by edmund w lewis Black commentator lousiana weekly
Charles Deslondes was one of the slave leaders of the 1811 German Coast Uprising, a slave revolt that began on January 8, 1811 in the Territory of Orleans.
Two hundred years ago, Charles Deslondes and a band of enslaved Africans embarked on a quest to liberate themselves and establish a free Black republic in New Orleans.
Before they rose up against their oppressors, Deslondes, Kook, Quamana and other African revolutionaries laid the foundation for their rebellion by organizing clandestine meetings with other enslaved Africans and free people of color in the River Parishes and throughout New Orleans. They exchanged information and coordinated their plan as they ran errands for their slave masters and gathered in places like Congo Square in New Orleans, a historical landmark perhaps best known for being the birthplace of jazz.
One of the critical factors that led to the 1811 slave revolt was a steady influx of enslaved Africans to work the sugar cane plantations in and around New Orleans. When it came to slavery in the United States, New Orleans was the end of the line, the destination many enslaved Africans learned to dread when white slave masters threatened to send disruptive and disobedient slaves “down South.”
Many of the nation’s most rebellious Africans were sent to New Orleans because over-seers failed to break their independent spirits and there was a constant need to replenish the slave labor force because of the harsh working conditions and climate in Louisiana.
This steady influx of new slave laborers guaranteed that a significant percentage of the enslaved Africans in New Orleans and surrounding areas possessed African cultural continuity, a firm grasp of their identities as African men, women and children with their historical, cultural and geographical roots intact. They were people who had tasted freedom and did not hesitate to seek to liberate themselves “by any means necessary.”
This revolt began in the River Parishes on Jan. 8, 1811, just two days after the start of the annual Carnival season. Recognizing that their oppressors would be distracted by the many parties along the Mississippi River and the flow of alcohol, these rebels decided to kill their masters and assemble an army as they marched toward New Orleans to establish a free Black nation. They were inspired by the shining example set by the Haitian Revolution, which led to the creation of the first Black republic in the Western Hemisphere.
During the rebellion, the slaves managed to kill two slave owners and set fire to some of the plantations where they had toiled in the unforgiving sun. Historians say that they donned military uniforms and used horses as they marched defiantly in cold January rain down a muddy road toward the Crescent City.
They were caught off guard by a coalition of federal troops and local militia who possessed superior weaponry and overtook the rebels at an inopportune moment. It was a one-sided battle that left many of the rebels dead and forced others to flee to the swamps. After the revolt was suppressed, the enslaved Africans who survived the initial confrontation with the French planters who decided to take matters into their own hands rather than wait on federal troops were mostly tried and executed.
Some of them stood trial on the Noel Destrehan Plantation where 18 of the 25 questioned were found guilty while others were held at the Cabildo in the French Quarter —which served as City Hall at the time of the revolt — until they could be tried.
After they were killed, the enslaved Africans’ bodies were mutilated and they were decapitated, with their heads being placed on poles along the Mississippi River levees in the River Parishes and in Jackson Square as a reminder of the consequences of challenging white power.
Charles Deslondes never stood trial. He was captured by whites who chopped off his hands, shot him repeatedly in the legs and torso and placed him on a pile of burning wood while he was still alive.
Governor William C.C. Claiborne, an astute politician, used the revolt and its aftermath to nudge Louisiana into accepting statehood and used the fear and paranoia the uprising generated to justify acts of aggression against territories controlled by Spain like West Florida and New Mexico.
Claiborne also saw to it that the plantation owners whose slaves were executed for participating in the revolt were paid $300 per slave by the federal government in order to gain their political support for stricter slave-control laws and other policies.
While he essentially used the revolt to gain support to strengthen the laws that upheld slavery and justify Westward Expansion of the United States, Claiborne also downplayed the uprising’s significance by dismissing it as a criminal act committed by “bandits.”
The revolt’s raw power and significance can be felt in the accounts of whites who fled the River Parishes and sought refuge in New Orleans after the revolt began. Rumors of another revolt the same year caused another flood of whites to flee the River Parishes in droves only to discover that it was a false alarm.
For most of the 200 years that have passed since the uprising, there has been very little talk among whites about what transpired. The descendants of the rebels who survived the armed conflict with whites and escaped the subsequent tribunals should be commended for sharing their stories with loved ones and keeping the memory of these brave souls alive. We owe them an immeasurable debt of gratitude and homage.
Two hundred years after the revolt, the city of New Orleans and its elected officials still haven’t done very much to acknowledge that the uprising took place or to honor the memory of those Black freedom fighters who were every bit as heroic as famed leaders like Patrick Henry, Gen. Ulysses Grant and George Washington.
While the city never got around to honoring or even remembering these courageous souls who risked everything to free themselves, it has managed to erect more than a handful of monuments to white power and privilege like Robert E. Lee Circle, the Liberty Monument, Jefferson Davis Parkway and Jackson Square, named for the same Andrew Jackson who infamously recommended that the government give Native Americans blankets once used by smallpox patients to decimate their numbers.
No city official has every apologized for the city’s role in suppressing the slave revolt and punishing its participants.
While New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu didn’t find time to issue a formal apology last week, he was videotaped second-lining and partying as the city officially kicked off the start of the 2011 Carnival season.
Adding insult to injury, Claiborne Avenue, the longest street in New Orleans, was named for the same elected official who did everything in his power to marginalize the largest slave revolt in U.S. history because it suited his agenda.
Two hundred years later, the plantations that once demanded the blood, sweat and tears of Black men, women and children are still sparkling gems along the Mississippi River that can boast of flawless architecture, manicured lawns and a constant flow of visitors eager to learn how the original inhabi-tants of these estates lived like antebellum kings and queens.
Visitors to these plantations seldom get a realistic view of what life must have been like for the enslaved Africans who made this vulgar display of wealth and power possible. Nor are they told about the way the mosquitoes, oppressive heat and toil all but guaranteed that most slaves would die young. It is of critical importance to remember that once slavery was abolished, the wealth generated by centuries of exploitation was not redistributed among the former slaves. They were cast aside and often-times left to fend for themselves or endure more exploitation as sharecroppers.
Two hundred years after the 1811 slave revolt, wealthy and powerful whites still control a predominant-ly Black city that has often been called the most African city in America. While New Orleans may truly be the most African city in America, it is also a city where whites — many of whom moved to surround-ing parishes generations ago — have never relinquished control of the city and its resources.
While Blacks have made significant contributions to the city’s food, music and culture, that has not translated into any significant wealth for the Black masses. The phenomenal music brought to New Orleans by enslaved Africans and honed in Congo Square has captured the imagination of people theworld over for centuries but has not led to the creation of many Black-owned nightclubs or record labels.
The machiavellian and draconian practices that once kept Africans enslaved are still being used to limit the educational and economic opportunities afforded Blacks in New Orleans.
Wealthy and powerful whites who probably cannot remember the last time they had a relative enrolled in a New Orleans public school bankroll the campaigns of school board candidates to ensure that they have a say in who gets elected and who is awarded lucrative contracts. While there is no shortage of money spent on candidates’ campaigns, very little of this money is earmarked to buy things like new textbooks, toilet paper or even pencils for today’s students who continue to languish in under funded, overcrowded schools despite the so-called charter school revolution.
This long tradition of siphoning resources from public schools and relentlessly impeding their ability to prepare students for college or gainful employment has led directly to the creation of a permanent Black underclass that is relied upon by the wealthy and powerful business community to work low-paying, dead-end jobs in the tourism industry and fuel the growth of the prison-industrial complex.
In the cruelest of ironies, the very people most exploited and victimized by these tyrannical policies and practices are relentlessly vilified, ridiculed and blamed for the conditions under which they are forced to live.
Fear of the murders and acts of violence and desperation caused by these harsh conditions is used to garner additional support for a criminal justice system that has never treated Blacks fairly and does not hesitate to break its own rules when it suits its purpose.
A study titled “A House Divided” that was conducted by New Orleans political pollster Silas Lee earlier this decade found that Black residents still earn only a fraction of the incomes enjoyed by their white counterparts and continue to lag behind whites in a laundry list of categories that includes educational attainment and health.
Two hundred years later, white fear of Blacks is still being used by white elected officials to keep the races divided and to increase their political power. White fear is being used today to undermine the current president’s efforts to trans-form America into a democratic society where all who live here enjoy equal protection under the law.
Finally, white fear is being used to convince poor and working-class whites to oppose the transformation of a tax system that routinely practices taxation without representation and forces those with meager incomes to carry a heavier tax load than the wealthiest among us.
As we commemorate the 1811 slave revolt, it is important to remember that when Charles Deslondes and his comrades waged a war against their oppressors, they were taking on a formidable foe at the epicenter of white power and privilege. The fact that their rebellion failed to overthrow slavery in the region did not make their efforts any less heroic or significant.
When we honor them, we honor the fierce independence our ancestors knew before they were dragged to these shores in shackles and the resilience and courage they displayed even in the face of raw, unspeakable power. We honor the sacrifices they made for us and their parting gift to us: The wisdom that comes with knowing that there are things that are worth dying for.
While remembering them is important, it is more critical that we take up the mantle and con-tinue to move this city, state and nation toward becoming a democratic and just republic where all men, women and children are free and equal.
BlackCommentator.com Guest Commentator Edmund W. Lewis, Editor is the Editor of The Louisiana Weekly, Established in 1925 it is one of the oldest publications in the United States specifically for the African-American community. It is published in New Orleans every Monday. Click here to contact the Louisiana Weekly.