Sunday Salon – Review of “American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt” by Daniel Rasmussen

The Sunday

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.”

He concludes:

“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.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Harper, 2011

Author Daniel Rasmussen


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28 Responses to Sunday Salon – Review of “American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt” by Daniel Rasmussen

  1. kaye says:

    Such disgraceful cruelty! It boggles my mind how humans can treat others in such a way. What a shame on our history – and it should be told not just swept under the rug as if it never happened. Wonderful review!!

  2. Nicole says:

    I’m glad that you mentioned that there is a book on Robert F. Williams. I liked his approach a lot as well.

    • Nicole,

      Timothy Tyson has a couple of excellent books. Besides the one on Robert F. Williams, he also wrote “Blood Done Sign My Name” about the murder of a black man, Henry Marrow, in Oxford, North Carolina in 1970, who allegedly “flirted” with a white woman.

  3. Sandy says:

    “…our ideals have at times been twisted and cast aside for the sake of greed and power.” Yeah, no doubt, and this wasn’t the only time, was it? I know all of this made us the country we are today, but it is hard to feel pride sometimes. Don’t even get me started on the Japanese internment camps! But wow. 5 out of 5? You seriously loved this, which of course makes me sit up and take notice.

  4. Julie P. says:

    Booking Pap Pap will be reviewing this one soon! I’m not sure he embraced it quite as much as you though.

  5. people today that speak about the “hostility” in our country today have no idea of our checked history I often think. And yet we got through these things and slowly, maybe too slowly, cam out better for it.

  6. bermudaonion says:

    This sounds like my kind of history book! The older I get, the more upset I get about the way history is taught.

  7. Marie says:

    It’s amazing what gets left out of the standard history books sometimes! Great review. Thanks for telling us about this book!

  8. Frances says:

    Love that you say it reads like a suspense novel because I always think that you do such a great job of revealing a narrative arc in all your nonfiction reads that make them more appealing to fiction junkies. You are a nonfiction book pimp extraordinaire! 🙂

  9. Rural View says:

    I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this revolt! As much as I’ve read about slavery and revolts like Nat Turner’s, yet this is new to me. I really must read this book.

  10. Trish says:

    Alrighty–starring this review so I can remember to jot down this title (no pen close by). It never ceases to amaze me what’s been left out of the textbooks in school…!

    Plus, love me some non-fiction that reads like suspense novels!

  11. I’m glad you like this book so much! I wanted to start to read a bit more historical books (fiction or NF), and since this was supposed to read like a suspense thriller (my type of book), I requested an ARC. But for whatever reason I just couldn’t get into it 😦 My “review”:

  12. Staci says:

    This is one that should be required reading.

  13. I am putting this on my TBR. I hope there is an audio version as I do love listening to history books.

    I have heard of the Nat Turner rebellion, but really that is it (and I was a social studies education major)!

    Also, I like that this sounds like it doesn’t sugar coat Andrew Jackson. I’m not really into the books that make him out to be a hero when he seemed kind of like an a-hole.

  14. Great review. I’m adding this to my wishlist. If you have children and you haven’t asked them exactly what they are being taught in schools on subjects like slavery, the Civil War, and the Holocaust, you would really be surprised what a sanitized view of history they are being taught.

  15. nymeth says:

    This sounds absolutely fascinating. I can’t speak for American, but it’s very true that things that don’t fit into a nation’s particular myth very often get swept under the rug.

  16. Alyce says:

    I’ve never heard of this book or this uprising. I’ll be adding this one to my list of books to track down at the library.

  17. Jenny says:

    It seems like I’ve seen this book everywhere! I have a hard time with books about slavery, although I do have one about the Underground Railroad sitting around on my bookshelves for a while.

    (I used to be unable to distinguish between the Underground Railroad and subways. I still sometimes say the wrong one when I’m talking about them.)

  18. Jenners says:

    I think the best nonfiction books read like novels. This does sound good.

    (And I have to tell you, I misread the first line of your review as “This riveting book will keep you glued to your CHAIN from start to finish.” and I thought “That is kind of bad taste. I’m surprised. DUH!)

  19. cousinsread says:

    Everything always boils down to money, doesn’t it? Sometimes I do think it is the root of all evil…

  20. zibilee says:

    This does sound like a fascinating account of something that I know very little about, and from the way that you describe it, it also sounds compulsively readable. I love history when it’s done in such a breathtaking manner, and I am sure I would love this book. You wrote a really great review, and I appreciate your insight on this!

  21. Margot says:

    This is another example of ugly events never being taught in history classes, at least back when I was in school. I’m so glad today’s historians are digging out the various shameful truths. Let’s get them out and talk about them. I’m thinking someone should teach a class or write a book covering all this stuff we missed in school. Better yet – just read your blog and the books you suggest. Thanks Jill. This is a good service you are providing.

  22. Aarti says:

    Excellent review, Jill! What an important episode to narrate into national history. I think you are absolutely right- only the peaceful protests get written into our history books. In some ways (to make what might seem an incendiary statement), I wish that today was not so much MLK day as “Civil Rights Day,” as I think often people look back on MLK and think how far we’ve come rather than on how far we may still need to go. And I think now we only ever think of ONE person in relation to civil rights, when it was really such a huge organized movement.

    In many ways, governments change and massage stories to make them fit into an ideal. I can understand it to some extent, but I think it just proves that we really should all try to do our own research, too.

  23. Care says:

    Thank you, I’ve just wishlisted this.

  24. Bumbles says:

    Oh, I don’t know. Malcolm X was not exactly peaceful and he is an acknowledged part of the civil rights history. But I agree with the overall point – that things that make America look bad are glossed over or swept under the rug. To the point that its own citizens don’t learn accurate history – much less those growing up in other parts of the world. Genocide on our own soil needs to be recognized so that the seeds of hatred do not continue beneath the surface.

    • I guess I would argue that Malcolm X and The Black Panthers are acknowledged mostly in negative ways, and in ways that emphasize the contrast with the nonviolent (i.e., preferable to the majority) message of MLK.

  25. The more I read, the more I realize how much stuff isn’t in the textbooks but should be, or how it’s taught from an angle that dulls the edges so that we don’t think bad things about the perpetrators. It sickens me to think about how horribly slaves were treated. This sounds like a fascinating book.

  26. Richard says:

    I was going to say exactly what Frances said–“you are a nonfiction book pimp extraordinaire!”–only I see she already beat me to it!!! Seriously, thanks for the review–sounds fascinating, and the book is prominently placed in one of my local bookstores so I can’t avoid seeing it on my way out of the store. May actually take a look at it next time even though I’m a paperback guy and it’s still only available as a hardback, I think!

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