1729: The Stono Rebellion

The ‘Stono Rebellion’ of 1729 is a little known event that took place in what was the British Colony of South Carolina, but the reaction to the event had ramifications that shaped the history of race relations in South Carolina, and the whole of the United States. Left out of history books through the centuries, a small highway marker stands just South of Charleston on U.S. 17, the Coastal Highway on the way to Savannah.

Listed in the National Register and designated a National Historic Landmark May 30, 1974, the application for the historic landmark, written by Marcia M. Greenlee, illustrates why the site is important, and why this and other major historical events that are considered ‘black history’ were erased from the history books and not given historical significance:

“A false picture of life in colonial America would show masters and slaves living in perfect harmony…that is the impression many Americans have. Blacks were not so supine as to submit to enslavement without resistance.”

She goes on to explain the conditions that brought about the revolt – large numbers of slaves that had recently been brought over from Africa, many who had been warriors captured in battle, a slave system instituted in the colonies that was based on that of Barbados and was exceedingly cruel and severe, in addition to the famine and plagues that riddled the New World. The situation for the people held captive and forced to build up the colonies was intolerable.

Whites were not ignorant of the cruel conditions or the threat of insurrection that it bred. At this time, and through the 20th century, blacks outnumbered whites in South Carolina, and the institution of slavery they created precipitated an atmosphere  where they lived in constant fear of revolts and uprisings, so they created laws and regulations to keep control and a sense of safety, such as the Security Act of August 1739, which required all white men to carry a firearm and ammunition to church on Sundays.

On Sunday, September 9th, 1739, a slave named Jemmy, referred to sometimes as ‘Cato’ although that was probably a reference to the Cater family had a plantation on the Ashley River, led some 20 – 50 people out of the unsupervised road crew he was working to attack the warehouse of Mr. Hutchinson – killing the guards Mr. Bathurst and Mr. Gibbs, and taking the weapons within.

The group eventually grew to 100 people, beating drums and shouting ‘Liberty!’. The plan was to make it to Florida, 150 miles South, where the Spanish had promised freedom to any escaped slaves in defiance of the British who had control of the colonies north of Florida. Many of those who joined where Konglese, and most likely had been soldiers before they were stolen from Africa, as witnesses remarked the slaves marched “like a disciplined company.”. They also may have been Catholic, as the Kingdom of Kongo was Catholic at the time, and that was something they would have had in common with the Spaniards in St. Augustine. Drawing on military techniques from their home countries, as well as those in practice by the white men, they raided, killed, and stole weapons on their march down the Stono River.  They burned six or seven plantations and killed all the whites they encountered, except an inn-keeper named Wallace who was reportedly spared because he was a ‘kind’ slave master.

The band of the slaves was spotted by Lieutenant Governor William Bull and the local militia was quickly rounded up from local churches where the men already were armed with guns and ammunition per the recently passed Security Act. The militia overtook the insurrection, and in the resulting confrontation, a number of whites and blacks were killed. The militia pursued other escapees and either killed or captured them to later sell in the West Indies.

Previous to this rebellion there had been a belief among whites that the slaves were incapable of mounting a successful insurrection. The Stono rebellion served to increase fear among the whites, causing them to immediately enact strict slave codes that were held until the Civil War, although other rebellions and protests continued through slavery – one of major note was the plot organized by Denmark Vesey, a free black man in Charleston, in 1822. The slave codes of 1740 that were enacted in response barred slaves from growing their own food, learning to read, earning money, or assembling in groups. The act also made it difficult for masters to offer manumission to any slave and put a moratorium on the importation of slaves as there was a belief that native-born, or ‘seasoned’ slaves would be more accepting of the conditions of slavery and offer less resistance.

The highway marker sits about 200 yards South of the place where Hutchinson’s warehouse stood and the rebellion began.

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