The largest slave rebellion in U.S. history took place in the New Orleans area in January 1811. This resistance was much greater than the better-known revolts led by Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey, yet it is little-known because law enforcement officials and plantation owners declared it “criminal activity” rather than a revolt, and documentation has been hard to come by.

Fortunately for those of us who want to know as much as we can about American history—good and bad—historian Daniel Rasmussen uses extensive original research and superb narrative skill to vividly recount what happened in American Uprising. Beyond the story of approximately 500 men who yearned to be free and were willing to put their lives on the line to achieve it, Rasmussen’s book is about the expansion of the United States and how greed and power worked to distort America’s highest ideals.

Rasmussen provides a many-sided picture of events set in a violent era when most slaves, because of the harsh conditions in which they lived and worked, did not survive beyond a few years after their arrival from Africa. New Orleans was the most diverse, cosmopolitan city in North America at that time, but it was also a sugar colony whose economy was based on slave labor. The white elite—French, Spanish and American—was caught up in petty disputes and failed to realize that the primary conflict at the heart of the city was not between the French and the Anglo-Americans but between the white elite and the huge African underclass. By 1810, slaves made up more than 75 percent of the total population, and almost 90 percent of households owned slaves.

Two slaves, Kook and Quamana, decided soon after they arrived from Africa in 1806 to begin plotting rebellion. Over time, they developed an elaborate network of trust with other slaves of similar mind, including Charles Deslondes, an ambitious, light-skinned black man who had risen quickly through the ranks to become a slave driver for a planter with a reputation for cruelty. After years of elaborate planning, always in secret, the not-very-well-armed slave army headed for New Orleans with the intention of establishing a black republic, much as the slaves of Saint Dominique (now Haiti) had done not long before. Betrayal and bad luck, however, led to grave and tragic consequences, and this dream was never realized.

Rasmussen carefully gives the historical context of events and deftly traces the movement of both the slave rebels and those opposed to them—the planters, the militia and the law enforcement officials—who saw the slaves as terrorists about to shatter what they considered to be the natural order of things. He shows that the immediate effect of the uprising, in fact, was to strengthen the institution of slavery, and explains that the slave rebels of 1811 were just among the first victims of a drive to eliminate any threats to American power, which would later include the Trail of Tears and the Mexican War.

American Uprising is certainly difficult to read in places because of the grim nature of the subject, but anyone interested in slavery in the U.S. or in the history of our country will find it illuminating as we strive to better understand our past.

 

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