The German Coast Uprising

Last week marked the 202nd anniversary of the largest forgotten slave rebellion in American history.  I just learned about it two years ago, and now I am belatedly adding it to Chapter 3 of my North American history series.  Here is how it will read:

Before statehood came to Louisiana, it saw the worst slave revolt in American history (January 8-10, 1811); unlike the Nat Turner revolt, twenty years later, chances are you haven’t heard of it. Today it is sometimes called the German Coast Uprising because in the eighteenth century, the French allowed quite a few German immigrants to settle the area where it took place (modern St. John the Baptist and St. Charles parishes, LA). The local slaves included a mulatto from Haiti named Charles Deslondes, who knew from his homeland’s experience what armed slaves can do, so while he behaved well enough to be appointed an overseer over other slaves, he also spent years plotting a revolution. When the slaves revolted, they quickly captured the plantation they were on, and then they made a surprisingly orderly march in the direction of New Orleans. As they moved along, they destroyed plantations and more slaves joined the rebels, until there were an estimated 250-500 of them. Whereas the slaves in the Nat Turner revolt only wanted to free themselves and kill their masters, the ultimate goal of these slaves was to establish a black republic in the Mississippi delta. Deslondes and his co-conspirators knew that if they were going to have their own country, they would need a proper army to defend it, so when they stole weapons from the plantations, they also stole militia uniforms, marching drums and flags, and issued them to the “troops.”

Ahead of the slave parade fled terrified slave owners to warn New Orleans. On the second morning of the revolt, the New Orleans militia encountered the rebels on the plantation where they stopped for the night, and because the rebels ran out of ammunition first, they were easily overwhelmed. About 40 to 45 slaves were killed in the battle; the slaves in turn only killed two white planters in the whole rebellion. Charles Deslondes escaped but was soon captured by the militia; they chopped his hands off, shot him and burned him alive in a bundle of straw. In the aftermath, a few dozen slaves were beheaded or hanged, and the legislature of the Orleans Territory paid $300 to the slave owners in compensation for every slave killed or executed.

The most amazing part of the story is that Southern whites succeeded in covering up how bad the revolt really was. Some Louisiana newspapers downplayed it, calling the rebels mere bandits, while others did not mention it at all. The white refusal to admit that a well organized, politically sophisticated slave revolt could happen caused almost everyone to forget about it for the next two hundred years, until historians started drawing attention to it, on the bicentennial of the event in 1811. Today the only memorial to the revolt is a plaque marking the spot where it started.

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