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Story on the Daily Beast website

by dan on January 11, 2011

I published a story on the Daily Beast website about the 1811 revolt today.  In my next post, details of my trip down to New Orleans…

Two hundred years ago today, three slaves gathered in a small rundown cabin on a plantation about thirty miles upriver from New Orleans.   Charles Deslondes was the son of an enslaved woman and a French planter; Harry Kenner an unassuming 25-year-old carpenter; and Quamana a warrior captured in the militant Asante kingdom and imported to Louisiana. 

On January 8, 1811 these three brave men, along with eight other slave leaders, launched the largest slave revolt in American history, rallying an army of near 500 slaves to fight and die for freedom.  No slave revolt – not Nat Turner, not John Brown – has rivaled the great New Orleans slave revolt of 1811 either in terms of the number of participants or the number of slaves slaughtered in the aftermath. 

The revolt was meticulously planned, politically sophisticated, and ethnically diverse – and a fundamental challenge to the system of plantation slavery.  Dressed in military uniforms and chanting “On to New Orleans,” they rallied a rugged army of around 500 slaves to attempt to conquer the city, kill all its white inhabitants, and establish a black republic on the shores of the Mississippi.

In a dramatic battle in the cane fields, the slave army faced off against the twin forces of the American military and a hastily-assembled planter milita.  “The blacks were not intimidated by this army and formed themselves in line and fired for as long as they had ammunition,” wrote one observer. But the slaves’ ammunition did not last long, and the battle was brief.  Soon the planter militia broke the slave line and the slaughter began. 

The planters, supported by the American military, captured Charles Deslondes, chopped off his hands, broke his thighs, and then roasted him on a pile of straw.  Over the next few days, they executed and beheaded over 100 slaves, putting their heads on poles and dangling their dismembered corpses from the gates of New Orleans.  “Their Heads, which decorate our Levee, all the way up the coast…  look like crows sitting on long poles,” wrote one traveler.  The rotting corpses were grim reminders of who owned who – and just exactly where power resided.

The American officials and French planters  then sought to cover up the true story of the revolt, to dismiss the bold actions of the slave army as irrelevant and trivial, and write this massive uprising out of the record books.  They succeeded.  And, in doing so, they laid the groundwork for one of the most remarkable moments of historical amnesia in our national memory

The revolutionaries of 1811 were heroes who deserve a place in our national memory.  Their actions are a testament to the strength of the ideals of freedom and equality – and every man’s equal claim to those basic rights.  Their acts are an inspiration to all people who strive for freedom.  Today, on the 200th anniversary of the start of this great revolt, we must listen to their voices and study their stories, for only through understanding the passions and beliefs that resonated through the slave quarters can we begin to comprehend the true history of Louisiana, and with it, the nation.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

RV Schexnayder January 13, 2011 at 3:37 am

Shall We Gather at the River rvschex1added this on 9 Jan 2011
(note added on SchexDumas Ancestry account on
A reflection on the events that occurred along the Mississippi River 200 years ago:
This weekend proved to be a most rewarding experience in observance of the bicentennial of the 1811 Slave Revolt that started in St. John the Baptist Parish. As many have admitted, this event is one of “collective amnesia” among the American people – especially among Afro-Louisianians. The events that we attended commemorating the rebellion has been among an audience of mostly white citizens who seemed to truly attempt to get a grasp of understanding of its historic significance. The audience at the public library newly built adjacent to the Destrehan gournds had a mere splattering of black faces to hear the caucasian author (Daniel Rasmussen) from Boston discuss his new book on the “American Uprising”. We took the opportunity to give the author a hug for his genuine approach to the subject from the slave’s point of view (especially Charles Deslondes). Completing the day in Destrehan included visiting the site of the original “Litte Red Church” (St. Charles Boromeo) donated by JB Destrehan and the adjacent cemetery containing the remains of Francois Trepagnier who was one of two whites killed by the “insurgents”. (The other was a son of Manual Andry- whose mother was of Rillieux ancestry- at their St. John the Baptist farm.) While waiting for the opening of an exhibit on 1811 Revolt art by Lorraine Gendron at Destrehan (site of the slave “trials”), we befrinded an elderly Black gentleman whom had taken his time to bring his two young daughters from Kenner to view the program. Touched by his determination to increase their awareness, Randall made a gift of the Afrikan staff he carried (and Eva made light of when he donned his kinte kofi and the cane to celebrate the day) that he so admired, and frankly needed due to slight limp evident while descending the levee across from the plantation store. It was a gesture of solidarity between two African-American men. At first the opening program didn’t seem to have been well-attended; the River Parish reporter for the Times Picayune quickly sought out Randall and Eva for a statement – it seems they were the only black people in attendance (for now). (The quote from Randall “It was a MUST that we be here for this significant event” was not used in her story the next day – the crowd swelled and a more appropriate quote was obtained from two AFAM’s -Henderson & Sorapuru- who had direct connection to the slave owner families. A side note about Henderson is a possible connection to one of the last owners of Destrehan who was a Henderson whom had planned to free his slaves in his will and turn the plantation into a coop, only being contested by his family in Scotland.) The opening program for the exhibit featured beautiful chorus music by the mostly white Hahnville High choir lead by a director surnamed Matherne (former slave owner family). The staff of the plantation -along with AFAM board members Dr. & Mrs. Eddie Boyd- put together a meaningful tribute to the anniversary, complete with remarks from the parish president surnamed St. Pierre who expressed remorse for the actions of the white slave owners; his words were choked with emotion as he delivered them. Between the formal program and the exhibit openings several connections were made among several individuals, both black and white, who were interested in furthering the cause of making the African American experience in the River Parishes be better known – including one gentleman who is seeking pardons for those rebellion participants who were hastily executed and only their heads cruely displayed on stakes along the river bank.

It is also noted here that a competing event was occuring in St. Bernard Parish, commorating the Jan. 8th staging of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815; a part of the War of 1812 (a year after the revolt). Many Afrikans and free men aided in Andrew Jackson’s victory, but Jackson is said to have reneged on his promise to set the slaves free who risked their lives. But for rvs and emd, this event took front row for the time.

And finally, a most appropriate ending to the events of the weekend: Having been quite tired from the day before, we did not attend our regular service at St. Joseph the Worker in Marrero on Sunday morning. We instead, attended an evening service at our geographical church parish, St. Cletus in Gretna. Appropriately, it was “The Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord”; the first Sunday in Ordinary time, Christmas and the Epiphany (when the revolt started up) were over. On this day Christ was baptized by none other than his cousin St. John the Baptist (patron saint of SJB Parish where the revolt started). Shortly after settling into the sanctuary, rvs went to light a voltive candle in memory of the Martyrs of the 1811 Revolt. Upon return to his seat, the usher of this predominately white congregation approached him and asked would they like to take the Communion to the Alter during the Offeratory – a nice surprise. We agreed to do so, thinking this to be a great opportunity to honor the Martyrs with this gesture. The final welcomed coincidence: Upon entry of the priest (a newly appointed Vietnamese pastor), the cantor asked the congregation to join in the entrance song: “Shall We Gather at the River.” Our Tribute had come full circle.


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