This riveting book will keep you glued to your chair from start to finish. Rasmussen tells the story of the largest slave revolt in United States history – a story that is most striking for the fact that it has been virtually eliminated from textbooks.
In January of 1811, approximately 500 slaves from plantations in the New Orleans area tried to seize power and win freedom for those who labored in the sugar cane fields. The sugar cane industry was notorious for the intense workload and high death rate among the slaves. During harvest time, slaves worked sixteen hours a day. Yet the profits were so high, planters were unaffected by the fact that less than one-third of slaves survived past the third or fourth year. Louisiana planters claimed that Africans were “uniquely matched to the hot weather and tough work.” But this claim was belied by the high death rate as well as the necessity for whips, spiked iron collars, and face masks used on the slaves. As Rasmussen observes,
“These colonial plantations were as close to a death camp as one could come in the late eighteenth century.”
The author recounts the incredible story of how the slave rebellion was organized, carried out, and viciously crushed by the combined forces of the planters and the U.S. Army and Navy. He details the brutal retaliation exacted by the planters, who decapitated some one hundred slaves, putting their heads on spikes all along the levee. He also decries the fact that the names of the brave rebel leaders – Kook, Quamana, Harry Kenner, and Charles Deslondes – have been lost to history, and he tells you exactly how and why the memory of this revolt was suppressed almost immediately. And in a fascinating twist, he explains how the slave rebellion and its aftermath became a factor in the victory of Andrew Jackson at New Orleans a year later, a victory that ultimately led to his presidency. Jackson, “the nation’s most celebrated killer of Native Americans,” was only one of several presidents to capitalize on the appeal of the idea of the hegemony of white Americans over the vast expanse of the American continent.
Rasmussen wants us to draw at least two important lessons from this story:
“Above all, this is a story about America: who we are, where we came from, and how our ideals have at times been twisted and cast aside for the sake of greed and power.”
Secondly, he mentions other black Americans who have fought against the U.S. government, such as Robert F. Williams (see my review of his story in the book by Timothy Tyson here). He observes that only those blacks who strike a conciliatory pose toward the government through peaceful resistance (such as Martin Luther King, Jr.) get written into history. The others get written out:
“Robert F.Williams, like Kook and Quamana, like Charles Deslondes, took up arms against the United States of America in the name of freedom. They fought against U.S. government agents, they supported the overthrow of legally sanctioned racism, and they were exiled or executed for their actions.”
“Coming to terms with American history means addressing the 1811 uprising and the story of Robert F.Williams – not brushing these events under the rug because they upset safe understandings about who were are as a nation.”
Evaluation: This is a fabulous book about a horrible subject. It is non-fiction but reads like a suspense novel. In addition, it contains critical information about our nation’s history, and how the government treated anyone who got in the way of the profit-maximizing and imperialist mission of the young country. I’d call it a must-read.
Published by Harper, 2011