you know, they fought, I mean, and their story is really inspiring to me, especially as a young man. And I just want people to think about all that the slaves were able to accomplish in the face of such tremendous suppression.
REHMDaniel Rasmussen, his new book is titled "American Uprising." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Here's an e-mail from Claire in Oklahoma. She says, "I think the biggest reason why these important significant and still culturally relevant moments in history are swept aside is because they make us uncomfortable. Bring up topics we'd rather not discuss and forces to be honest with ourselves and each other about our prejudices."
RASMUSSENThat's absolutely right. You know, I think many people have felt very uncomfortable dealing with the legacy of slavery and with the legacy especially of this revolt. One of the most interesting things, I think, about is traveling to the plantation homes down south and especially the ones along the river road. I mean, you go into them they're beautiful homes and they're full of beautiful furniture and many of the ways I think people sought to remember these places and to preserve them is to think about the masters and all of that they achieved. But what they achieved actually was nothing. I mean, the...
REHMCouldn't have happened.
RASMUSSENIt could not have happened and one slave owner says, without slaves, the cultivation of our fields would just disappear and the river would resume its empire over our abandoned habitations. Slavery built New Orleans, slavery built the south, slavery built much of the economic wealth that today we see in America. You know, cotton, for example, accounted for the majority of American exports through 1930. You know, you think about just the power of these slave plantations and these planters.
RASMUSSENAnd so coming to grips with, for example, Jean Noel Destrehan is one of the most interesting French planters, who sat inside of his home eating five-course meals, looking out the window at the beheaded corpses of slaves that he himself had killed. You know, how do you reconcile, you know, that tremendous wealth and sophistication with such complete savagery?
REHMTo Tizer (sp?) in Hollywood, Md. Good morning, you're on the air.
REHMYes, sir. Go right ahead.
TIZEROkay, Ms. Diane Rehm. I listen to you all the time.
REHMI'm so glad.
TIZERI’m a Korean war vet and I happened to be born and raised in Colfax, La. and New Orleans, too, but we had a large -- one of the first slave rebellions right there at the depot, right at the railroad tracks in Colfax, La. And I'd also like to inject why is it that we can put the Japanese in an encampment during World War II and a few years later, give them reparations, but we've been in slavery all these years you know of and they won't even consider us getting reparations?
REHMWhat do you think about that, Daniel?
RASMUSSENYou know, well, I'm a historian, not a politician and so it's hard for me to answer those sorts of questions, but I think the first step is to reconcile with our past and to learn these forgotten stories, to learn about Colfax, not only the slave revolt that happened there, but the later race riots and massacre that happened there right after the Civil War. And to learn about things like the 18 -- this is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, but it's also the Bicentennial of this 1811 revolt. And so I think, you know, as we go through this year and we start to reflect on the Civil War and American past, I think we also need to deal with slavery and the truth and realities of slave revolt.
RASMUSSENInterestingly enough, the fear of slave revolt was one of the things that most pushed the south towards rebellion. The South Carolina Ordinance of Succession sites, domestic insurrection is one of the final and most important reasons they leave the Union. What do they mean by domestic insurrection? The fear that northerners are going to foment and support slave revolt and they look at John Brown and they said, this is what's going to happen to us.
RASMUSSENAnd they say, the south is going to become like Haiti with black slaves revolting and taking over political leadership. And so, you know, I think that we need to deal with slavery and those stories. The stores of the slaves, the stores of Charles Deslondes, of Kook and Quamana and the many other slave revolutionaries that participated in order to start to understand the complexities of our past.
REHMDaniel Rasmussen, we're talking about his new book, which tells the untold story of America's largest slave revolt. The book is titled, "American Uprising."
REHMWelcome back. As we talk about the slave rebellion of 1811, here's an e-mail from Ignatius who says, "It seems to me that significant should be defined by concrete achievements. The Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916 is a good example of a failed uprising that inspired greater convulsions of freedom. It seems to me there is no such measurable significance in this case of American uprising. A great story, but this book seems to be patent revisionism." What do you say, Daniel?
RASMUSSENWell, Diane, I think that we have to deal with the possibility of some events, right? For example, the plot to assassinate Hitler in Germany, right? It didn't succeed, but does that make it any less important? And I think what it shows is the possibility of these historical contingencies and just what might have happened. Could the slave revolt have succeeded? Absolutely. Haiti, you know, the Haitian slaves defeat 80,000 troops led by Napoleon Bonaparte, right, the greatest general in all of European history. So what's to think that these slaves could not have succeeded had they not been flanked, had they fought those 68 regular troops in the swamps or in the cane fields could they have succeeded? Absolutely.
RASMUSSENAnd I think that the 100 heads on pikes really speaks to me about the impact of this revolt because you don't put a 100 heads on pikes unless you're terrified and unless you are very, very afraid of what could have happened. And so I think that the possibility, the contingency, is incredibly important. But I also do think that this revolt did serve as an inspiration. And you think fast forward to 1860, what happens?
RASMUSSENWell, the Emancipation Proclamation doesn't free the slaves in the cane fields of Louisiana. In fact, those parishes are specifically excepted from the Emancipation Proclamation. But what happens, the slaves on these plantations rise up, they refuse to work, they join in with the United States military, they fight with the Union army against the Confederates and they win their own emancipation. So even though the story takes another 50 years to play out, the slaves ultimately do succeed in winning their freedom.
REHMBill in Independence, Va. asks, "How did the slaves maintain secrecy about the rebellion over a period of years? Usually those things leak out."
RASMUSSENAbsolutely. You know, I think that one of the reasons they were able to is the utter brutality of these plantations, average life span seven years on one of these plantations for someone brought over from Africa. So, you know, you're going to die anyway. The question is whether in slow torture in the cane fields or, you know, in this striking gambit in the hopes of freedom. And so, you know, I think the slaves really emphasized with -- obviously, with the emotions and the goals of this uprising. So how are they able to maintain their secrecy? Well, again, we don't have records or letters from the slaves, so we have to extrapolate from other slave revolts.
RASMUSSENTypically, a way slave revolt would be organized would be a series of headmen, they were called. So these 11 separate leaders would have been those leaders who would recruit inner circles of people that they really trusted. And they would make them swear oaths to the primal powers of fire and lightening, according to one description. And then, once those sort of insurrectionary cells were organized up and down the German coast along these 40 miles from New Orleans out to the coast, then, you know, the leaders would travel back and forth communicating amongst each other. So it was really done sort of in its cellular way -- small groups organized up and down and then communicating through the headmen and through those leaders.
REHMBut then, unfortunately, those slaves loyal to their masters did know what was happening. How did they find out?
RASMUSSENSo they find out right on the morning of the revolt.
RASMUSSENSo it is -- and I think this is one of the most amazing things that our listeners pointed out just how sophisticated these slaves must have been to organize 200 to 500 slaves without a single person leaking it. So that's just a tremendous achievement in and of itself, but what happens right when the revolt occurs is that, you know, the German coast is abuzz with rumor, right? These slaves are constantly moving up and down the coast. They're the messengers the carriage people, the delivery men, the traders. And as they move up and down the coast they hear about this revolt and the first thing they do they tell other slaves in the slave quarters. So the information just goes like wildfire the minute the revolt starts.
REHMAnd then the slave owners find out and then comes the next step. To Carl on Long Island, good morning, you're on the air.
CARLYes, good morning and thank you, Diane.
CARLI have a great appreciation for your guests work, but I have to ask, why do we constantly refer to slaves? Again, I've heard this mentioned before on your program. You know, they were people, they were human beings, they were -- the great majority of them, were African and they were used in this barbaric way and we constantly refer to them as slaves. Doesn't that continue the idea of slavery when you use your words in that way?
RASMUSSENYou know, point taken. I think we should probably refer to them as, you know, enslaved people or as, you know, people caught under the conditions of servitude or whatever it might be. And certainly, throughout the book, my goal is to look at the humanity of these people to see the story from their perspective and as much as possible to destroy those stereotypes. But just using an abbreviated description I agree it can be politically troubling, but I think ultimately, the story of this just speaks to the power of these men to resist slavery and to fight back.
REHMHow did you feel in the recent reading of the Constitution at the opening of Congress when those portions of the Constitution relating to our past history of slavery, enslavement and apportioned people? How did you feel about that?
RASMUSSENYou know, well, it's, I think, probably just another moment of historical amnesia. It's hard for people to know how to deal with these events, how to think about them. But America was founded as a slave country and, I think, oftentimes we think about the American Revolution and we think about Massachusetts. But Virginia was equally important, if not more important, in leading the revolt. And one of the reasons that the Virginians rebelled was a, they wanted more slave territory, so they wanted to push west to extend their plantations and b, King George had actually threatened to use black troops and there was nothing more frightening to a slave planter than the idea of armed black men.
RASMUSSENAnd so the final grievance listed in the Declaration of Independence -- so the Declaration of Independence is a list of grievances building up to the most important is that the King has incited domestic insurrections among us, that language familiar, right? It's reused in other, you know, about 80 years later when South Carolina secedes from the Union the fear is the same domestic insurrection -- slave revolt. It's right there. And that's one of the reasons that the South decides to join with Massachusetts and the rest of the states of the Union to secede from the British.
REHMYou graduated from Harvard in 2009. Tell me how your professor reacted to your first -- our discovery then your interest and then your intense following of this story.
RASMUSSENAbsolutely. Well, my professors were incredibly wonderful. I worked with such a great group, Henry Louis Gates, Drew Faust, Susan O'Donovan, Vincent Brown, Walter Johnson. I mean, Harvard just has such an incredible faculty and I was so lucky to work with them. And they, you know, worked me every step of the way, reading drafts, helping me think about things, pushing my boundaries. Often one of the best ways was just to think about the perspectives that I was working on. So, you know, rather than thinking about New Orleans as an American city to think about it as an imperial colony that's closer culturally to Cuba or to Haiti than it was to Charleston or Virginia and so I couldn't have had a better academic experience.
REHMI'm glad. To Raleigh, N.C. and Robin, good morning, you're on the air.
ROBINYes, good morning. I am a professional storyteller and I am known for my Cajun storytelling. I was curious as to how it is that this could have gotten out when I was born and raised in New Orleans and never heard any of this. I wonder if he's been in contact with the Louisiana history people and put this in the books now.
RASMUSSENI'm working on it. And my goal is that, you know, at the end of this year that this revolt will be in every textbook, every Louisiana history textbook, every American history textbook and that we will recognize this as a central moment in the history of New Orleans and the South. When I was down in New Orleans, I actually spoke to an elementary school and the teachers there said that they were shocked, that this wasn't in their Louisiana history textbooks and it's not. And so one of the things I'm going to be working on is getting in touch with the people that write the textbooks and trying to share this story with them as much as possible.
REHMGood for you.
RASMUSSENTo make sure that that's in the books.
REHMTo Terry in Salt Lake City, good morning.
TERRYYeah, hi, first of all, congratulations. I think got the basic material for a PhD dissertation there. I'm wondering how large was the militia contingent that faced these people? And I'm wondering how things got into court records if slaves were pretty much property and had no rights? How did this stuff end up in the courts?
RASMUSSENYep. So the militia troop was about 40 to 60 men. In terms of how this got into the court records so the planters dragged the slaves into the plantation of John Newell Destrehan and they bring them up into the second floor parlor and they start to interrogate them. And what they're asking the slaves to do is to denounce each other. And so the court transcript actually reads, the slaves denounced each other for capital crimes including arson, pillaging, murder, revolt, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
RASMUSSENSo when I describe a court trial, you know, their use -- that's the planters use of the words et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, indicate just how casually they took, you know, what exactly the slaves had done. The goal of these trials, once again, to assert the legality and power of the planters and to say we're justified, we're right and these men are just criminals.
REHMTerry, does that answer it?
TERRYWell, thank you very much.
REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for calling. And here is a query from Gerald who says, "The Wall Street Journal review of your book suggested that you drew too -- on too many -- sorry, that you drew too many contemporary conclusions from your historical study. What was the reviewer referring to and do you care to comment?"
RASMUSSENAbsolutely. You know, I think one of the things I try to do in my book is to put the revolt in context. And to say this is what happened in New Orleans in 1811 on those cane fields. But we can't understand really what happened in New Orleans in 1811 without understanding the broader context of slavery. And without understanding the legacy and what impact, not just the revolt, but the system of slavery has in the next 50 years. And I think one of the main questions people have when they hear about this revolt is, you know, what was -- how did this impact the Civil War or how does this relate to American expansion? And so I was trying to put it into context and I hope that I achieved that.
REHMAnd here's another from Paul in Grand Rapids, Mich. who says, "When I wrote my undergrad thesis, I was given a single semester and four other classes worth of homework to work with. How long did you have to do this research and where on earth as an undergrad did you find the time?"
RASMUSSEN(laugh) Well, I was a bit of a nerd. I spent six hours a day or so in the library for about a year and a half every day working on this and traveled to the American Antiquarian Society and the National Archives, the historic New Orleans collection in New Orleans and all over.
REHMBut how did you do your other class work in other areas?
RASMUSSENYou know, somehow I found the time, Diane, and then so it took me a year and a half of research and writing to produce the thesis and then another year and a half to take the thesis and to turn it into the book.
REHMDaniel Rasmussen and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go to Scottsville, Va. Ivy, good morning, you're on the air.
IVYGood morning. I have a question about the Spanish spy. Who was he? What was he doing there? And where did you get the information, you know, the text that he produced? And I'll take my call off the air. Thank you very much.
RASMUSSENSo New Orleans was a very motley place. There was only 10 percent of the population, at the time, was Anglo-American and the rest were French and Spanish. And French and Spanish had variously controlled the city over the past 50 years. And the Spanish at the time, if you think about it, controlled everywhere from present-day Florida all the way around to Alabama, Texas, Mexico, Cuba. So New Orleans was not really in the center of America or the United States, it was in the center of the Spanish empire. So the Spanish had spies and emissaries there keeping track. They were also fighting a war with the Americans over western Florida or Baton Rouge.
RASMUSSENAnd the spy there is writing back to the ambassador in Cuba reporting to him what's happening, American troop movements, the security of New Orleans all the time so the Spanish have an idea of how to govern their territory. And I found that document, actually, in the historic New Orleans collection down in New Orleans.
REHMSo what you're saying is that this Spanish spy had home ties to his own government and had infiltrated this group of slaves?
RASMUSSENOh, no. Sorry.
RASMUSSENHe hadn't infiltrated the group of slaves, he was just an observer in the city writing down the reports of what had happened.
REHMBut he was not one of the informers?
RASMUSSENNo, no, no.
RASMUSSENHe was -- no, no.
REHMAll right. Now, two questions an e-mail from J.D. who says, "The date 1811 was mentioned as long before the Civil War, but it was only months before the war with Britain in 1812. Is -- is there any indication that the slave revolt was supported or incited, even in part, by the British?"
RASMUSSENThere is no evidence to suggest that the British had any role inciting the revolt, but I wouldn't be surprised if the slaves were aware of the tensions between Britain and America at the time. But I certainly think that the biggest relationship to the War of 1812 is the Battle of New Orleans, which happens on the same cane fields just a few years later. And what happens the American military, together with the French planters, you know, they're united at this point, fight the British and mow them down just like blades of grass, is one description. And so, you know, one way, I think, that that's an impact to the revolt is the unity of the planters and the American troops to fight back the British threat.
RASMUSSENAnd another, I think, is important when we think about the possibility and contingency of history, which is if the planters and the American military are able to defeat the British like blades of grass, right, you know, I think that we can maybe give the slaves a little bit more credit for the strength of their own army, right? You know, the British met the same fate just a few years later.
REHMDaniel Rasmussen, his new book is titled, "American Uprising: The Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt." I want to congratulate you. Good luck.
RASMUSSENThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for being here. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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