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Louisiana’s Heroic 1811 Slave Revolt – led by the hero, Charles Deslondes
What was the Aim of the Revolt?
Establish a second, independent, Black republic; with its own sovereign state
The Haitian Revolution lasted from 1791 to 1804. During that period, the revolution went through several phases under the leadership of Vincent Ogé, Baukman Dutty, Toussaint Louverture, and Jean Jacques Dessalines. As the revolution intensified, many slave-holding families from St. Domingue (today known as the country of Haiti) fled to save themselves and save their human, slave property. Some fled to Cuba; others fled to Louisiana Province. Louisiana Province was once a French colony, then a Spanish colony, and later reverted to a French colony, before being sold to the Americans and becoming a part of the United States. The Haitian Revolution forced Napoleon Bonaparte, the Emperor of France, to sell Louisiana Province to the Americans in 1803.
This sale became known as the
Louisiana Purchase. From 1803 to 1812, the old colonial area known as the Louisiana Province was divided into two distinct regions. The northern area was called Louisiana Territory and the southern area became known as Orleans Territory. New Orleans was made the territorial capital of Orleans Territory with the entire territory subordinate to the Federal Government in Washington, D.C.
Some of the French families that fled to Louisiana were the Tureauds, Picous, Trepagniers, Dubourgs, and Deslondes. The Deslondes family of St. Charles and St. John the Baptist parishes had extensive ties with family plantations in St. Domingue. As these families fled to Louisiana, they sought to restart their businesses as plantation and slave owners. Hence, they brought their human, slave property with them. To their demise, they had not suspected that they had subsequently brought with them, the seeds of revolutionary ideas of freedom. Among them was a laborer named Charles Deslondes, who in time would become the principal leader and organizer of the heroic 1811 Slave Revolt.
What did Mr. Charles Deslondes prominently represent?
Mr. Deslondes and his lieutenants of both women and men represented the most advanced, class-conscious warriors for freedom. They collectively conceived of the vision of a new, free and independent Black nation. They thought-through and created strategies on how they would emancipate themselves from their savage exploiters. These courageous freedom fighters secretly agitated, propagated, convinced, recruited, and organized their enslaved allies for the overthrow of the class of savage exploiters and oppressors as an absolute necessity to win their complete freedom. Deslondes and his lieutenants formed the vanguard for this revolution.
Charles Deslondes’ vision was to establish an independent, Black Republic, just like in Haiti, where the newly freed Africans could govern themselves. Under the leadership of Deslondes, a provisional government would be created and a new legal framework would be adopted to form the basis of a new legal constitution. This strategic aim required the military capture of the city of New Orleans, which was the territorial capital of Orleans Territory. The capital was headquartered at the Cabildo building in the French Quarter.
Deslondes and his comrades would capture the City of New Orleans and
make it the capital of their new republic. New Orleans would then serve as the center and base of a liberated zone where enslaved people from all over the South who sought refuge and freedom could come to gain their freedom. His plan was to involve the enslaved Africans inside the city of New Orleans in a simultaneous uprising whereby they would seize the arsenal of weapons at Fort St. Charles and distribute the weapons to the arriving slave army. They almost succeeded.
Why did the enslaved Africans decide to revolt?
The enslaved Africans were owned as chattel property by the French and German slave owners. The slave owners exploited the enslaved by forcing them to work with no compensation under brutal treatment and conditions.
The slave owners promoted the idea that they were superior to the enslaved Africans, and therefore had the right to oppress them. The slave owners popularized the idea of white supremacy – the notion that whites are superior to Black people.
The enslaved had no right to free speech, press, assembly, organization, association, expression, demonstration, communication, or travel. They had no right to practice their beliefs, including their religious or cultural beliefs, and were essentially striped of their identity. They had no right to live as they chose. The slave owners controlled their entire life. They had no freedom.
The enslaved were punished for not doing what the slave owners demanded of them. Punishments included whippings, beatings, torture, mutilations, branding, being locked in metal cells, and death.
The exploitation and oppression the enslaved suffered led to a very rich and comfortable life for the slave owners and their descendants, and a wretched horrible life for the enslaved and their descendants.
These extreme differences in living conditions inevitably led to revolutionary armed revolts. Being in the position of the lowest social class, as the most exploited and most oppressed section of slave society, the enslaved Africans, who were the real creators of slaveholders’ wealth, were compelled to become vanguard freedom fighters. They had absolutely no stake in the preservation of the existing slave system. They had nothing to lose and everything to gain in the overthrow of the system.
The aspiration and struggle for freedom ran deep in the heart of enslaved Africans of Louisiana, as elsewhere in the country. The spirit of self-sacrifice for the cause of freedom and democracy has always been present in the history of the African and African American fight to end slavery. Nothing typifies these two qualities more than the famous revolt of slaves that took place in 1811 in St. John the Baptist, St. Charles, and Orleans parishes. Though the brave uprisings led by Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and Gabriel Prosser are better known, the 1811 Slave Revolt was the largest slave uprising in the history of the United States, involving over 500 people.
On January 8, 1811, Charles Deslondes and his comrades began the revolt on the plantation of Colonel Manuel Andry. This was the largest plantation in St. John the Baptist parish, comprised of over 4000 acres. The Andry plantation had also been the site of an arsenal for the local militia. The revolt began on the evening of January 8th when enslaved Africans under Deslondes’ and his comrades’ leadership rose up on the plantation. That evening, they overwhelmed their oppressors. Colonel Andry was wounded, but escaped. Disappointedly, they discovered that much of the arsenal had been removed. Hence, they were not fully armed. Armed with cane knives, hoes, clubs and a few guns, the rebels marched down the River Road toward New Orleans. They were guided by two slogans: ‘On To New Orleans’ and ‘Freedom or Death’, which reflected the strength of their resolve and their cause. As planned, they marched in columns of four down the River Road fighting any resistance as they marched to the city. They gained in number as they moved from plantation to plantation on the East Bank of the river, covering approximately about 15 miles (about the distance between the towns of Laplace and Kenner).
Their intention for creating an army of
the enslaved was to capture the city of
New Orleans and to liberate the
thousands of Africans held in bondage in the territory of Orleans. Most of the slave owners had fled to New Orleans. The territorial government of William C.C. Claiborne dispatched U.S. troops to put down the revolt. Several slave owners
and their allies were killed and several
plantations burned to the ground.
Despite their best efforts, however, the
rebels were not able to succeed. The
revolt was put down by January 11th, as
slave owners’ militia and U.S. federal troops killed many of the leaders and participants. Some of the leaders were captured and executed. Others were charged with the crime of insurrection and placed on trial at the Cabildo (in Orleans Parish), Destrehan plantation (in St. Charles Parish) and Edgard Courthouse (in St. John the Baptist Parish). They were found guilty and executed. Their heads were cut off and placed on poles along the River Road in order to intimidate and terrorize other enslaved Africans into submission and against any further ideas of revolt.
Yet the sacrifices of these brave men and women were not in vain. The revolt reasserted the humanity and redeemed the honor of their people. The uprising weakened the system of chattel slavery, stimulated more revolts in the following years, and set the stage for the final battle, the Civil War from 1861 to 1865, which ultimately resulted in the legal end to the horrible system of slavery. It is only fitting that we show our appreciation for these men and women who represented the best qualities of our people. These were people of exceptional brilliance, courage, valor and dedication.
These heroes and heroines understood that revolution is the only way to put an end to the domination of the exploiters. These were people who understood that the emancipation of the masses is the precondition for the emancipation of the individual. These were people who understood that great sacrifices are required for the oppressed to gain their complete freedom, people who willingly and courageously accepted these sacrifices.
Today, many of the African Americans living in St. John the Baptist, St. Charles, St. James parishes, as well as Jefferson and Orleans parishes, are direct descendants of those who rose up in revolt. For them, the 211th commemoration on January 8, 2022 is a special time, truly a family reunion.
Leon A. Waters
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