Off the burnt-out grassy shoulder of US Highway 17, just outside of Charleston, lies a small, neglected roadside plaque. The sun-faded and cracked lettering on the commemoration offer a terse summary of a forgotten slave rebellion. Described as “the bloodiest slave revolt in colonial America,” the Stono Rebellion of 1739 in South Carolina, though quickly struck down and criminally under-documented, reshaped the Plantation complex as we know it today. On the morning of September 9, 1739, close to two dozen slaves gathered near the Stono River, attacked a local storehouse to attain firearms, and began moving southward toward St. Augustine, Florida. The rebel party killed upwards of 20 white settlers and burned multiple buildings before finally being suppressed by the colonial militia the next day. This type of violent insurrection was unprecedented at the time, sent shockwaves across South Carolina and the other colonies, and acted as the precursor to the reactionary Negro Act of 1740.
Fearing subsequent slave revolts and uprisings, draconian legislators prohibited slaves from learning to read and write. The Negro Act, among other things, also made it illegal for enslaved Africans to move abroad, assemble in groups, raise food, and earn money in any capacity. Most importantly, the legislation fuelled racial cataloguing and gave rise to a new breed of white supremacy. The act remained in effect until 1865. The Stono Rebellion marked a significant escalation of black resistance to slavery in South Carolina, shook the Plantation complex to its core, and precipitated legislation that would further reduce and challenge the humanity of chattel slaves in the Colonial and Antebellum South up until the end of the Civil War.
Before breaking down the implications of the backward-looking Negro Act of 1740, the story of the event that spurred it into legislation must be told. Following a meeting the night before, before daybreak on September 9, 1739, over twenty Kongolese slave-conspirators gathered on the banks of the Stono River near St. Paul’s Parish, South Carolina. Given that Sunday was the day that “the planters allow them to work for themselves,” writes an unknown white official whose testimony is one of the only first-hand accounts of the rebellion, the ensuing attack came as a complete surprise to the colonists. Having stolen guns and ammunition from a local storehouse and decapitating the two storekeepers, the rebels, led by a man named Cato or Jemmy, moved southward from the Stono Bridge, killing three more whites and burning a house before sun-up. Moving from plantation to plantation, the rebels moved quickly, “pillaging and burning every house and killing all slave owners and their families – twenty or more in total,” writes historian Jack Shuler. Recruiting more slave insurgents on their drive southward towards Georgia, the bloodshed continued until about eleven o’clock, when by extraordinary coincidence, the rebel troop crossed paths with Lieutenant Governor William Bull before stopping in a field near the Edisto River to rest. Narrowly escaping a grisly death on horseback, Lt. Gov. Bull sounded the alarm and alerted the local militia. Instead of harnessing their momentum and pushing further southward, and with their numbers swollen to between sixty and one hundred slaves, the rebels reportedly stopped in the field and began to sing, dance, beat drums, and fly flags as a means of attracting more radicals. It was in this field by Jacksonborough ferry on the Edisto River where the uprising would be suppressed for good. At approximately four o’clock that afternoon, Bull’s men and the militia – about one hundred armed men altogether – caught up with the insurgents and stifled the bloody rebellion. The bulk of the rebellious slaves were killed in combat. Among the captured, the supposed leaders of the insurrection were decapitated, the willing insurgents shot, and the slaves believed to have been coerced to join the rebellion were released. Upwards of thirty escaped rebels were tracked down and killed over the following two weeks. Alas, the Stono Rebellion was quelled, but “echoes of the revolt lingered,” writes Stono authority Mark M. Smith. A week later militiamen disbanded a large group of rebels thirty miles south, and while authorities insisted that the threat of slave revolts died with the Stono insurgents, many planters and colonists remained “cagey”; some even fled the region. The violent slave uprising left glaring psychological scars on the white populous of South Carolina. The delicate relationship of subjugation between slaveholders and slaves – the bedrock of the Plantation complex – had been turned on its head, and extreme countermeasures would be taken to restore the balance of power.
Marking a momentous escalation of black resistance to slavery, the Stono Rebellion had South Carolinians rightfully terrified. Claiming the lives of over twenty whites with “remarkable ease,” the Stono rebels showcased their ability to act in concert, display forceful leadership, and execute premeditated large-scale insurgency, smashing the colonial slaveholder’s locus of control to pieces. With black slaves accounting for more than half of the population of colonial South Carolina, 12,000 of 21,000, the steps taken by white authorities during the immediate aftermath of Stono would prove crucial to the survival of the colony and the institution of slavery as a whole. On a local scale, white authorities rewarded slaves who appeared to maintain their loyalty to whites during the rebellion, and, as a temporary benevolent gesture aimed at assuaging black-white hostilities, even imposed penalties on slaveholders who “imposed such excessive work or such brutal punishments that the likelihood of revolt was enhanced.” In the subsequent months on a legislative scale, revisions were made to the Negro Duty Act designed to curtail the uneven ratio of blacks to whites by imposing heavy taxes on incoming slaves to the colony. Amendments were also made to the Patrol Act, enhancing patrol systems and establishing a greater militia presence both as a comfort to colonists and a deterrent to aspiring rebels. On May 10, 1740, eight months after the Stono Rebellion, the South Carolina General Assembly enacted the Negro Act, the laws of which would further marginalize black slaves and shape the institution of American slavery up until the end of the Civil War.
Prior to examining the stringent laws laid down in the Negro Act of 1740, one must first understand the political and diplomatic climate of the times and the assumptions under which policy-makers were operating. Leading up to the Stono uprising in 1739, maritime aggression and imperial hostilities between England and Spain came to a head during the War of Jenkins Ear. The effects of this conflict reached the shores of the New World along the Florida-Georgia line, dividing British America from Spanish Florida. Leading up to this escalation, the Spanish king issued an edict in 1733, aimed to incite revolts British colonies and referred to as cédula propaganda, that offered runaway slaves their freedom if they successfully defected southward to St. Augustine, Florida. Many South Carolinian slaves were exposed to this type of propaganda at the Sunday markets leading up to 1739 and it was speculated by policy-makers in the wake of the revolt, that slave literacy was a prime factor in sparking the bloody insurrection. In fact, this assumption was not at all unfounded and probably accurate given the Kongolese background of the rebellious Stono slaves according to historian John K. Thornton. Citing the “Jesuit missions and schools in the Kingdom of Angola”, a significant percentage of black slaves professing Catholicism, and their knowledge of the Portuguese language from years of European-African contact, “which was as near Spanish as Scotch is to English,” making the case for black receptivity to Spanish cédula propaganda. Likely learning of escalated tensions between Britain and Spain in early-September of 1739, policy-makers concluded that literate black slaves were calculated in their plans and timed their revolt with the unofficial declaration of war between the two imperial powers.
The dearth of primary sources surrounding the Stono Rebellion is truly remarkable. Two accounts of the insurrection, from both a white and black perspective stand out, and have been championed by historian Mark M. Smith in clarifying the motives of the rebels, both perceived and real. These accounts – one written and one orally-transcribed – help us understand the happenings of September 9, 1739 and the cruel reactionary policies that were enacted in the spring of 1740. The first account was written by an unknown white official, and although lengthy, included corroborating evidence that supports the Spanish cédula argument and ipso facto slave literacy as the root cause of the slave revolt.
Sometime since there was a Proclamation published at Augustine, in which the King of Spain promised Protection and freedom to all Negroes Slaves that would resort thither. Certain Negroes belonging to Captain Davis escaped to Augustine, and were received there. . . The good reception of the Negroes at Augustine was spread about. Several attempted to escape to the Spaniards… On the 9th day of September last, being Sunday, which is the day the Planters allow them to work for themselves, Some Angola Negroes assembled to the number of Twenty; and one who was called Jemmy was their Captain.
This preamble to a logistical breakdown of the rebellion itself is significant in that it outlines Spanish cédula propaganda as a motive, and refers to the rebels as “Angola Negroes.” The linguistic roots, chiefly Portuguese, of these semi-literate Angolan, or Kongolese, slaves are who prosecutors indicted and who policy-makers feared would incite further uprisings when they drafted the Negro Act. The second account is verbal account, given by George Cato, the great grandson of Cato (Jemmy), the leader of the Stono Rebellion. The passed-down narrative was recorded in 1930, and though the account is generations removed from the uprising, it offers the only non-white perspective on the clash. Historian Mark M. Smith stresses that “oral tradition among nonliterate or barely literate peoples is often reliable” and, subjective hyperbole aside, the people, places, and names mentioned have been corroborated.
As it come down to me, I thinks de first Cato take a darin’ chance on losin’ his life, not so much for his own benefit as it was to help others. He was not lak some slaves, much ’bused by deir masters. My kinfolks not ’bused. Da why, I reckons, de captain of de slaves was picked by them. Cato was teached how to read and write…Commander Cato speak for de crowd. He say: ‘We don’t lak slavery. We start to jine de Spanish in Florida. We surrender but we not whipped yet and we is not converted.
Cato’s revolutionary spirit, ability to “read and write”, and his knowledge of proposed freedom offered in “Spanish Florida” are key takeaways from this excerpt of George Cato’s account and support the slave-literacy hypothesis that precipitated both the insurgency and the reactionary policies.
With the uprising quashed, the root cause agreed upon, and the solidarity of the colony hanging in the balance, the passing of the Negro Act of 1740 marked a watershed moment in American history and set forth laws that would institutionalize slavery until its abolition. Communications played an integral role in the Stono Rebellion and the sanctions laid down in Negro Act reflected that. “Two forms of (slave) literacy” became “punishable by law: the mastery of letters, and the mastery of the drum,” writes Stono aficionado Jack Shuler. Assemblies of black slaves were outlawed, slaves learning to read or write was prohibited, and traditional black cultural practices, like drum-playing, were banned. Laws aimed at the suppression of African- American culture as a means of expressing humanity would prove successful, but the legislators would not stop there. One must keep in mind that colonial slave laws before 1740 were “piecemeal” at best. “Though slavery was always slavery in the sense of defining and selling human beings as salable property,” writes historian David Brion Davis, the Negro Act of 1740 formally codified this sentiment. In enacting these slave codes, the South Carolina General Assembly stabilized the dynamics of a post-Stono colony by formally changing the “legal status of slaves from freehold property to chattel.” Apart from an official legal designation and prohibitive laws on freedom of expression, the most racially-charged provisions set forth in the Negro Act included the pass system and laws regarding the destruction of property. The pass system regarded any black person within the colony as slave, unless they could provide documentation proving otherwise. The law allowed for, writes Shuler, “any white person, planter or pauper” to “stop any black person and demand proof of their status.” Laws concerning the destruction of property were even more disturbing. Any slave who destroyed white property – be it farm equipment, cattle, or even a “bag of rice” – would be executed; while any white person who destroyed white property (slaves included) would be subject to a fine. In observing Jack Shuler’s interpretations of the property laws and the pass system, it is plain to see the legislators’ goal: the fomentation of racism by establishing a socio-ethnic hierarchy.
By declassifying African-Americans as humans and placing them at the bottom of the hierarchy, and elevating even the poorest white persons as vigilante enforcers of the law, indiscriminate violence and abuse towards blacks went from ‘planter privilege’ to ‘prerogative of the people’ overnight. This heinous breed of codified racial “cataloging” would remain unrivaled until the birth of Nazism in the 20th century. If the literary and cultural bans set out to suppress the humanity of South Carolinian black slaves, then the racially-divisive typology, pass system, and property laws delineated in the Negro Act of 1740 undoubtedly aimed to snuff out whatever humanity they had left. The key revolutionary seed of Stono Rebellion was slave literacy, with Spanish cédula figuring prominently as a germinating expedient. The reactionary laws of the Negro Act were a direct response to the slave revolt and aimed to further dehumanize African-Americans as means of stabilizing racial power dynamics in colonial South Carolina. The vestiges of this codified white supremacy can still be felt today across North America as civil rights activists fight for racial equality. The Stono Rebellion, although ultimately suppressed, was a symbol of spiritual triumph over tyranny and bondage, while the legislation of the Negro Act presented the obstacles through which slaves and the flickering light of humanity would navigate for 125 more years.