Alan Singer, Review of Daniel Rasmussen's "American Uprising, The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt" (HarperCollins, 2011)
Alan Singer is a historian and Professor of Secondary Education at Hofstra University, author of New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2008), and editor of the New York and Slavery: Complicity and Resistance curriculum that received the 2005 National Council for the Social Studies program of excellence award.
We are now in the middle of the sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary commemoration of the American Civil War, the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and the 2012 Tea Party/presidential election campaign, and everything about the American past is politicized. In an earlier article posted on the History News Network, I discussed how presidential candidate Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota) was creating her own version of the history of the nation’s founders and of nineteenth century abolitionists to support her belief in the specialness of the United States as a place where the inherent faith of the founders in liberty allowed the nation to eliminate the stain of slavery. In the article, I pointed out that in a sense Bachmann was half right. While Washington and Jefferson supported the enslavement of Africans in the United States, many of the nation’s founders from New York State were opponents of slavery and did work to bring it to an end.
Bachmann’s views about slavery are similar top those championed by Lewis E. Lehrman, a conservative Republican, co-founder of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and board member at the New York Historical Society. According to his website, Lehrman has also been a trustee of the American Enterprise Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and the Heritage Foundation. In a New York Times interview, Lehrman argued that the institution of slavery was “supported throughout the world, but Americans took the initiative in destroying it.” Lehrman deplored the view expressed by some that “American history consists of one failure after another to deal with the issue of slavery.” According to Lehrman, “one of the triumphs of America was to have dealt directly with that issue in the agonies of a civil war.”
The use and misuse of the anti-slavery crusade, however, is not confined to conservative advocates of the Tea Party movement and supporters of the Republican Party. As the book American Uprising, The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt (New York: HarperCollins, 2011) and some of the commentaries about it show, the history of slavery and resistance to enslavement is used to tell a story, not necessarily accurate, of the glorious, continuous, and ultimately successful struggle of oppressed people against their oppressors. As a secondary school social studies teacher and college-based teacher educator, I have always emphasized African American resistance to enslavement in its multiple forms, but the strength of this history and the African American freedom struggle is undermined when we construct fables to support our views.
Daniel Rasmussen, author of American Uprising, writes well and tells a good tale. Unfortunately, this book, which started out as an undergraduate senior thesis at Harvard University, is not very good history. Rasmussen, at least at this early point in his career, is primarily a journalist and a popularizer who holds his audience by focusing on blood, guts, and exaggerated pronouncements in the style of the History Channel. He describes the book as “a story more Braveheart than Beloved” (2). According to the book jacket, Rasmussen was awarded three prestigious-sounding prizes for his work on the New Orleans slave uprising; however, they were not from historical organizations but were presented to him by departments at Harvard University for his work as an undergraduate.
I confess that I am not surprised that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. issued such effusive praise of the book on the back cover. Gates is a showman and promoter himself, as well as a student of African American culture and history. He wrote that Rasmussen’s “scholarly detective work reveals a fascinating narrative of slavery and resistance, but it also tells us something about history itself, about how fiction can become fact, and how ‘history’ is sometimes nothing more than erasure.” One of my concerns is that with this book, which elaborates far beyond the documentary evidence, a new fiction may become fact.
I am more concerned, however, with Eric Foner’s comments on the back cover. Foner is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, a former president of both the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association, and author or editor of over twenty books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York: Norton, 2010). Foner is generally very cautious about making historical claims and drawing lessons from the past, which adds tremendous weight to his comments. Foner praised Rasmussen for his “deeply researched, vividly written, and highly original account” that provides “the full story of this dramatic moment in the struggle for freedom in this country.”
Part of the problem writing a history of the 1811 slave uprising is that there is very little surviving documentary evidence from the period. For example, we do not even now how many Africans participated in the disturbances on the “German Coast” of Louisiana, along the Mississippi River about forty miles northwest of New Orleans. Rasmussen initially estimates somewhere between 200 and 500 Africans were involved (1). However, at another point in the text we learn that the rebels numbered only well over one hundred (107) and then later that “documentary evidence links 124 individual slaves to the revolt” (128). The final destructive tally for the rebellion was a few plantation houses burned and the execution of two slaveholders before the “slave army” was routed by a band of approximately eighty planters (136). Although Rasmussen calls this the “largest slave revolt” in “America’s” history, it is dwarfed in importance by the Nat Turner-led rebellion in Virginia in 1831. While the 1811 rebellion occurred in Louisiana, a recently acquired territory of the United States, the Turner rebellion was in the heart of the Old South, and while there were probably fewer rebels involved, there were many more white casualties. It also does not compare in size or impact with revolutionary upheavals led by enslaved Africans in other parts of the Americas.
There are also significant errors and exaggerations that someone trained as a historian, and certainly someone of Eric Foner’s stature, should have caught when he read the manuscript before publication. According to the prologue (1), the rebels had “decided that they would die before they would work another day of backbreaking labor in the hot Louisiana sun,” but Rasmussen has no way of knowing what they thought or decided. He also describes the “slave army” as “politically astute” and “highly organized,” questionable speculation at best. Rasmussen concludes that the rebellion was “one of the defining moments in the history of New Orleans and, indeed, the nation” (1) which is problematic because on the next page he asserts that government officials and slave owners succeeded in writing “this massive uprising out of the history books—to dismiss the bold actions of the slave army as irrelevant and trivial” (2). Rasmussen really cannot have it both ways.
Undocumented assertion and speculation are rife throughout the text. On page 34, Rasmussen claims enslaved Africans used public dances in New Orleans to “build revolutionary organizations” because they were relatively unsupervised and that “Americans and French showed no understanding of the possibilities of these dances.” It is hard to believe the planters would be so oblivious to potential slave conspiracies this soon after the bloody upheavals in Santo Domingue (Haiti), especially since many Haitian refugees ended up in New Orleans and the uprising there precipitated the sale of the Louisiana Territory to the United States by France in 1803.
On the same page Rasmussen suggests that enslaved Africans rebelled during the holiday season because of the “carelessness and inebriation” of the white masters. A better explanation, based on events in Montego Bay in Jamaica in 1831-1832, is that Christmas was a slack work season because of the nature of the sugar crop while the religious nature of the end-of-the-year holidays provided an opportunity for black Christian preachers in the slave quarters and communities to plan and promote rebellion.
Rasmussen argues “The slaves who survived the bloodletting after the 1811 uprising would never forget those turbulent January days” and that “the aging rebels passed down their stories to the next generation” (187). Somehow, neither documented nor explained, the events of 1811 are supposed to have contributed to African American support for the Union army during the Civil War. Rasmussen also finds ways to connect the 1811 uprising to the Garveyite movement of the 1920s (216), the civil rights struggles of the 1950s (211), and the black power movement that followed it (216).
The three key primary sources cited by Rasmussen are a letter from naval commander John Shaw dated January 18, 1811, almost a week after the events, where Shaw describes the military force in New Orleans at the time as a “weak detachment” (120), but provides no details about the rebels themselves; a journal entry by the territorial governor William C. Claiborne, a “secondary character” who Rasmussen believes was unqualified for his position (52) and who the local French planters viewed as an “uncouth and ignorant intruder” (57), where Claiborne prayed to “God that the force sent from this City may soon meet the Brigands and arrest [stop] them in their murdering career” (120); and an abbreviated record of impromptu trials held by the planters designed to justify their actions “where the answers the slaves gave were irrelevant” (153). Rather than being newly discovered documentary evidence, these were previously published materials discussed by James Dormon in two articles published in 1977 in the journal Louisiana History and by Albert Thrasher in an edited collection On to New Orleans! Louisiana’s Heroic 1811 Slave Revolt (1996).
Some of the reportage in the book is just imagination, acceptable in fiction, but not as history. Rasmussen writes that we will never know what motivated Charles Deslondes, a trusted mixed race slave driver to “plot the overthrow of a system from which he benefited” (85). Rasmussen speculates “Perhaps Charles’s mother whispered to him the story of her own rape, or inculcated in him a sense of rage and resentment toward the white planter class. Perhaps the sons and brothers of the Trépagnier family had Charles’s woman for sport. Perhaps Charles could no longer consent to savagely beating his fellow slaves. Perhaps he could not bear the resentment, jealousy, and bitterness of all those who labored eighteen hours a day in the field under his command and management” (85). Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps.
A few pages later, Rasmussen rhetorically and somewhat poetically asks, “What did these men talk about in their secret meetings, behind closed doors of the slave cabins or under the tall trees on the edges of the fields?” While they “wrote nothing down,” Rasmussen claims “all evidence points to a revolutionary ferment. The slaves, it seems, were growing increasingly radical in their political views—radicalism that occasionally bubbled up into outright violence” (87-88). Four pages later, without any apparent additional documentation, Rasmussen adds that “as Charles, Quamana, and Harry met on that Sunday in 1811, they came well armed for battle with a powerful set of revolutionary political ideas, well-honed skills, and a complex organization of insurrectionary cells prepared to attack as soon as they gave the word” (91). Neither Rasmussen nor his readers know what actually happened on the night of January 8, 1811. “No records survive to tell us what Charles said to his men in the final minutes before they attacked” (98). However, once again, Rasmussen offers us a “perhaps.”
The other thing Rasmussen does is to supplement the sparse details we know about the events in New Orleans in 1811 by using descriptions of events and people taken from other times and places. This is illustrative, not definitive, and certainly does not represent new discoveries. Because, as Rasmussen concedes, “the stories of most who made these journeys will forever go untold” (25), he substitutes Olaudah Equiano’s description of his own childhood in West Africa, capture, and the Middle Passage, for the lives of the New Orleans Africans (25-31). His discussion of conditions on sugar plantations is based on a novel by Victor Hugo rather than historical studies (74). Even his description of the Louisiana swamps is based on an escape attempt by Solomon Northup forty years later and reported in his memoir Twelve Years a Slave. Northup, a runaway, was rightly terrified in the swamps being pursued by slave catchers and dogs, but he was alone, not native to the area, and certainly not a warrior committed to battle.
The book is a catalogue of errors that could have easily been corrected by a good editor or by checking with Wikipedia if the goal was a considered history rather than a political statement. Rasmussen argues that two African-born men, “Kook and Quamana, were in large part responsible for activating these African channels with revolutionary activity” (21-22). Rasmussen believes their names suggest they were Akans from a warlike Ashanti empire “in the height of its glory” (22) and he claims that they would have known how to use weapons because “these were things Akans learned from birth” (22). However, they were only about twenty-one in 1811 (Later in the text, on page 86, Rasmussen says Quamana was twenty-six) having arrived in New Orleans in 1806 at the age of fifteen, and they might not have arrived directly from Africa since many captives were “seasoned” in the Caribbean.
Although Rasmussen believes, based on speculation but not documentation, that “soon after their arrival in New Orleans, they chose to reject their new status as slaves and to begin plotting a ferocious rebellion” and cultivating a “network of like-minded slaves” (33), it is unclear how much training they would have had as warriors before they were captured and whether these young men would have had the stature in the slave community to lead a rebellion. Later in the text, Rasmussen argues that the slave army was using tactics developed in the West African Kingdom of the Kongo for use against better-armed European invaders. But the Kingdom of the Kongo, while on the Atlantic coast, is south of West Africa and is considered a Central African kingdom. It was over 1,200 miles from Ghana and the Ivory Coast where the Akan-Ashanti were based and it is extremely unlikely tactics used by its warriors there would not have been known to Kook and Quamana (130).
On page 36, Rasmussen writes “no record survives of just what Kook and Quamana said or how they plotted their uprising, but another revolt led by Akan people in New York in 1741 gives us a picture of how they might have operated.” Rasmussen proceeds to detail the workings of the New York City rebellion, a rebellion which never actually took place, and which, according to Harvard historian Jill Lepore, author of New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (2005) may not have even been plotted. Lepore compares the trial that followed the supposed plot and the public execution of thirty-four conspirators to the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts in 1692 (xvii). Rasmussen’s bibliography cites the Lepore work, but it is just not clear that he actually read it.
There is a much better three-volume fictional account of slave rebellion in the Americas written by Madison Smartt Bell that focuses on Haiti, which, while it does not pretend it is anything but fiction, is actually much better documented than Rasmussen’s book. In these novels, Bell carefully traces the development of the Haitian slave rebellion from isolated mob-like uprisings accompanied by massacres on all sides to a coordinated military effort for freedom and independence. It took years for Toussaint Louverture to build a disciplined and trained army from discombobulated and angry mobs, a process Rasmussen believes happened in Louisiana spontaneously and literally overnight. If somehow this were true, they never would have been defeated by a significantly smaller band of slaveholders so quickly.
I agree with many of the larger points discussed by Rasmussen, although these ideas and events have been examined before by many others, including seminal histories by Herbert Aptheker (1943) and C.L.R. James (1989) and the collective works of Eugene Genovese, particularly Roll, Jordan, Roll (1976) and From Rebellion to Revolution (1979). Africans in the Americas resisted slavery in many different ways. They built families, communities, and religious institutions that asserted their humanity. In the United States, enslaved Africans developed an emancipatory Christianity based on the story of Exodus and laced it with African symbols. African-American abolitionists in the north, particularly New York State, struggled for decades against slavery. In the Caribbean and South America, however, not in the United States, there were major successful slave rebellions. With over 200,000 African Americans in the Union army and navy, the American Civil War can be seen as an African American liberation struggle.
Ultimately, my primary concern is that the limitations of the Rasmussen book undermine the broader arguments he and others make about the nature of slavery and American society. I am disappointed that Henry Louis Gates, Eric Foner, the editors at HarperCollins, and Rasmussen’s advisors at Harvard University did not help him understand the importance of sound historical research and carefully documented conclusions for advancing our understanding of slavery and other forms of oppression as well as of liberation struggles in shaping American society.
Aptheker, H. (1943). American Negro Slave Revolts (New York: Columbia University).
Bell, M. (1995). All Soul’s Rising (New York: Pantheon).
Bell, M. (2000). Master of the Crossroads (New York: Pantheon).
Bell, M. (2004). The Stone that the Builder Refused (New York: Pantheon).
Dormon, J. (1977). “Notes and Documents,” Louisiana History 17: 473.
Dormon, J. (1977). “The Persistent Specter: Slave Rebellion in Territorial Louisiana,” Louisiana History 18 (4): 389-404.
Eakin, S. and Logsdon, J., eds. (1968). Twelve Years a Slave (Baton Rouge, LA: LSU).
Genovese, E. (1976). Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Vintage)
Genovese, E. (1979). From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World (Baton Rouge, LA: LSU)
James, C.L.R. (1989). The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, 2nd ed. (New York: Vintage).
Lepore, J. (2005). New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth Century Manhattan (New York: Knopf).
Rasmussen, D. (2011). American Uprising, The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt (New York: HarperCollins).
Thrasher, A. ed. (1996). On to New Orleans! Louisiana’s Heroic 1811 Slave Revolt, 2nd ed. (New Orleans, La: Cypress Press).
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