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How the Tides Almost Turned

by Jacob Herr about a year ago in history · updated 3 months ago

The 1811 Louisiana Slave Revolt, that You Have Probably Never Heard Of

They came off the boats to a world they never could imagine. Some called this southern land of swamps and Spanish moss their home from birth, while others derived from another continent, across the ocean. However, the one thing that these people did have in common was their status as human capital; animate tools for the institution of slavery, which fueled the economies of every nation which claimed the land as theirs; from France, to Spain, to France (again), and finally to the United States. The prosperity of an ethnic minority would be built and supported, for generation after generation in this region until the end of the Civil War, by the toil, complacency, and suffering of enslaved Africans; people with virtually no sense of freedom or enfranchisement in a nation conceived in the Enlightenment ideas of liberal democracy, personal liberty, and equality for all. Yet, for one brief moment, this system of morally putrid exploitation, would be violently challenged and bear the potential of stipulating the power of American expansion. In January of 1811, 500 slaves of Louisiana’s German Coast (an agricultural region dominated by plantation homes and sugar cane fields) rose up in defiant rebellion against their masters and nearly took New Orleans for themselves; to become a center for an independent black republic. Yet, this was by no means an anarchic act of racial resistance created in the heat of the moment. Rather, it was a masterfully organized, ingeniously calculated, and strategically planned effort to undermine the slave-owning class and reinforce such Enlightenment ideas into a full and legitimate practice. This is the story of the Louisiana Revolt of 1811.

Raising of the American, in the Place d'Armes. Thure de Thulstrup (1904).

For a sense of historical exposition, the territory of Louisiana was a metaphorical step child of numerous colonial powers (from the Kingdom of France, to the Kingdom of Spain, to the Napoleonic Empire, to the United States under the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.). By 1811, American presence in the New Orleans region was in a state of cultural unease and political friction. The territorial governor, a Virginian by the name of William Claiborne, acted as the primary and most ardent advocate of such cultural transition and strengthening, much to the disdain of the French and Spanish creole families who called this region their home for almost a century prior. For they viewed the incoming Americans as unrefined and grotesque; while the Americans saw their French/Spanish counterparts as shallow and avaricious. Such a frictions became so strongly oppositional that the city of New Orleans itself was geographically divided by these two groups along modern day Canal Street. The north side was (and still is) referred to as the French Quarter for the homes of the creole dandies; meanwhile the city south of Canal Street would be home to the “Yankee Yeomen”. Yet, as these two factions squabbled for cultural control of city life and politics, another spectacle was rumbling west of the city limits; in the sugarcane fields of the German Coast, along the Mississippi River. While the slavers and their families prepared for the upcoming carnival season, they shrugged aside the fact that their slaves were meeting clandestinely with other slaves from differing plantations and fresh arrivals from West Africa. They paid no mind to their “under-breath” conversations amidst the dances at Congo Square. Never would they ever imagine that their slaves, whom they views as nothing more than living property, could hoodwink them and take them by surprise. Enter Charles Deslondes.


Contemporary Rendering of Charles Deslondes.

Born into slavery in Saint Domingue (now, modern day Haiti) and later working as an overseer on the Woodland Plantation of Louisiana, Charles Deslondes found himself in a more tolerant position in contrast to the rest of the enslaved on the plantation. Since he was the product of a white father and a black mother, Deslondes was classified by the Code Noir system (used to classify social status based on differing tones of skin color) as a “creole mulatto”; therefore allowing him to be used by the owner of the Woodland Plantation, Manuel Andry, as an overseer of 85 other slaves under his ownership; drafting out daily work schedules and carrying out punishments to other slaves who refused to work. Such tasks made him labeled a lapdog in the eyes of the world around him. Nothing more or less than a cruel and privileged “right hand man” to Andry; simply because of the lighter tone of his skin. Though, all of that would change in the fall of 1810, when Deslondes befriended three other slaves. One was a fellow mulatto (a Virginia carpenter) named Harry Kenner, while the other two were recent arrivals from the Asante Empire (in modern day Ghana), known only by the first names of “Quamana” and “Kook”. Through their friendship, Deslondes taught them about his experiences growing up in Saint Domingue; witnessing the militant turmoil of the Haitian Revolution and the creation of an all black republic under such men as Toussaint Louverture & Jean Jaques Dessalines. Such whispers of discontent and revolutionary fervor was like music to the ears of these fellow slaves and together, they formed a grand conspiracy, using their West African warrior experience and their French Creole political subterfuge to slowly and meticulously sow the seeds of rebellion. 


Revenge Taken by the Black Army for the Cruelties of the French. Marcus Rainsford (1805).

Several months later, in January, 1811, a fierce tempest brought heavy rainfall to the region. All the carriage roads and walking trails transformed into lengthy mud holes, and prevented any work to be done by the slaves of the German Coast. The conspirators grew more and more restless after each day. By January 8th, with the beginning of the carnival season, word was spread throughout the plantations that now was the time to strike and begin their fight for freedom. Certainly the timing was by no means, accidental, or even driven by a lack of patience. It just so happened that at the time, Governor Claiborne has deployed most of the militia and federal troops to Baton Rouge; in order to secure the proper annexation of Spanish West Florida to the U.S. (nowadays the souther tips of Mississippi and Alabama) and leaving the city of New Orleans vulnerable. In the evening hours of the day, Deslondes, Kenner, Quamana, and Kook, as well a s group of 20 to 30 other slaves, entered Manuel Andry’s home on the Woodland Plantation. They steadily crept through the house, armed with knives, axes, pitchforks, and machetes, amidst the flashes of lightning and loud roars of thunder. When a random roar of thunder awoke Andry in his bed, he looked up to see his own overseer, with a thirst for blood. Quickly he jumped out of his bed and narrowly escaped the house, now riddled with attackers; all of them lashing out with their weapons. Manuel made it outside in one piece and made his way across the Mississippi River to the homes of all his plantation neighbors, crying out that his slaves were revolting. Yet a much different fate was in store for his son, Gilbert. Deslondes’ group made their way to the next room, and hacked away at him, until his body was nothing more than a heap of flesh and bone. Afterwards, the rebels made they way into the basement of the plantation, where an arsenal of pikes, swords, guns, ammunition, drums, and militia uniforms. For this rebellion would no longer be a simple-minded horde of libertines driven by revenge. This would be an organized army of uniformed maroons with a clear and concentrated political goal. 
As the sun rose on January 9th, the slave army commenced to march along the riverbed towards the city, chanting war cries in English & French of “On to New Orleans! En route pour la Nouvelle-Orléans!”, “Freedom or death! Liberté ou mort!” and “We’re going to end to end slavery! Nous allons mettre fin à l’esclavage!”.

On to Orleans!. L. J. Bridgman (1888).

The further they marched and chanted, more and more slaves fled from the plantations, setting them aflame and falling in with whatever weapons they could get their hands on; growing to a size of approximatley 500 insurgents under the command of Deslondes and his comrades. As word of the revolt spread, the planters and creole dandies fled for the city. Though not all of them were alarmed by the matter. One of them in particular was François Trépagnier; renown for his unique sense of cruelty towards his slaves. A perfect example was of his slave, Gustav. A young boy which François treated like a pet dog; chaining him up to the side of the wall, inside his home, and feeding him leftover scraps of food from family meals. When Trépagnier was warned to flee his home and into the city for safety, he scoffed at the oncoming rebel army, and proceeded to sit along his porch in a rocking chair, and shoot at them with a blunderbuss (no different than if he were out duck hunting). When Kook discovered what was happening, he independently made his way into Trépagnier’s house from the back door, found him, and dug an axe into his head. 


William C. C. Claiborne, Governor of Louisiana.
Wade Hampton. Brigadier General of the United States Army.

As refugees fled into New Orleans, panic began to set in and Governor Claiborn had to act quickly. He issued a 6:00 PM curfew for all black residents and ordered the immediate closure of all the taverns, gambling halls, and brothels, within the city limits. With the city on lockdown, he then assembled a force of 180 volunteers, militia, and U.S. Army soldiers under the command of himself as well as Brigadier General Wade Hampton; a Revolutionary War veteran from South Carolina, who also happened to come from a family dynasty of slave owners. Together, they marched out to confront the rebels, outnumbered, nearly five to one. By nightfall the Americans reached the Kenner & Henderson Plantation (a place where the Louis Armstrong Airport stands today) only to find Deslondes’ army encamped for the night. Claiborne and Hampton prepared their men for an ambush. Yet, when the orders were given to open fire and charge with fixed bayonets into the plantations grounds, they found nothing. The entire area was abandoned by the rebels. Within only a few minutes of time, the slaves had retreated. Objectively it is easy to conclude that the slaves retreat of the Kenner & Henderson Plantation in the face of a numerically smaller enemy could be concluded with a lack of military discipline on the part of Deslondes, Kenner, Quamana, and Kook. Yet, since Quamana & Kook were former warriors of the Asante Empire, their decision to fall back and regroup was actually based in a West African military tactic of arousing their enemy to fight against a force that isn’t even where they assume to be; allowing them to slip away to another position. Kook & Quamana must have taught this tactic to Charles Deslondes, inciting him to act on their advice and perhaps lure the Americans into an area where they could claim victory under better circumstances. 


While the slaves began their retreat in search of better ground to fight the soldiers and militia, Manuel Andry was planning a reprisal across the river. With another face of 80 volunteers, Andry cross the river back to the German Coast on the morning of January 10th, and as they reached the Bernadette Plantation, they commenced a flanking maneuver of the slave army’s rear guard. Soon the bulk of Deslondes’ rebels faced off against Andry and his men with the ringing of blades and whizzing of musket balls. This clash would prove most pivotal in the course of the entire rebellion. By having Andry’s force hold their ground at the Bernadette Planatation, it allowed time for Claiborne and Hampton to close in on the enemy from the opposite direction. Deslondes was practically surrounded, with Andry at his front, Claiborne and Hampton at his back, and the Mississippi River at his side. Within only a few minutes of combat, the rebels ran out of ammunition for their guns and their morale quickly crumbled. With the whites in no mood for mercy, they routed the slaves and massacred every black person they could find. Only 25 rebels were taken alive as prisoners. Among them, the Asante warriors, Kook & Quamana. As for Harry Kenner, his fate is unknown to this very day. Yet most people believe he was killed in the clash between the slaves and the planters. 
With his fellow conspirators dead and captured, Charles Deslondes and any surviving rebels fled north into the bayous. As roaming bands of planters and soldiers combed the swamps with horses and packs of dogs. After two days of searching Charles Deslondes was finally discovered and delivered to Manuel Andry. In revenge for his murdered son, Andry proceeded to hack off Deslondes’ arms, break his thighs, shot him square in the chest, and roast him atop a flaming pile of straw.

Over the next few days, Kook & Quamana were tried for insurrection and murder in a makeshift court, at one of the surviving plantations. When asked about the death of François Trépagnier, Kook proudly stood before the court and proudly took responsibility for his murder, for which he would pay the consequences of it with his own life alongside Quamana’s and surviving group of 100 other slaves. Governor Claiborne ordered them all to be executed. Yet rather than being given proper burials, he sought to make an example of the rabble; ordering the bodies to have their heads severed and proped up on pikes; dying in agony, with no assurance that one day emancipation would come for their people. No belief that one day, African Americans would become politically and socially enfranchised under the power of the Constitution; or even in the current time, would most of America support the idea of racial equality.

Painting of the Aftermath of the 1811 Slave Revolt. Lorraine Gendron.

The grotesque menagerie of severed slave heads would stretch out almost 40 miles, from the Woodland Plantation all the way to where Jackson Square and the St. Louis Cathedral stand today. Such a sight along the road to the city, acted as a grim reminder to the masses of enslaved of just exactly who owned whom and who wielded the real power in Louisiana. However, one could argue that the real victory of this struggle was not in the hands of the Creole planters and U.S. soldiers who physically put down the rebellion under Manuel Andry & Wade Hampton’s leadership. It would actually reside in the American politicians, who used the revolt as a means of leverage; strengthening the grip of power for themselves as well as their country’s. Following the revolt, Governor Claiborne wrote to the U.S. Secretary of War, William Eustis, requesting a permanent garrison of American soldiers in New Orleans, to protect the citizenry, but also to further enforce his political objectives. By 1812, Louisiana would become the 17th American state, and by 1815, Andrew Jackson’s decisive military victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans would permanently cement American cultural dominance in the region. The Big Easy may have remained ethnically French & Spanish, it would only grow to become one of Americas most important ports for immigration and economic commerce (even if such commerce included the nation’s largest slave market). 


Woodland Plantation Historical Marker.

In today’s time, the 1811 German Coat Uprising and it’s cultural aftermath remains relatively discarded in the realm of historical study. The names of Deslondes, Kenner, Kook, and Quamana have almost been lost for good, meanwhile the names of the slavers and political schemers of New Orleans, Andry, Claiborne, Trépagnier, and Hampton have been dedicated and remembered well, long after their passings (with streets and townships named after them). Even in the region itself, the German Coat Uprising has only been commemorated, permanently, on a historical marker along River Road; remembering the Woodland Plantation, first and foremost. the rebellion itself is only mentioned in one line of text on the entire placard. Yet, as time processes and social/political mentalities evolve, has this little known struggle for freedom become a rallying cry for historical revisionism and political activism. Historical author Daniel Rasmussen published a book in 2011, entitled American Uprising; a text almost 300 pages long detailing the history of the uprising and it’s importance for setting the true ground work for modern civil struggles. On November 8th & 9th of 2019, artist Dread Scott, organized a reenactment of the event, where hundreds of African American volunteers and participants reenacted the rebel army’s march along the river, wearing period costumes, and brandishing prop weapons; a piece of living theatre which showcased the agency of self determination and reevaluated what modern audiences think about slavery and how it is showcased both in Louisiana (with guided tours of plantation estates and weddings on plantation grounds) and across America; in the pages of academic textbooks and even on the silver screen (with the most recent release of Gone With the Wind on the streaming service, HBO Max, with an added scholarly introduction of historical context).

Front cover of Daniel Rasmussen's book American Uprising (2011).

Though, it must be made clear that for all those involved in this age old rebellion, now given new spirit and sense of purpose in contemporary time, that regardless of their status or their skin color, only in death have they all become free and equal. As sad a contextualization it may be, it is still brutally honest; much like a lot of human history. Yet we the people, all people, will always have the freedom and the power to make new history; writing new chapters for the world and the generations of people beyond our own, to study and make of it what they see fit.

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Jacob Herr

Born & raised in the American heartland, Jacob Herr graduated from Butler University with a dual degree in theatre & history. He is a rough, tumble, and humble artist, known to write about a little bit of everything.

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