“[O]n the Ninth of September last at night a Great number of Negroes arose in rebellion, broke open a store where they got arms killed twenty one White Persons and were marching in a daring manner out of the Province.”
South Carolina Lieutenant Governor William Bull’s letter to the British Royal Council stands as the only surviving eyewitness account of the events surrounding the 1739 Stono Rebellion, the largest slave uprising in the British North American colonies. The revolt failed to win freedom for its participants and resulted in the deaths of more than sixty people—mostly enslaved Africans. It fed white colonial fears about the possibility of significant violent resistance by the people they kept as chattel. Modern historians agree that the scope of the Stono Rebellion itself paled in comparison to the long-term effects on white and black Americans alike.
Bull’s status as a firsthand witness was accidental. Traveling back to Charles Town in the South Carolina colony (now Charleston),he and a small group of companions encountered the rebels on the road. Several weeks later, Bull recounted his group’s flight, told of later efforts to crush the rebellion, and suggested further military steps to prevent similar rebellions.
When the Stono Rebellion took place in late 1739, it marked the height of a period of growing tensions between South Carolina’s white slave-owning minority and enslaved black population. Black slaves—many forcibly imported from Africa, others born into slavery in the Americas—had long outnumbered white colonists in the Carolinas; by 1740, estimates placed the black population at just over 39,000, nearly double the roughly 20,000 white South Carolinians. Although slaves formally lacked even basic civil rights during the early eighteenth century, their numbers and the level of skill required of both agricultural and crafts laborers in this pre-industrial era meant that, in practice, slaves were often able to assemble, move from plantation to plantation at will, and exercise some autonomy over their work.
This racial imbalance in the population, along with other issues, contributed to concerns among white colonists that the enslaved population, on which their agricultural economy was greatly dependent, could mount an effective rebellion to achieve liberty. During the two decades preceding the Stono Rebellion, many slaves took matters into their own hands by running away, some successful and others not. The intended destination for a fair portion of these runaways was St. Augustine, Florida, then under the control of the Spanish. From the late seventeenth century, the Spanish city had officially offered freedom to any English slave who managed to escape there; in reality, this freedom was not always granted, and slaves were returned to their colonial masters. By 1733, however, tensions between Spain and Great Britain were building, and such cooperation ceased. The Spanish king issued a declaration assuring escaped slaves liberty in Florida. As word spread northward, white fears of black desertion grew.
Several events closely preceded the Stono Rebellion. Disease sickened and killed many residents of Charleston during the late summer. The Security Act, a law requiring white colonists to carry arms to church on Sundays, had been announced that August. Finally, news of the looming War of Jenkins’s Ear between Britain and Spain reached South Carolina. Historians have identified all of these as likely contributing factors to the uprising on September 9.
It was on this day in 1739 that a group of slaves marched down the road leading to St. Augustine, Florida, chanting the world liberty and holding banners that read the same message. Their journey had begun at the Stono River, about twenty miles from Charlestown. They recruited others as they moved south, bringing their number to about one hundred. The local militia dispersed the group as they rested. Some were killed in the ensuing clash. Others were hunted down and arrested, only to be hanged later.
Nearly a month after the uprising began, Bull penned a letter to his superiors at the British Royal Council detailing the revolt, its aftermath, and his suggestions for preventing such uprisings in the future. Yet even after Bull’s letter crossed the Atlantic, white concerns over black rebellions remained high. These concerns were not entirely unfounded; some participants in the revolt, including one of its ringleaders, had not been caught; and other, smaller rebellions sprung up over the next several months.
A native of South Carolina, William Bull was born in April of 1683 to Colonel Stephen Bull, a Welsh immigrant who had been one of the colony’s first settlers in about 1670; his mother’s name is lost to history. After arriving in South Carolina, the elder Bull had served in the colonial government and helped select the site of Charleston as he built a fortune in land speculation and rice production on his plantation, Ashley Hall.
Like his father, Bull became a large-scale planter and a land surveyor. In 1706, he won his first election to the colonial assembly, serving in that body off and on over the next ten to fifteen years; sources differ on the exact dates of his time in the legislature. By this time, Bull had married Mary Quintyne, the daughter of a South Carolina landowner. The couple went on to have five children. Bull’s sons, Stephen and William, were also active in colonial government. The latter served as governor for several years in the period preceding the American Revolution.
Bull also served as a militia captain during the bloody Yamassee War of 1715 and 1716, which pitted a collection of regional American Indian groups against white South Carolinian colonists. In this role, Bull took part in the 1716 Convention of Tugaloo, which resulted in amity between the colonists and Cherokee for several years. Later in his career, Bull acted as one of the colony’s Indian commissioners. After the Yamassee War, Bull served on the council of the Lords Proprietors in 1719, and, after the changeover from proprietary to royal colony, on the new royal council from 1720 to 1737.
Because of Bull’s experience with American Indians and his skill as a surveyor, he was selected to assist James Oglethorpe in establishing the colony of Georgia in 1733, contributing particularly to the foundation of the coastal town of Savannah. In 1737, Bull became the acting governor of South Carolina after the incumbent died in office. It was in this capacity that Bull had a role in the Stono affair. By the time his tenure ended in 1744, Bull had also seen the colony through a yellow fever epidemic, a fire that greatly damaged Charles Town, conflict with the Spanish to the south, and a period of relative peace with local American Indians. Bull closed out his public career as the Anglican commissioner of Prince William parish near Sheldon, South Carolina. He died on March 21, 1755, in Sheldon.
William Bull’s letter to the British Royal Council remains the sole and thus by default most important surviving eyewitness account of the 1739 Stono Rebellion. This uprising rocked South Carolina and reshaped race relations in the southeastern colonies for decades to come. Although this letter is supplemented by contemporary accounts written by people living in the region who experienced the events tangentially, the overall scarcity of primary sources—including a complete lack of representation of the enslaved rebels themselves—means that the historian must carefully consider both what Bull does and does not say in order to gain a fuller understanding of this event and its ramifications. Bull’s words and objective tone suggest a certain finality to the incident that presumably served to place him in a positive light but did not always reflect reality. Indeed, Bull’s brevity of description belies the scope of the rebellion that actually took place.
Considerable time passed between the dramatic events of the Stono uprising on September 9 and the composition of Bull’s letter on October 5. This letter had the dual purpose of informing the authorities who ultimately controlled the colony of the dramatic events that had taken place and, presumably, of placing Bull’s own involvement in the affair in the best possible light. Some historians have speculated that this latter goal kept Bull from providing a fuller report of the matter. The drive to protect his reputation as an effective governor able to keep peace within the colony may also have deterred Bull from discussing the true extent to which the rebels remained at large at the time of the letter’s composition. It has been noted that Bull had the time to perform his own investigation of the uprising by questioning planters and slaves and to consider the place of Stono in a larger colonial context. Yet the letter does not suggest that Bull did this, preferring—as might be expected—to serve his own interests by emphasizing mostly in his letter that the affair had been dealt with.
To open his discussion of the Stono uprising, Bull points a firm finger at Spain and the Spanish king’s promise of freedom to any slave who escaped from the English colonies to Spanish Florida. Before the growing conflicts between Spain and England, Spain had habitually returned escaped slaves form Spanish Florida to the English colonies. However, once England had declared war on Spain, Spanish Florida became a safe haven for fugitive slaves.
By May of 1739, the declaration had incited enough slaves to attempt escape that the English colonial government considered it a problem; a successful escape effort by a small group of slaves who had worked as cattle hunters and thus were especially familiar with the land caused great concern among slaveholders that April. Two runaways from the group were captured and publicly punished—one whipped and the other executed—but colonial authorities felt that stronger measures were needed to keep other slaves from attempting similar escapes.
Fears of slave insurrections and desertions grew among white South Carolinians through 1739. Bull had written to the Crown that the minority white colonists were afraid that the black majority population would rise up and overthrow them, and believed that the colonial government would be unable to withstand a concerted effort to achieve that end. Based on Bull’s comment that “several parties have deserted…[and] many attempts of others have been discovered and prevented,” were very real. The Spanish decision to grant freedom to British slaves bolstered by stories of successful escapes made liberty for those enslaved persons living within a reasonable distance of the border a real possibility. Bull thus connects the Stono Rebellion to the ongoing issue of slave desertions to St. Augustine, in Spanish Florida.
Next, Bull succinctly sums up the outbreak of the rebellion on September 9 by stating that the participants “broke open a store where they got arms killed twenty one White Persons and were marching in a daring manner out of the Province killing all they met and burning the Houses of the Road through which they passed,” but this short description fails in several respects. A rebellion of the size and scope of the Stono Rebellion seems unlikely to have been conceived and executed on the spot, implying that the rebels saw September 9 as an auspicious time to launch their uprising.
Unlike Bull—who placed the blame exclusively on the attraction of St. Augustine and freedom without consideration for the reason why the event happened precisely when it did—historians have suggested several possible factors contributing to the outbreak of the rebellion on September 9. Among these causes is the Spanish decision to assure liberty to escaped slaves, which had contributed to runaway attempts for several months previously. In addition, however, historians have pointed to potential factors closer to home. In August, word had spread of the Security Act, requiring white men to carry weapons with them to Sunday church services. The period when white masters attended church had long afforded slaves an opportunity to gather unsupervised, and—as the Stono uprising broke out during a time when planters were at church—it is possible that its organizers hoped to improve their chances of success by making their attempt before the law became effective later in September. Late summer also brought a deadly outbreak of yellow fever to Charleston, and illness interfered with the city’s day-to-day business, closing schools and newspapers and even greatly delaying a meeting of the colonial legislature. Finally, news of the recent declaration of war between Britain and Spain had reached the colony the week preceding the outbreak, possibly serving as an immediate incentive to set plans for the escape attempt in motion as the rebels believed Spanish Florida would certainly welcome their group.
Bull’s account does cover the essential facts of the beginning of the rebellion, but leaves out some illuminating details found in other contemporary sources that were almost certainly known to the lieutenant governor. An account of the rebellion written by an unknown author in Georgia at about the same time offers an interesting comparison. Bull’s letter generalizes the group of rebels at the outset as “a Great Number,” while the Georgia account numbers the participants more specifically as twenty. This account also provides the name of the group’s leader, Jemmy; still other reports give it as Cato, but most historians agree that the former name is more accurate. According to the Georgia report, the twenty rebels had to overcome just two men at the weapons shop in order to collect the arms and gunpowder kept there. Bull’s letter, however, does not point out this great imbalance between black rebels and white shopkeepers; perhaps the lieutenant governor saw this detail as unimportant, or perhaps he believed leaving the specifics out allowed the reader to imagine a large and more powerful force of rebels more obviously unable to be easily put down by colonial forces.
The Georgia account also notes the rebels did not, in fact, kill every white person they encountered, in contrast to Bull’s assertion that the group killed “all they met.” Instead, the Georgia author specifically comments that the rebels bypassed the tavern belonging to a Mr. Wallace, because he treated his slaves well. This suggests that the white observers killed by the rebels were in large part the opposite, although the group murdered family members and passers-by alike. As the rebels passed from place to place, the group grew; some slaves joined willingly, but others had to be coerced so that none remained to sound the alarm. The trail of destruction traveled along the Pons Pons Road, which connected South Carolina with the rebels’ presumed destination of St. Augustine.
Bull himself enters the story at this point, coincidentally riding along the Pons Pons Road toward Charleston from Granville County, where a court session had taken place. He notes that at about eleven in the morning his group encountered the Stono rebels, whose numbers had grown to an estimated sixty participants by this time. Armed with stolen weapons, beating on drums in what historians have associated with traditional African military practices, and bearing a military-style standard, the group must certainly have been intimidating. Bull and his companions quickly grasped the significance of what they saw coming up the road toward them, and by virtue of their relative speed on horseback—in contrast to that of the slave band on foot—managed to escape unharmed.
Presumably surprised and perhaps terrified by the shouting, drumming group coming toward them—the very type of insurrection that the white South Carolinians feared—Bull and his companions, as he put it, “discerned the danger time enough to avoid it;” in other words, they fled the scene as quickly as they could. Although Bull strongly implies that he was the person who alerted the militia of the situation and directed it to the rebels, this seems unsupported by fact. Another member of Bull’s party was the one who performed this duty; Bull himself, despite his previous military experience and his duty under his colonial post as the commanding officer of the militia, does not seem to have directly engaged the rebels. The possibility of being perceived as a coward—or even worse, a man unable to meet the responsibility of his job—may have led Bull to retell the events of the afternoon, although very briefly. He may have hoped that the king would fail to notice the absence of details or even assume that his personal modesty prevented him from speaking too highly of his deeds.
Even without the leadership of their formal commanding officer, however, the militia did its job effectively. By late afternoon, the rebels had covered several miles on the Pons Pons Road and decided to stop for a rest. The group made no secret of their location, perhaps hoping to attract more slaves looking to escape to freedom and thus bolster their numbers, which by then may have approached one hundred. About five hours after Bull and his party first encountered the rebels, a colonial force estimated to be as high as one hundred strong took the relaxing escapees by surprise at their camp. Other contemporary sources assert that the slaves mounted a respectable defense, firing their arms twice but achieving little against the stronger militia. However, Bull, who does not seem to have been directly involved, is silent on this count. One solid volley from the militia decimated the rebel group, and the white colonists moved in quickly to surround and neutralize much of the remaining body. Bull notes that forty-four rebels were either killed in the fighting or executed soon afterward, acknowledging in more general terms that some of the participants in the uprising had escaped the militia.
Bull plays down these rebellious holdouts, noting simply that “some few yet remain concealed . . . and expecting the same fate seem desperate.” As might be expected from someone trying to assure his superior that he has the situation well in hand, Bull does not mention, as the Georgia account does, that as many as twenty rebels remained unaccounted for in early October. By late in the month, however, most had been found and executed. Bull also does not mention the aura of fear that must have pervaded the area around Stono. One month after Bull’s letter was written, several planters and their families living in the region packed up and moved in with friends and relatives outside of the area due to lingering fears about the possible actions of the rebels who still remained at large.
Next, Bull outlines the plan that colonial leaders decided to take to prevent further attempts at escape. Explaining that the colonial council in conference with other advisers had determined that the “most effectual means” to this end was “to encourage some Indians by a suitable reward” to find and neutralize any remaining rebels and to forestall any other slaves who might try to follow in their footsteps, Bull was echoing a policy that had already come into use in the colony. Some months earlier, South Carolina had approved substantial bounties for escaped slaves captured in neighboring Georgia, which at that time had no slave population of its own. Under this policy, adult male slaves fetched £40, adult female slaves £25, and children £10; an adult scalp containing both ears was valued at £20. Extending rewards for captured slaves was thus not an innovative practice, but a proven one.
The remainder of Bull’s letter deals with other matters of colonial concern, particularly the growing tensions between the British colonists and the French and their American Indian allies. Fifteen years later, these tensions would lead to the beginning of the French and Indian War, which allowed the British to assert their preeminence among European powers seeking to control the North American continent; the conflict also contributed greatly to the institution of several economic measures that the American colonists objected to, leading in turn to the American Revolution. Although these matters had little direct connection to the Stono Rebellion, the juxtaposition of the two topics highlights the competing pressures facing Southern colonists. On the one hand, they feared a large-scale slave rebellion from within that could destabilize their delicate political, social, and economic system. On the other hand, they lived with the very real possibility of external violence from competing European nations or from the American Indians that the English had displaced. South Carolinians who, like Bull, had lived through the Yamassee War, which rivals the better-known King Philip’s War in the North in terms of bloodshed, were likely to the be especially aware of that latter danger.
Thus it is perhaps not surprising that Bull attributed less importance to the Stono Rebellion than modern scholars, who can see its significance among the long string of conflicts over slavery, first in the colonies and then in the newly formed and expanding United States. Efforts by slaves to escape to Spanish Florida were relatively common by the time of Stono, and Bull—who had no way of knowing that the Stono Rebellion would go down in history as the largest slave insurrection on mainland North American during the colonial era—may have seen this rebellion as just another attempt in this vein. To Bull, historians have noted, the most important aspect of the uprising was not that it had happened, but that it was over. The varied demands of governing and the fact that Bull had certainly failed in his essential duty to keep order in the colony may have made the Stono Rebellion one that the lieutenant governor was happy to treat as succinctly as possible before redirecting royal attention to other ongoing matters.
Although the Stono Rebellion failed to secure the freedom of its participants and resulted in what was actually relatively limited loss of life and property among white colonists—the yellow fever epidemic that had struck Charleston in the weeks before resulted in much greater death toll than the Stono Rebellion did—it is nearly impossible to overstate the importance of the rebellion in shaping racial patterns in South Carolina over the next century. In the short-term, white colonists worked to find and execute the estimated thirty participants who had escaped the militia’s attack. Militia members and hired American Indians sought fugitives over the next few weeks, but some rebels remained at large for months or even years. A series of apparently justified rumors of additional revolts swept the colony in late 1739 and into 1740. One reputed rebellion involved as many as two hundred slaves who planned to invade Charles Town to seize weapons. The Stono Rebellion may have failed, but its mere existence raised worries that one might succeed.
The uprising also confirmed white fears of black plans to desert the colony. Indeed, Bull focuses on this topic repeatedly throughout his letter. White colonial leaders soon set about discussing ways to ensure the obedience of the enslaved population in earnest. As a result of these efforts, the legislature passed the 1740 Slave Code, which had the express purpose of “the better ordering and governing of negroes and other slaves in this province.” Among the code’s provisions were strong bans on the abilities of slaves to assemble, to learn to read and write English, to grow their own food, and to travel from place to place unescorted. The code also laid out harsh punishments for infractions of these laws, and provided financial incentives for blacks to inform on their fellow slaves. Historians generally agree that these measures so greatly weakened slaves’ abilities to agitate for their freedom that even the outbreak of the American Revolution with its sweeping cries for liberty failed to provide sufficient grounds for abolition. Instead, South Carolina’s black population remained largely enslaved until the end of the Civil War more than 125 years after the Stono Rebellion.
The lack of other true primary sources on the Stono Rebellion has given Bull’s short account great historical significance. Other contemporary sources provide stories about the events that are more informative, but secondhand at best. Thus Bull’s perspective on the rebellion, informed by his status as a white, slave-owning planter and his probable desire to justify his own actions, has become the main one passed through history. In order to consider the full picture of the uprising, Bull’s looming concerns of protecting the white colonists’ safety and interests must be balanced by a historical awareness of the motivations that surely influenced the rebels, who openly sought liberty.
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