The Stono Rebellion of 1739


(Front) The Stono Rebellion, the largest slave insurrection in British North America, began nearby on September 9, 1739. About 20 Africans raided a store near Wallace Creek, a branch of the Stono River. Taking guns and other weapons, they killed two shopkeepers. The rebels marched south toward promised freedom in Spanish Florida, waving flags, beating drums, and shouting "Liberty!"

(Reverse) The rebels were joined by 40 to 60 more during their 15-mile march. They killed at least 20 whites, but spared others. The rebellion ended late that afternoon when the militia caught the rebels, killing at least 34 of them. Most who escaped were captured and executed; any forced to join the rebels were released. The S.C. assembly soon enacted a harsh slave code, in force until 1865. Erected by the Sea Island Farmers Cooperative, 2006

(South Carolina Historical Marker)

Because of its violent notoriety, the Stone Rebellion is one of the few that is acknowledged with a historical marker, which I found situated alongside the highway that roughly follows the route thought to have been taken by the rebells.

There were several contemporaneous descriptions of the revolt, including one rare eyewitness account. This was told by one of the militia members who intercepted the rebells. Of course none of the enslaved ever had a chance to tell their side of the story.

A lot has been written on what happened that day. I found that John Thorton's African Dimensions of the Stono Rebellion provides some particularly interesting insights. Contemporaneous accounts describe the rebells as a band of drunken slaves marching down the road crying "liberty" as they raided plantations along the way, burning down houses and killing the occupants. Tracing slave trade records, Thornton shows that the enslaved Africans were probably defeated Congolese soldiers who had been sold into slavery by their Angolan captors. He takes issue with the enslavers' characterization of the rebells as being a drunken horde, pointing out that what the dancing, singing, flag waving and drum beating conforms to many contemporaneous descriptions of Congolese soldiers marching into war in Africa.

The rebells marched down Pons Pons Road, later know as Old Jacksonboro Road, now mostly supplanted by US Highway 17, until the local militia caught up with them while they rested in a field on the side of the road. They had covered some 15 miles during that one fateful night.

The eyewitness account of that final battle, tells of how the rebells "fought boldly," and goes on to say: This to be said to the honor of the Carolina Planters, that not-withstanding the Provocation they had received from so many Murders, they did not torture one Negroe, but only put them to an easy death. In other words they simply executed them on the spot.

The Stono rebellion had long lasting consequences for the enslaved of South Carolina, initiating a long series of ever tighter restrictions. Believing that locally born enslaved people were more "docile," the legislator initiated a moratorium on the importation of enslaved people from Africa. They also passed laws that, among other restrictions, prohibited the enslaved from growing their own food, earning money, assembling in groups, or learning to read.

On the flip side, the violence of the Stono Rebellion gripped the enslavers with a terror that often spilled over into outright paranoia. Rebellions occurring over the next couple of years in Georgia and South Carolina were thought to have been inspired by the Stono Rebellion, and then the Haitian revolution (1791-1804) only heightened the enslavers' panic around any least sign of rebellion. This fear of "savagery" unleashed by rebellion lasted throughout the duration of slavery, and, I suppose one could say, continues to this day.

Next: The Igbo Landing Mass Suicide of 1803

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