The American who aspired to be Spartacus

When one thinks of slave rebellions in the Americas ones mind often goes to the creole uprising in Haiti which won Haitian independence, considered the most successful slave rebellion in history. If one is more familiar with the history of the United States then the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831 might come to mind. Whilst the Haitian rebellion was the most successful in history and the Nat Turner rebellion was the largest in American history, there is another slave rebellion in America which I find more interesting. This rebellion took place in Louisiana and involving 500 rebels, led by the former slave Charles Deslondes.

Deslondes was born in Haiti (no one knows exactly when) sometime in the late 18th century. In 1804, following years of rebellion, the new Haitian government outlawed slavery and generally did nothing as white land owners (and former slave owners) were massacred. Deslondes’ master, Jean Baptiste Deslondes, was one of the white land owners who managed to escape to Louisiana. Deslondes, being a mulatto (mixed race) slave could have probably looked forward to a life in the Haitian social elite had his master not escaped.

Deslonded worked on the Woodlawn plantation as an overseer of the 86 slaves on the plantations of Colonel Manuel Andre on the German Coast (thirty six miles north-west of New Orleans, near present-day Norco). This employment was temporary as he remained the property of Jean Baptiste Deslondes who had brought him from Haiti (or his widow).

On January 6th 1811, a three slaves met in the lull after the sugar cane harvest and processing. Deslondes was one of them, the two others were Quamana (owned by a Mr. Brown) and Harry (owned by Messrs. Kenner and Henderson) according to plantation owner James Brown in the aftermath of the rebellion. These three slaves planned their revolt that night and then spread the word of the uprising to plantations all along the German Coast.

The rebellion began two days later, January 8th, at the Andre plantation. Andre himself was wounded by an axe wound to the head but he managed to escape. His son was not so lucky and was killed by the rebels. The slaves on the Andre estate then proceeded to a prearranged rendezvous where they met with slaves from several other plantations along the German Coast as well as runaway slaves who had been hiding in the forest. Although they possessed some firearms, the slaves were mostly armed with hoes, pikes and axes. Deslondes divided and organized this slave army into companies and military formations resembling a modern army.

Carrying flags and marching to the sound of drums the slave army proceeded down the German Coast towards New Orleans. As they proceeded they burnt plantations and recruited more slaves to the cause. Many of the plantation owners reported later that they were given warning of the impending attacks by the slaves and were given time to escape. This is demonstrated by the fact that only two people were killed in the burning of the plantations: Andre’s son in the initial uprising and Francois Trepangner, the owner of the second plantation to be burnt.

All of this happened within one day. Ten hours after the beginning of the insurrection, the rebels were only 15 miles from New Orleans which had filled with people fleeing from the countryside. In the meantime Colonel Andre, after fleeing the uprising had gone to the other side of the Mississippi where he had raised a militia of 80 men from the plantation owners and loyal slaves. They began to pursue the slaves from the rear whilst a force of 70 regulars were sent from New Orleans on January 9th. The slaves were caught on the high ground at the Bernoudy estate. Andre, fittingly, was placed in overall command of the militia and regulars. It was a brief battle lasting only half an hour. 45 slaves were killed and the rest fled into the woods.

A large scale search went on for the stragglers in the woods. On January 11th Deslondes was found. Andre reportedly did not hold him for interrogation or trial. Instead, taking revenge for the death of his son, Andre had “his [Deslondes] hands cut off and then shot in one thigh and then the other until they were both broken – then shot in the body and before he had expired he was put into a bundle of straw and roasted”.

Charles Deslondes’ rebellion was, until Nat Turner twenty years later, the largest slave rebellion in American history. It is likely that he had been inspired by what he had seen in his native Haiti and sought to establish a black Republic in New Orleans, this I have inferred from the proximity of the dates from his leaving Haiti and the start of the rebellion.

The slaves who were found and captured were put on trial and were executed. It was reported that the other leaders of the revolt competed with each other at the trial over who played the bigger role in the rebellion. The bodies of the dead rebels (95 in total) were put on display outside the plantations as a warning against further rebellion. One observer wrote, “Their Heads … decorate our Levée, all the way up the coast, I am told they look like crows sitting on long poles.” Other rebels were hanged in Jackson Square, New Orleans and their heads placed on the city gates. The rest of the slave army, once captured pleaded that they had been forced into the rebellion by Deslondes and were returned to their old masters who were free to punish them as they saw fit. The rebellion had lasted for three days and cost the lives of 95 rebels and 2 plantation owners.

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