September 9, 2016
“Liberty!” “Liberty!” The slaves marched down the road to the beat of drums with shouts of “liberty” in their voices, but with anger in their hearts and blood on their hands. While the local whites were preparing for their Sunday worship, a group of 20 slaves began the day of the Lord with violence.
Rumors of a British and Spanish war had been circulating around the colonies for months. Wanting to cause unrest in the English colonies, the Spanish spread word that any slave escaping to St. Augustine, Florida, would be given freedom and land.
At the same time, the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly passed the Security Act of 1739. Up until this point, whites left their firearms at home as they worshipped on Sundays. Slaves were also free to work for themselves on the Lord’s Day. As the African slave population began to greatly outnumber the slave owners, several of whom were black themselves, a fear of slave uprisings grew. The new act addressed this concern, requiring whites to now carry their guns to church. Anyone not complying would be risking a fine. Slaves saw the new law as a hostile act towards the already oppressed people.
The rebel slaves were educated in Portuguese and Catholicism in their native home of Angola, Africa, as well as trained in military skills. Attracted to the Spanish culture, the group decided they were going to Florida. They met before dawn on September 9, 1739, at Stono River in St. Paul’s Parish, South Carolina. Less than twenty miles southwest from Charles Town (Charleston), they were just over 200 miles from their destination. Their first objective was guns and powder. They headed straight towards Hutcheson’s Store where they not only stole their supplies, they murdered the two shopkeepers.
The men continued their march south, raiding plantations, murdering whites and burning homes as they went. They spared no one, whether man, woman, or child, except one. It was well known Wallace's Tavern’s innkeeper treated his slaves with kindness. Because of this, the rebels spared his life and business.
Over the next six homes, the group continued their crusade of death and destruction. Along the way they recruited more Negros eager to support their cause. Others were forced. The slaves of Thomas Rose hid him as the rebels descended upon the estate. Unable to find Mr. Rose, they continued on only after pressuring his slaves to join their rebellion.
By 11 o’clock that morning the group had more than doubled to fifty. Any whites stumbled upon were chased and slaughtered with no remorse. One man, Lieutenant Governor Bull, was able to evade capture and ride for help.
The rebel slaves had traveled over ten miles by late afternoon. Now 60 to 100 strong, they stopped for rest in a field close to the Edisto River. Bull and the militia caught up to the escaped slaves, who fire two shots. The militia returned fire, killing fourteen while the rebels killed about twenty militia. Within a few hours, roughly 15 more slaves were taken down with at least another 30 escaping. Over the next month, most of those slaves were captured and executed. All but one were eventually caught within six months. Any slave believed to have been forcibly part of the rebel group was spared their life. Slaves who helped try to stop or capture a rebel was rewarded, some even with freedom.
As a result of the Stono Rebellion, the largest in the British colonies, Southern whites passed laws removing any rights slaves had up until this point.
When Africans were first brought to the Americas, though they were brought against their will, they were bought as indentured servants, not slaves. In fact, they were outnumbered by white Irish servants and considered much more valuable than their Caucasian counterparts. These Africans were educated and taught a trade as it was known they would be released into society following seven years of service. Even after Anthony Johnson, an African and former indentured servant, sued to become the first legal slave owner in the Americas, many still continued their practice of allowing slaves certain freedoms. Once the violent rebellions began, any freedoms left to the slaves were extinguished. (see .)
South Carolina quickly passed the Negro Act followed by Black Codes in other states. These laws eliminated a slave’s liberty to grow their own food, earn their own money, assemble, play loud instruments, and most importantly, learn to read. While some of these privileges were already illegal in several states, they were rarely enforced. Now, they were strictly imposed. (see )
Whites began to believe it would be easier to control the slaves and prevent rebellions if they were born already enslaved, without any taste or knowledge of freedom. For ten years states restricted the slave trade in the English colonies. The practice of breeding slaves became as prominent as buying them.
Other laws made it impossible for slaves to be set free, or manumitted. State laws made it illegal for men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to free their slaves. As much as they abhorred slavery and believed that “All men are created equal,” the State of Virginia made it unlawful for them to release the slaves they inherited from their families. When Virginia revised its law in 1782, it required any freed slaves to leave the state within a year. Lawmakers did not want free blacks living in the state as it would again encourage slaves to rise up and demand their own freedom. Jefferson believed his hands were still tied. Not wanting to separate families by forcing his slaves to leave the only home they ever knew, Jefferson refrained from freeing his slaves.
Some good did come from the rebellion, though the motives may have been questionable or misguided. Lawmakers recognized that slave-owners and masters who were too cruel to their slaves would give cause for more uprisings. Laws restricting the harsh treatment of slaves were passed with penalties attached for violators. The South Carolina legislature also started a school to teach Christian doctrine to the slaves.
Liberty, the Negro Acts and stricter laws that followed due to the rebellions were as despicable as slavery itself. But as Christ teaches, we are suppose to fight these battles with love, not revenge. Martin Luther King Jr. eloquently demonstrated this during the 1960’s Civil Rights battle. He proved that these fights are won, not with bullets and bloodshed, but with a silent strength, displayed with firm kindness and humility.
As Solomon tells us in Ecclesiastes, there is “a time for war and a time for peace.” Would America’s history with slavery have been different if these cultured Africans had used their education and trades to their benefit to abolish slavery instead of resorting to violence and retribution? Instead of proving to the white man that blacks are their equal, they ended up cementing the white man’s bigotry and racist belief that blacks are inferior and need to be restrained.
Slave owners at the time also insisted slaves were content in their circumstances. Many argue rebellions, such as the Stono Rebellion, showed the slave owners that the slaves were in fact not happy in their station. It displayed their hunger for freedom and liberty. While there is some truth to that, the violent uprisings also verified to the slave owners that the Negro population could not be left to their own accord. They must be confined and controlled because if left to their own free will, they would be as savage and animalistic as they were in these raids.
If a group is oppressed, whether racially, politically or religiously, and made to believe they don’t have a voice, eventually that group will rise up. Everyone deserves to have their own opinion, even if you don’t agree with it. Many African-Americans praise slave rebellions to the extent that it shows their ancestors fighting the tyranny of slavery.
Rebellions do have their place. America was formed from a Revolution. Comparing it to the French Revolution, it shows the two paths rebels can take. America worked with the British government for twenty years before finally taking up arms. Her fighters were not trained soldiers, but people yearning to be free. France, on the other hand, was out to avenge their oppressors. The two leaders, George Washington and Maximillien Robespierre, displayed the rebellious options between freedom and revenge. The same struggle occurred between King and Malcolm X followers (see , and to a lesser extent, between Cruz and Trump supporters.
Black Lives Matter (BLM) is also going down the road of rebellion. They have raided and destroyed businesses in their own communities, bankrupting their own people. They target white students on college campuses across the country, even ostracizing those supportive of their cause. The movement turned radical after members murdered police officers just because they are wearing a uniform. Instead of bringing positive attention to their issues, the revengeful actions of some forced many to distance themselves from the movement.
Liberty, these episodes in American history are not glorifying for anyone. It is important that we continue to study, dissect and learn from our nation’s past so we will not repeat them.
That’s my 2 cents.
THE COST OF REBELLION