Stono Rebellion Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

African slaves in South Carolina staged a rebellion that was quickly and brutally suppressed. The revolt demonstrated to white settlers, who were in the minority, the precariousness of their situation in the colonies, and it led them to pass laws designed both to increase their control over their slaves and to decrease discontent among slaves that might lead to future uprisings.

Summary of Event

Conditions in South Carolina in the 1730’s led to white fear of African slaves Slavery;of Africans[Africans] slave uprisings. The high numbers of Africans imported through Charleston, South Carolina Charles Town port led to legislation against Africans congregating, holding meetings, or appearing in public after nightfall. Charles Town had a watch committee to guard the port city, and the rest of the colony had a white patrol system to police Africans in militia districts. South Carolina used public punishment as a deterrent. [kw]Stono Rebellion (Sept. 9, 1739) [kw]Rebellion, Stono (Sept. 9, 1739) Slave revolts;South Carolina Stono Rebellion (1739) [g]American colonies;Sept. 9, 1739: Stono Rebellion[0990] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept. 9, 1739: Stono Rebellion[0990] [c]Social issues and reform;Sept. 9, 1739: Stono Rebellion[0990] Jemmy Bull, William (1683-1755)

Contrary to their intent, these white controls increasingly led to greater resistance from newly imported Africans. Cases of verbal insolence joined arson as a recurring feature of colonial life. Whites blamed illnesses and deaths on African knowledge of plants and their poisonous powers. In the 1730’s, massive importations from the Congo-Angola region meant that more than half of the colony’s slaves had been there fewer than ten years. Slave unrest was blamed on outside agitators—Native Americans with assistance from both the Spanish and French. Rumors of a Spanish invasion increased after the Spanish king granted liberty to African fugitive slaves in 1733.

Tension thus was high in 1739. Then, a smallpox Smallpox;colonial America epidemic, coupled with the escape of slaves to Spanish Spanish Florida Florida, led to massive loss of investments. A yellow fever Yellow fever epidemic hit during the summer months. In the fall, deaths decreased with the return of cool weather, but the situation was ripe for insurrection. Since Sundays afforded slaves their best opportunity for meeting in communal activities, the legislature passed the Security Act (1739) Security Act in August, 1739, requiring all white men to carry firearms to churches beginning September 29 or pay a stiff fine. News of conflict between England and Spain reached Charles Town the weekend before the uprising began, explaining why the Stono Rebellion began immediately without betrayal, caught white masters in church unarmed, and had slaves marching toward Spanish St. Augustine.

The insurrection included elements typical of early rebellions in South Carolina: total surprise, brutal killings, extensive property damage, armed fighting, and extended consequences. On the morning of September 9, 1739, twenty slaves, mostly Angolans, gathered in St. Paul’s Parish near Stono River, 20 miles from Charles Town. Led by a slave named Jemmy, the group broke into Hutchenson’s store near the Stono Bridge to gather guns and ammunition. Storekeepers Robert Bathurst and Mr. Gibbs were beheaded. The slave band moved on to the Godfrey house, killing the family, gathering supplies, and burning the building. The slaves took the main road to Georgia, stopping at Wallace’s Tavern but sparing the innkeeper, who was known to be a kind master. His white neighbor, however, lost his life, along with his wife and child.

The band continued, sacking and burning houses on Pons Pons Road and killing all the white occupants. Slave owner Thomas Rose was successfully hidden by his slaves as the band moved through. The group’s numbers grew as reluctant slaves were forced to join. Increased numbers led to diminished discipline. The group took up a banner, beat on two drums, and shouted, “Liberty!” They pursued and killed any whites they encountered.

Lieutenant Governor William Bull and four other white men were traveling to Charles Town for legislative session when they encountered the rebel slaves. They escaped to warn others. By late Sunday afternoon, the band of nearly one hundred rebel slaves stopped in an open field, showing their confidence and hoping to be joined by other slaves by morning.

Nearby, white colonists had been alerted by Sunday afternoon and had organized an armed and mounted resistance of somewhere between twenty and one hundred men. Moving to the field, the white forces caught the slaves off guard, killing or wounding at least fourteen rebels. They surrounded other rebels, who were briefly questioned before being shot to death. They released the slaves who had been forced to participate. Almost one-third of the rebelling slaves escaped the fighting. Some returned to their plantations, hoping not to be missed. Upon their return, planters cut off their heads and placed them on posts to serve as a reminder for other slaves seeking freedom.

The white colony engaged in an intensive manhunt to recapture those participants who remained at large. Whites armed themselves, and guards were posted at ferry posts. By some accounts, twenty to forty rebels were captured, hanged, disemboweled, or beaten within the two following days. Another account, a month later, reported the rebels had been stopped from doing further mischief by having been “put to the most cruel Death.” The Georgia general James Edward Oglethorpe Oglethorpe, James Edward called out rangers and American Indians, garrisoned soldiers at Palachicolas—a fort guarding the only point on the Savannah River where fugitives could cross—and issued a proclamation for whites to keep a watchful eye on any Africans.

Despite these acts of retribution and retaliation against both free blacks and slaves, white fears did not subside. Most whites thought persons of African descent were dangerous and possessed of a rebellious nature. By the fall of 1739, many planters near Stono had moved their wives and children in with other families for greater security. The assembly placed a special patrol along the Stono River. Outlying fugitives were still being brought in for execution by early 1740. Finally, two fugitive slaves seeking a large reward captured the last remaining leader, who had been at large for three years following the insurrection.

Significance

The white minority responded to the Stono Rebellion in several ways. First, the colony tightened restrictions on all blacks, giving South Carolina the harshest penalties of any mainland colony. The colony also sought to improve conditions that provoked rebellion. Finally, the colony sought to lessen the influence of the Spanish settlement in St. Augustine as a constant source of incitement. The war against the Spanish curbed that stimulant. The white minority also tried to correct the numerical racial imbalance. A prohibitive duty on new slave imports cut the rate of importation from one thousand per year in 1730 to one hundred per year by 1740. Collected duties went to recruit white immigrants. The legislature required one white man present for every ten Africans on a plantation. Fines from this infraction went to fund additional patrols.

The government intensified efforts to control the behavior of slaves. Through the Negro Act (1740) Negro Act of 1740, the legislators shaped the core of the Slave codes South Carolina slave codes for more than a century. Masters who failed to retain control of slaves received fines. The right to manumit slaves was taken out of the hands of owners and turned over to the legislature. No longer could slaves have such personal liberties as freedom of movement, of education, of assembly, to raise food, and to earn money. Surveillance of African American activity increased. Slaves received rewards for informing on the actions of other slaves. The legislature discouraged the presence of free blacks in the colony.

The white minority developed several strategies of calculated benevolence. The government assessed penalties on masters known for excessive labor requirements or brutality of punishments for their slaves. A school was founded in Charles Town to train slaves to teach other slaves about selective Christian principles requiring submission and obedience.

These efforts did not lessen white dependency on African labor. Machines did not supplant their labor until after the American Revolution. White immigration did not increase substantially, despite offers of free land on the frontier. High duties reduced the importation of slaves, but the racial proportions varied slightly from those prior to insurrection.

The suppression of the Stono Rebellion was a significant turning point for the white minority. White factions had to cooperate to maintain the English colony. Techniques used to maintain white control shaped the race relations and history of South Carolina. The heightened degree of white repression and the reduction in African autonomy created a new social equilibrium in the generation before the American Revolution.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts. Rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969. The pioneering work on slave revolts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jordan, Winthrop. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968. Discusses how slave revolts influenced the status of both slaves and free blacks in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kilson, Martin. “Toward Freedom: An Analysis of Slave Revolts in the United States.” Phylon 25 (1964): 175-189. Analyzes the distribution of slave revolts and the environments that contributed to their occurrence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDougall, Walter A. Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History, 1585-1828. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. The first in a projected three-volume history of the United States by a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. This well-researched overview of American history includes information about the Stono Rebellion in the chapter entitled “Germans, Four Sorts of Britains, and Africans.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Olwell, Robert. Masters, Slaves, and Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Low Country, 1740-1790. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998. Examines the slave society in colonial South Carolina from the end of the Stono Rebellion through the American Revolution. Describes relations among slaves and masters in a society in which both were imperial subjects of the British empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thornton, John K. “African Dimensions of the Stono Rebellion.” American Historical Review 96, no. 4 (October, 1991): 1101. Describes the causes and course of the rebellion, pointing to evidence that many of the Stono rebels were from the Kingdom of the Kongo. Provides information about related events in the eighteenth century Kongo.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wood, Peter H. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 Through the Stono Rebellion. New York: W. W. Norton, 1974. Examines the patterns of white control and African resistance within the socioeconomic context of colonial South Carolina. Both a narrative and an analysis of the event and its effects on the colony.

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