- African Uprisings
Compared to bondmen in other parts of the Americas, slaves in what would become the United States rarely rose for their freedom in large numbers. Demographic realities worked against successful slave revolts on the British mainland, where most colonies housed a white majority population; and however harsh life might be for black residents of colonial Manhattan or the Chesapeake, their existence was rarely as cruel or deadly as could be found in Spanish Cuba or French Saint Domingue. By the early decades of the eighteenth century, enslaved Virginians stood a reasonable chance of finding a spouse and starting a family, factors that also forced potential rebels to think hard about banding together with others in a potentially suicidal revolt.
Still, there were exceptions. Almost from the moment of its founding, South Carolina closely resembled other Caribbean colonies. A majority of its residents were black, and slaves wading the Lowcountry's humid rice fields fell victim to dysentery, malaria, and typhoid fever. Bondmen spent longs hours in the hot sun, digging ditches and packing the embankments required of rice cultivation. Far to the east and half a century later, labor in the sugar plantations along the lower Mississippi was equally brutal. By 1810, Louisiana's St. Charles Parish was 75 percent enslaved or "free colored," roughly double the rate of Virginia in the same year. With little to lose and numbers in their favor, Carolina and Louisiana bondmen were far more likely to risk their necks—and a large number did near Charles Town in 1739 and near New Orleans in 1811. Over the years, scholars have written a number of articles and [End Page 222] essays about these two revolts, but now three new studies grant the episodes the book-length treatments they deserve.
The best of the three is Cry Liberty by prolific legal scholar Peter Charles Hoffer, the author of an admired study of the New York City slave conspiracy of 1741. Neither of these revolts left behind the wealth of documentation available to chroniclers of nineteenth-century servile revolts and plots, and so none of the accounts under review here are lengthy. At approximately 80,000 words, literary scholar Jack Shuler's is the longest. As a result, even more than when writing about the so-called historically inarticulate, the three authors are forced to speculate as to what, precisely, motivated these slaves to venture their lives and what, exactly, they wished to achieve if successful.1
This relative dearth of data allows Hoffer the freedom to reconsider the origins of the revolt. Although previous scholars, particularly Peter Wood and Ira Berlin, have argued that the revolt must have involved considerable planning, Hoffer instead theorizes that the killings began only after a burglary went bad. Lieutenant Governor William Bull, Jr., the son of the acting governor in 1739, later referred to some of the rebels as members of "a road crew," but Hoffer's research led him to suspect that they were Africans tasked with digging a drainage ditch. Weary and hungry, they broke into Hutchenson's store in search of food and drink. Expecting the store to be uninhabited, the rebels instead encountered two whites, one of them possibly the night watchman. "What happened in the store, we can never know," Hoffer writes (p. 81). But the result was the death of two white men; and having committed a capital crime, the burglars had little choice but to become rebels. So while earlier scholars depict the rebels breaking into the store in search of weapons, Hoffer has them arm themselves only out of necessity. Now in search of allies, the Africans marched on nearby estates...