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Violent Visions

by dan on December 31, 2010

American Uprising began as my senior thesis at Harvard; Violent Visions; Slaves, Sugar, and the 1811 German Coast Uprising.  I thought I’d share the thesis here online (Click here to download: VIOLENT_VISIONS).  I wrote Violent Visions in a different style than American Uprising. I think of it as the google maps version of the story and my book as the google street view version; one is very zoomed out and academic (but hopefully not too dry) the other tries to bring the action to the reader.   Both the thesis and the book rely on extensive primary and secondary source research, which I wanted to share more about. 

I spent two years researching the revolt  in archives in New Orleans, Washington, DC, and Massachusetts, and I compiled an authoritative collection of primary and secondary sources, including many never-before-studied letters and court records.  The problem that scholars investigating the 1811 revolt face is that the easy sources – the letters and newspaper accounts – are also the most biased and the most charged with political purpose.  The planters and the American officials had a significant incentive to downplay the slaves’ achievements while glorifying their own power and the strength of their reaction.  To get the true story, you have to start working with more difficult sources; planter ledgers and wills, runaway advertisements, diplomatic correspondence, court transcripts, and legal records.  These sources provide fragmentary information, much of it in list form.  For example, a planter ledger might note a slave, the slave’s age, his occupation on the farm, and the cause of death.  The court transcript might say something along the lines of; “Robin denounces Quamana as an infamous brigand.”  These lists are difficult to process. 

To deal with this fragmentary information,  I built two Excel databases of information about the slaves that participated in the uprising – their backgrounds, occupations, and physical descriptions.  I used these electronic databases to process and understand exactly what had happened and where.  I mapped this information onto early 19th century land ownership maps and used tools like Google Maps to figure out how long it would take to get from one place to the other.  Slowly but surely, I built out the chronological narrative – when and where slaves had joined the uprising, what they had done and when and where they did it, just who had participated.

What emerged was a story very different from that the planters attempted to write – a story about slave who were able to organize a truly massive insurrection and come very close to succeeding. But to hear more about this, you’ll have to read the book…

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