The Stono Rebellion was among the initial uprisings of slave laborers against the oppression of plantation holders. We look at the causes and effects of this landmark rebellion, and the impact it created on the course of American history.
What was their motive?
The rebel slaves were prompted into action by the Spanish government’s promise which ensured freedom for slaves escaping from British colonies, entering in Spanish Florida. Stono, incidentally, was located a mere 50 miles from the Spanish border.
February also marks the African-American History Month―a time to remind ourselves about the significance of the darkest era of American history―the era of slavery. While there remain countless documented instances of slave rebellion, the Stono incident stands out for numerous reasons.
Firstly, the rebellion was one of the earliest and largest instances of open communal discord, the kind that shook the British government into making stringent laws with regard to slave holding in the colony of South Carolina. Such was the impact of the incident that the South Carolina legislature passed the Negro Act in the following year to restrict slave assembly, banned their education, and closely monitored their movements.
Thus, although the Stono Rebellion was quickly snuffed out by the British, it certainly took them by surprise. It instigated them to introduce stringent measures to keep any repetitions in check.
Stono Rebellion Summary
On September 9, 1739, a slave named Jemmy (also referred to as “Cato” in some records) assembled a group of 20 Angolan slaves near Stono River, about 20 miles southwest of Charleston, South Carolina. The group was chanting slogans proclaiming their liberty as they headed towards St. Augustine in Spanish Florida, a haven for escaped slaves.
On their way, they ransacked an arms and ammunition warehouse, belonging to one Mr. Hutchenson, killed 2 white people, and stole firearms. Surging ahead, they began to gather more recruits, swelling to a number close to 80. The group set fire to several plantations, killing between 20 and 25 white people along the way.
Lt. Gov. William Bull, who was traveling along the same route with four companions got wind of the situation, and barely managed to make an escape. They were quick to gather a group of militia and concerned plantation owners who were bent on containing the rebellion and putting a stop to their killings. By afternoon, their number was sizable, and they were on their way to round up the rebel slaves. The British found them at a spot close to the Edisto River in a state of stupor, probably owing to the fact that most slaves were intoxicated after consuming stolen liquor.
An intense battle followed, in which the British managed to dominate the rebels, killing most of them instantly. The ones who managed to escape were eventually found and punished or even executed.
What Caused the Stono Rebellion?
A common factor seen in most incidents of collective rebellion is the cause that triggers it. More often than not, it is the relentless barrage of injustice applied to the subjects, who eventually retaliate with a formidable response of their own, taking the oppressors completely by surprise. Perusing over the events leading up to the Stono Rebellion mirror this characteristic.
By the dawn of the 18th century, the slave population in South Carolina had exceeded that of the whites. This was a result of a rise in agricultural activities, which called for an increase in the number of laborers as well. These were imported in large number from Africa to meet up with work demands. However, their growing numbers came with an advantage of sorts, placing them in a position to have a say in matters related to their working conditions. They had begun making minor attempts at negotiations regarding the same, buoyed from their collective strength.
The next, and more important contribution was the promise of freedom to escaped slaves entering the Spanish territory of Florida. A free black community existed at the time near St. Augustine; and the Spanish authorities made no secret that slaves escaped from British colonies would be assured freedom. Indeed, the site of the Stono Rebellion was merely a few miles away from the Spanish Florida border.
The Stono Rebellion by no means was a real threat to the British authorities―quashing it was all in a day’s work for them. It did, however, move the spotlight on to the underlying problems posed by the growing numbers of slaves, particularly those coming from the Portuguese-speaking region of Angola and Congo in west-central Africa. Both these nations were officially Catholic, and the citizens were fervent followers of the faith. Incidentally, the date of the Stono Rebellion coincided with the Feast Day of Virgin Mary, a day of great significance to the largely-Catholic slave community. Being Portuguese speakers, the slaves were comfortable communicating with those coming in from Spanish Florida, bearing news related to the proclamation of freedom under Spanish rule.
These factors prompted the British to strictly screen slave imports, particularly those coming to Charleston. It was stipulated that importing slaves from the Angola-Congo region was to be avoided.
The Negro Act of 1740 was passed by the British legislature the very next year, following the rebellion. The Act made it illegal for slaves to move abroad, assemble in groups, earn money, and learn English. Owners were permitted to kill rebellious slaves, if necessary. Additionally, the Act also sought to improve working conditions for slaves, with a view to discourage the idea of rebellion.
It enforced penalties on planters who exploited their slaves by way of excessive work or ruthless punishments. Expectedly, however, planters were almost never found guilty of flouting rules, as the court did not admit slave testimonies against white people.
The Stono River Slave Rebellion Site situated at the Hutchinson warehouse was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1974.