Slavery was an excruciatingly agonizing and dehumanizing experience inflicted on Africans brought to colonial America against their will. Having been extricated from their motherland, and subjugated by the white slave masters, the African slaves accepted that colonial America was their permanent domicile. But that did not dissuade them from escaping the brutality of their slave masters in the quest for liberty and dignity. And this is where the Stono Rebellion of 1739 comes in – which is the largest slave rebellion in colonial America.
The Stono Rebellion took place near the Stono River in South Carolina 20 miles (30 km) southwest of Charlestown (now Charleston) and it began on the 9th of September 1739 (which was a Sunday – a day on which white slave masters did not carry their firearms to church). In total, about 25 colonists and 35 to 50 Africans were killed. The leader of the revolt was Jemmy, who in some reports is referred to as Cato. He was a literate slave. It is believed the slave revolt was led by Africans from the Central African Kingdom of Kongo. The enslaved Africans wanted to reach Spanish Florida, where slaves were promised freedom and land at St. Augustine. The Spanish were on a path to destabilize British rule in the colonies as the two countries were at war.
Led by Jemmy, about 20 enslaved Africans gathered at a spot near the Stono River (after which the rebellion is named) on the day that the rebellion started. The enslaved Africans marched down the roadway with a banner that proclaimed “Liberty!”, chanting the word together. They attacked Hutchenson’s store, which sold firearms, killing two storekeepers and subsequently arming themselves with the weapons. The group then began their march towards Spanish Florida while raising a flag., beating drums, and singing.
In a spirit of a determined uprising, the enslaved Africans gathered more recruits, even though some of the slaves joined reluctantly, making a total of 81 people. They burned homes and business which belonged to the white slave masters, killing men, women, and children in the process. One of the slave masters called Wallace, who owned a tavern, was spared because he was not harsh to his slaves. They burned six plantations. Along the way, they had killed 23 to 28 whites.
As the slaves were fighting for their freedom with the hopes of reaching Spanish Florida (without much opposition), they were noticed by South Carolina's Lieutenant Governor William Bull and five of his friends. They swiftly went off to warn other slaveholders of the rebellion. A militia of planters and other minor slaveholders traveled to face the revolting slaves.
When the group of the enslaved Africans had traveled for 10 miles and decided to rest, the well-armed militia caught up with them at the Edisto River. In the confrontation that followed, 21 white people and 44 black people were killed. Some of the slaves who had escaped were rounded up and their heads were severed. Their severed heads were mounted on stakes along major roadways to serve as a warning shot to other slaves who contemplated rebelling against the colonists. Slaves who were deemed to have been forced into joining the rebellion by the original band of the rebels were spared. Some of the survivors were sold off to the West Indies.
George Cato, the great-great-grandson of the rebel leader, narrated the account as passed down in his family for two centuries in 1937. He said, “I reckon it was hot, 'cause in less than two days, 21 white men, women, and children, and 44 Negroes, was slain. My granddaddy say that in the woods and at Stono, where the war start, there was more than 100 Negroes in line. When the militia come in sight of them at Combahee swamp, the drinking, dancing Negroes scatter in the brush and only 44 stand their ground. Commander Cato speak for the crowd. He say: 'We don't like slavery. We start to join the Spanish in Florida. We surrender but we not whipped yet and we is not converted.' The other 43 say: 'Amen.' They was taken, unarmed, and hanged by the militia.”
It is thought that reports of imminent legislation about to be passed spurred the enslaved Africans into rebellion. South Carolinians wanted to pass the Security Act, which would have required white men to carry their firearms to church on Sunday. After 29 September, local officials were given the power to impose penalties on white men who did not carry arms. The promise of freedom by the Spanish to the enslaved Africans was also one of the factors that helped cause the rebellion. Some historians have attributed the cause of the rebellion to a malaria epidemic that had recently killed many white people in Charleston.
After the 1739 incident, the colonists took more stringent measures to preempt the possibility of any rebellion. The Negro Act of 1740 introduced harsher conditions – it prohibited slaves from growing their food, assembling in groups, earning money, or learning to read. It also required a ratio of one white to ten blacks on any plantation. Whites were given the discretionary power to examine and take action on blacks who traveled outside the plantations without passes.
It was generally and impliedly accepted that treating slaves harshly made them harbor intentions of escaping. So, the Negro Act created penalties for masters who demanded excessive work from their slaves, or who mercilessly punished them. Since South Carolinian law did not allow slave testimony against whites, this provision was hard to enforce. It was also thought that the origins of the Africans had contributed to the revolt, hence the Act sought to limit the importation of slaves into South Carolina. Slave importation was prohibited as South Carolina wanted to delay the rate of importation – black people were now outnumbering white people in South Carolina, stoking fears of an insurrection. Slaves were also taught Christian doctrine.
The Stono Rebellion continued to inspire more rebellions, both big and small, as slaves were in an unending search for liberty. This rebellion is an important historical symbol as it continuously proves that enslaved Africans fought back the inhuman system that was slavery. Resistance was not a remote phenomenon – it was a lived reality, passed down from generation to generation. It is the same spirit embodied in contemporary times as black people all over the world continue to assert their identity and dignity.