Malcolm Suber, New Orleans community activist and revolutionary organizer, came into the WTUL News & Views show on January 5, 2011 to talk about the 1811 Slave Revolt organized between New Orleans and plantations up river.
[38min: 40sec; 17.7mb]
Malcolm Suber, New Orleans community activist and revolutionary organizer, came into the WTUL News & Views show on January 5, 2011 to talk about the 1811 Slave Revolt organized between New Orleans and plantations up river.
Particularly emphasized is the organized and intelligent nature of the revolt, which was the result of communication networks of enslaved people on many plantations and in the city of New Orleans. The success of the Haitian Revolution eight years prior and the introduction of enslaved Africans who were from an Asante warrior culture aided in the motivation, ideals and discipline of the rebel army.
TRANSCRIPT -------------------- Freedom or Death:
A conversation with Malcolm Suber on the 1811 Slave Revolt in Louisiana
Transcribed from the January 5, 2011 recording of WTUL News & Views, the public affairs programming on WTUL New Orleans 91.5 FM
WTUL: How are you this morning, Malcolm?
SUBER: Good. How are y’all?
WTUL: You have a history of struggle in this city and this city will be celebrating the 200th anniversary of the largest slave revolt in U.S. history this Saturday, January 8. Do you want to bring us back to what happened on January 8, 1811?
Suber: Yes. I think people in the audience should realize that two hundred years ago, Louisiana was still a territory not a state. It had just been of course recently purchased by the United States from France and a slave regime was here. The dominant economic force at that time was raising sugar cane. But those who understand the growing of sugar cane realize is that it is the most difficult kind of enslavement. They literally work you to death. There have been studies on Haiti that said the average field hand only lives seven years once they went into full time production in the sugar cane fields.
I think the conditions here in Louisiana were not much better. So we had grinding enslavement, grinding brutality against the enslaved and we had fabulous wealth being created for the slave masters.
And the other impact of course had to do with the Haitian Revolution in 1802. Where the enslaved in Haiti had risen up and defeated the French and established the first black republic, the first slave republic in the history of the world. Since New Orleans and Louisiana was a French colony, many of the slave masters fled to New Orleans. And, of course, many of the enslaved brought with them that whole notion of freedom, the whole notion that we can be our own masters. So there was a lot of discussion among the enslaved about their fate and about what would happen to them.
In that whole cauldron was an enslaved person named Charles Deslondes. Deslondes was a slave driver, he had risen to that kind of position on the plantation, so he had more freedom than most. So he was able to hook up with a whole network of maroons. And maroons are people who have run away and live in the forest rather than stay enslaved. New Orleans, because we were in a swamp, and of course the way the plantations were built in Louisiana are from the river to the lake, and the back of the plantations next to Lake Pontchartrain was swamp.
The native people certainly taught the runaways how to live off the land and live in the swamps. And those men and women who were brave enough certainly ran away and established a habitat in the swamps.
But Deslondes was such a leader that he was able to build a network with the maroons and with other leaders on adjoining plantations. And one of the things that we do know is that there was communication between different plantations because during wintertime when there wasn’t planting sugar cane, they had to repair the levees and this was a communal activity, so every master had to contribute laborers to the repair of the levees and so people got to know each other. We’re talking about the German Coast which is present-day LaPlace down to New Orleans, on the east bank of the river that was a whole plantation area.
WTUL: I just wanted to say that it sounds like Angola (prison) because they have also had to repair the levees and farm as well.
SUBER: Yes. The same planting season and what you do in the offseason.
Charles Deslondes and his lieutenants discussed for many many years that we have got to—we outnumber the whites, these slave masters are as cruel as they were in Haiti, and we can take this. We can win this. We can have a revolution here in Louisiana.
They were convinced that they could do that and they start making plans. They had communication between upriver and the city of New Orleans. So basically what was planned was to take advantage of the holiday season among the planters.
The tradition had become that during the Christmas and pre-Mardi Gras season, the planters would brag about how much money they had made off of the sweat and labor of the enslaved and they would each have a ball. So almost every night, on a different plantation, there was a ball. And of course one would be more ostentatious than the other. So the slaves were not watched as heavily during the Christmas season and the early January season as they were during planting and harvesting season. So Deslondes and his lieutenants took advantage of not being watched so closely to say this is the opportune time for us to launch our revolt, our revolution.
So basically they decided not only that they were going to launch it in January, when the planters were partying, but that they were going to attack the largest plantation and also the plantation where Charles Deslondes was enslaved. Because if I’m going to be your leader, I’ve got to show you that not only will I lead you but I will kill my master first. I will attack his place first. And so the whole attack began at the Manuel Andry plantation, which is [now?] called the Woodland Plantation in what is today, LaPlace. And there was a plaque that was in the paper yesterday that points that out, but of course they didn’t talk about the significance of the slave revolt.
But anyway, they begin by attacking the Andry plantation, but one of the other things of course is that Andry was a colonel in the militia. And he had had at his place an armaments room where he stored the weapons for his unit. But apparently there had been some suspicion that maybe something was awry, so they had removed the weapons to Baton Rouge. When Charles and them attacked Andry, wounded him, killing his son, Andry escaped and crossed the river, they found that there were no weapons. But since they were determined to strike out and have this revolution, they decided to proceed. They went from plantation to plantation all along River road, between LaPlace and Kenner. And they did that in 14 hours. On foot. That’s a distance of 18 miles. So they were moving like lightning brigade[?]. The loyal slaves warned the whites in that area that they better get out because the slaves were rebelling. They were in a panic, the slavemasters left and went down River Road, heading for New Orleans.
Now, another aspect of the revolt was that there was supposed to be a simultaneous uprising by the slaves in New Orleans itself. So it was to be a two-pronged attack. The assignment and the person who headed the initiative in New Orleans was a slave named Gilbert. Gilbert’s assignment was to get a detachment and they were to attack Fort St. Charles, which is at the corner of Esplanade and Decatur, the present-day U.S. Mint. The Old US Mint, where the Louisiana Museum is right now. And Gilbert was supposed to attack the fort and get the armaments and pass them to the insurgents coming from upriver.
Now, the other intelligence that they were working on was that General Wade Hampton and his forces were supposed to have been going to Florida to fight the Spanish since Spain and the United States were about to go war over Florida. I don’t know if you know about it, but some of the parishes in Louisiana are called the Florida Parishes. That’s what that is all about, that they were a part of the Spanish possession that Florida claimed. And the United States said that ‘we will go to war with you about this.’
As far as Charles and his lieutenant’s understood, this was going to be the opportune time to strike. Wade Hampton and his forces were going to be out of town. The rich masters were going to be partying, our people inside New Orleans are going to have the weapons ready for us when we get down the road. And we’re gonna have hundreds of our fighters with us when we come to the city.
The other thing to be understood about New Orleans at that time was that it was a walled city. You’ve seen the old westerns where there was a fort. New Orleans was a fort. If you didn’t come by the river on the port, you had to come in one of the gates of the city. They had a gate at every corner at rampart and canal there was a gate. At decatur and canal there was a gate. At esplanade and rampart there was a gate. And of course at Decatur. So if you wanted to come into the city, you had to come into it—and there was a moat around the city! So it was a garrisoned city.
WTUL: Was that where Basin street is now? Where the moat was?
SUBER: The moat is where Rampart is. On Rampart and down Canal, the sidewalk on Canal. That’s where the moat was. It was a small moat, but you had to come across to get into the city. And it was guarded. Because of coarse they had stolen the land from the native people, so there was always that kind of problem and there had been maroon fights with the folk. So at night they would close the gates of the city and keep people from coming in and out. So that was one of the features that people have to try to understand back in 1811 that that was the actual situation.
So this was a very strategic, well planned, thought out revolutionary action on the part of the enslaved people. This was not just a spontaneous rebellion, this wasn’t they got mad one day and say we’re gonna quit. This was we’re gonna strike and strike when it’s to our advantage and we’re gonna take New Orleans and we’re gonna declare a slave republic and we will issue a call to all the enslaved people from this whole area, that we outnumber the whites three-to-one, and we’re going to set everybody free and we’re just going to take this territory.
And that’s the other interesting thing about this revolt. People have always asked me, so Malcolm, why didn’t they burn down all the plantations? And I say well, their plan was that this was going to be their property after the revolt, so why would destroy stuff that you could use yourself after the revolt? So they only burned three plantations. They passed hundreds and they certainly could have burned them all if they had wanted to, but their strategic thinking was we’re not going to destroy something that we can use later on if we’re going to have a functioning republic. And so that speaks to who were these people, what were they thinking and what kind of experiences [they had].
The other thing of course is that a number of these people were newly arrived Africans who had been members of the warrior class back in Africa. We do know that from all of the historical accounts, letters that were written about the revolt, that they marched down River Road, they had people on horses in front, they had a flag, we don’t know what flag, but I have done some studying in the [Ibo? in] Congo and Congo always used to carry flags when they fought. So apparently some lieutenant said, if we’re going to have an army we need a flag. So they had some sort of flag showing who they were, marched down River Road as a unit and as they passed plantation after plantation, people would come out, join and so it was very very disciplined. They got in line and marched and got whatever weapons they could at each site. They were moving.
Unfortunately, General Wade Hampton had not left New Orleans. And as the loyal slaves warned the whites that the rebellion had started, they made it to New Orleans before a successful attempt was made by Gilbert and his forces inside the city. And Governor Claiborne -- that’s what Claiborne Avenue is named for-- that’s Lindy Boggs [great?] grandfather [looks like great great uncle…W.C.C. died in 1817, Lindy was not born ‘til 1916], called out the troops to intercept the revolutionaries marching down the road.
General Hampton made the decision that, well we don’t know how many forces they got. And it’s dark. And so we’re not going to meet them on River Road. They got in barges and went up the river. And they landed at what is today Rivertown in Kenner and they intercepted the rebels at the Jacques Fortier plantation which is in present-day Kenner. Basically they had reached the Jacques Fortier plantation and they were talking a rest. And preparing for the final leg of the march into the city of New Orleans. When Wade Hampton’s forces landed in Kenner, he sent scouts out that saw they were resting on the Fortier plantation. So Hampton planned an attack that was a heated battle. Basically what happened the slaves ran out of ammunition. And I shouldn’t even call them slaves, because they had freed themselves, they had stolen themselves at that point. So they were free men, they were warriors.
WTUL: So they did have guns?
SUBER: They had some guns, not many, but they ran out of ammunition and they decided to retreat back upriver. They made it back upriver to what is today Norco. There they were resting, again at 5 o’clock in the morning. By that time, Andry had rallied the militia from the West Bank. They came across the river, saw that Deslondes and his forces were encamped. They set up cannon and just began to fire on them while they were sleeping. So it was a massacre. In Norco, literally hundreds of the rebels were killed and the rest surrendered and they were taken and put on trial three days later at the Destrehan plantation. The planters formed a tribunal. They found those who had participated in the rebellion guilty of the crime of insurrection and sentenced them to death. They took the rebels back to their own plantation and they gathered up all the other enslaved and they executed the people in front of the other enslaved Africans on the plantations to say that this is what you’ll get if you try this again. Not only did they execute them, but they cut off their heads and they put them on pikes. All along River Road between LaPlace and New Orleans they had people’s heads as a warning to the Africans not to rebel. We can say that was not, the oppression was such and the desire for freedom was so strong that in the next year, 1812, they rebelled again. All through the 30s and the forties they rebelled again. So despite the fact that you’ve got people who are pretending that slavery was mild in Louisiana because of the French and Spanish influence, 1811 slave revolt repudiates all of that, makes it a lie, because we understand that the old slogan being sold down the river, meant being sold enslaved in Mississippi and Louisiana and that the worst forms of slavery occurred in these two states. We have nothing to say favorably about enslavement in Louisiana, slavery was terrible everywhere. People could be sold at whim, you were property, we were treated as the master decided to treat you.
I think what is important for us to understand, fifty years before the civil war slavery could have been ended in this area had Charles Deslondes and his lieutenants succeeded. But even though they weren’t successful in carrying out their aims, strategically it was successful because it at least kindled the flame of freedom in the African people and said that we too are human beings. We have feelings, we understand that we are being exploited, that we are being oppressed and nobody stands for oppression. That’s the thing that you have to come back to [and repudiate] this whole notion that enslavement was beneficial to the African people, that they were somehow being treated nice and the slave masters were kind, fatherly figures taking care of the slaves. But the brutal reality is that the great wealth of Europe and the United States was built on the backs of the enslavement of the African people. And that is something that must be acknowledged.
So this is a very important commemoration to let people know that their ancestors right here in Louisiana stood up, fought and had the lofty goal of not only freeing themselves, which any one of them could have just run off into the swamp and become a maroon. That was always an option for those who were brave enough to live out there. But they said no. I’m concerned about me and all my fellow enslaved bondsmen. I want all of us to be free and I think that is the torch of freedom that we been talking about and that has been the kernel of the black liberation struggle since our kidnap from Africa. And certainly that fight continues today and its manifested in so many ways. We think that this is something that we should do.
This year is the 200th anniversary of the 1811 slave revolt, but it’s also the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. And these two things are tied. And for those of us who are progressives, revolutionaries and anti-racists, we have to take up this fight. Because the propagandists for the confederates, the propagandists for racism are still trying to make the baseless argument that the cause of the civil war was not slavery. That the cause of the civil war had to do with states rights, and they still make that argument, but what is so contradictory and so crazy about the united states is that that kind of propaganda is allowed to continue. In most countries, if you waged Civil War you would be labeled a traitor and certainly you wouldn’t have any public affection for a traitor. But if you go all over the south, you have statues of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee as if these people were heroes. And these are the people that are held up by white people as being noble, and what is noble about fighting to keep people exploited and enslaved.
WTUL: Do you think that this history that you’re talking about, of having monuments to white supremacists, has influenced some of the tepid coverage we see in our newspaper that keeps hidden some of the significance of the revolt? And what do you think the Times-Picayune’s coverage of yesterday missed?
SUBER: Well, two things about the Times-Picayune. Certainly the Times-Picayune has been a defender of racism and the ways of the south forever. And they have, of late, tried to turn on more of a liberal façade. I think what was striking about yesterday’s coverage was that there was no depth of coverage about raising what has been the presentation of the Destrehan Plantation until this time.
I personally think that the Destrehan Plantation is engaged in hucksterism. They are acknowledging the 1811 Slave Revolt because they want more tourists to come to the plantation. Now, if you go out to that plantation, you will see that they used to not even say anything about slave quarters at all and when they talked about slaves, they called them servants. They’ve now fixed up one of the cottages, that they show people as a slave quarter and it’s like a room in the Marriot. It’s got a bed, it’s got a mattress, it’s got pillow cases and pillows and we know that that wasn’t how slaves lived. They lived off corn husk mattresses that they had to fashion themselves. And certainly they had no real fine linens to sleep under. So their presentation is so sanitary and of course that is the kind of sanitary presentation that the Times-Picayune would like to make—yeah, yeah it might have been bad enough that these people had to rebel, but yeah, we responded to that, we took care of that and we even acknowledged that today.
But we also have problems with [Daniel] Rasmussen who has written this book that is basically based on this book we published in 1995. He has added no new information to the story of the 1811 slave revolt, but he is being pushed by HarperCollins, which is one of the big capitalist publishers, and they’re trying to make use of this 200th year anniversary to sell some books.
WTUL: And what’s this book you’re referencing that’s earlier?
SUBER: By Albert Thrasher, titled On to New Orleans! It’s out of print right now and we’re trying to get some reprinted, but it was the first serious study of the 1811 slave revolt. Not only is it the story of the slave revolt, but we have contained in it the proceedings from the tribunals in New Orleans and Destrehan, as well as we have a lot of ads from the newspapers of that era—the runaway slave ads. And the reason that we put those in there, was to show people that contrary to the propaganda of the racist southern historians that slavery was a peaceful regime that the enslaved were never ever settled in that situation, that they were always looking for an opportunity to get away. And that’s why we have to talk a lot about the Underground Railroad. That’s why we have to talk about the Seminole tribe in Florida.
A lot of people don’t know that the Seminole tribe was basically an amalgamation between the Creeks who were anti-slavery and the runaway slaves from Georgia and South Carolina. And they together formed the Seminole nation. The Seminoles fought seventy years of war against the United States government because they refused to turn in the Africans who were living among them as their brothers and sisters. So that is a history—and we call it the hidden history—that we need to understand.
Our challenge to progressive whites in this city is that we should—in commemoration of the 200th commemoration and the 150th anniversary of the civil war—we should launch a campaign this year to rid the city of all these white supremacy statues, which are all over this city.
You go to the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park and who do you see? Beauregard. Do people know who Beauregard was? Beauregard was the general who fired the shots on Fort Sumter that started the war.
You’ve got Jefferson Davis Avenue, you got Jeff Davis statue, some other southern leaders, you got the Robert E. Lee statue and of course the most hated of all, the White Supremacy monument still downtown on Iberville [riverside of N. Peters].
So we have a lot of discussion that could be engendered from a discussion of why the 1811 rebellion was important, what were the aims and what were they trying to combat and what are the remnants of the enslavement of African people in this country. Racism is still one of the major factors in our oppression, and it’s race and class both. The capitalist class has just run roughshod over the entire country and the real contradictory thing about it is, you’ve got poor people, working class people who are embracing the rule of the rich. You have the working class people of the Tea Party movement fighting to protect tax breaks for rich people. And I just don’t get that. Why do you think these rich people, who are living off the labor of others, deserve any kind of break?
We have to re-assert that government should be about the protection of the entire people and not just one class of people. We understand in a class society that one class rules over others. But it is so blatant in the United States now that thirty years ago the richest people controlled eighty percent of the wealth and now they control ninety-five percent of the wealth. And it’s getting worse. We’ve got tremendous unemployment in our country, we’ve got the cost of higher education just run amok, young people are going to be in debt for the rest of their lives for a lousy education that they’re receiving at these institutions. Education that reinforces the class prejudices that exist already. When are we going to build institutions that make us more conscience, make us better citizens, more aware of our role in the world, more aware that we in the United States consume most of the goods and services in the world, unfairly, unjustly. That we are waging war all over the world, we are using drones against innocent folk. We don’t care at all about other people, at least the ruling class of this country doesn’t care. But the question is: how do we who see ourselves as revolutionaries and progressives, how do we view ourselves and our task. We have to bring some humanity. We have to bring some anti-racism, we have to bring some anti-imperialism into the discussion. We have to ask people the basic question: is this the kind of world you want to live in? Is this the legacy you want to leave?
When we’re talking about the 1811 slave revolt, we’re talking about a legacy of revolutionary struggle, a legacy of self-sacrifice that says that I am not as important as the overall goal of freeing my people. They had a slogan: Freedom or Death. Cause they understood that if I go down this road, if I don’t succeed, I’ll die. And they did that consciously. There’s an old negro spiritual that goes “Before I be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave.” And my interpretation, then: “To go home to Mother Africa and be free” and they say “go home to my lord and be free,” but the sentiment in that song is that I hate slavery. And I hate it so much that I’d rather be dead than be in that situation. And I think that was the situation that faced our people in 1811 and that’s something that we need to pay the utmost respect to Charles Deslondes and the other martyrs of 1811.
WTUL: Thank you for reclaiming that history.
SUBER: We always say if you know, teach. And if we know something we have a responsibility to share it with others.
We needed to popularize this struggle, so we—Leon Waters and myself—first produced a five page pamphlet on the uprising. And then we assigned Albert Thrasher to do the research, then helped raise funds for him to do the research and write the book. So that’s how On to New Orleans! was produced
So we are very happy to see that there is some final public recognition to this, but like so many other struggles, there is always an attempt to usurp and commercialize something that is genuine and from the people. We don’t have any problems with the Times-Picayune retelling the story, but we do have problems with them giving bonafides to people who are just interlopers. We don’t think Rasmussen has done any original work and we certainly don’t think that the motives of the Destrehan people are genuine. We just say to people that you should be aware of the source. When has the Times-Picayune stood on the side of the people?