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The Stono Rebellion (sometimes called Cato's Conspiracy or Cato's Rebellion) was a slave rebellion that began on 9 September 1739, in the colony of South Carolina. It was the largest slave uprising in the British mainland colonies, with 42-47 whites and 44 blacks killed. The uprising was led by native Africans who were likely from the Central African Kingdom of Kongo. Some of the rebels spoke Portuguese. Their leader Jemmy was a literate slave; in some reports he is referred to as "Cato", and likely was held by the Cato, or Cater, family who lived near the Ashley River and north of the Stono River. He led 20 other enslaved Kongolese, who may have been former soldiers, in an armed march south from the Stono River (for which the rebellion is named). They were bound for Spanish Florida. In an effort to destabilize British rule, the Spanish had promised freedom and land at St. Augustine to slaves who escaped from the British colonies.
Jemmy and his group recruited nearly 60 other slaves and killed some whites before being intercepted and defeated by South Carolina militia near the Edisto River. A group of slaves escaped and traveled another 30 miles (50 km) before battling a week later with the militia. Most of the captured slaves were executed; the surviving few were sold to markets in the West Indies.
In response to the rebellion, the South Carolina legislature passed the Negro Act of 1740, which restricted slave assembly, education, and movement. It also enacted a 10-year moratorium against importing African slaves, because they were considered more rebellious, and established penalties against slaveholders' harsh treatment of slaves. It required legislative approval for each act of manumission, which slaveholders had previously been able to arrange privately. This sharply reduced the rate of manumissions in the state.
Since 1708, the majority of the population of the South Carolina colony were slaves, as importation of laborers from Africa had increased in recent decades with labor demand from the expansion of cotton and rice cultivation as commodity export crops. Historian Ira Berlin has called this the Plantation Generation, noting that South Carolina had become a "slave society," with slavery central to its economy. As planters had imported many slaves to satisfy the increased demand for labor, most slaves were native Africans. Many in South Carolina were from the Kingdom of Kongo, which had converted to Catholicism in the 15th century. Numerous slaves had first been held in the British West Indies, where they were considered to become 'seasoned' by working there under slavery, before being sold to South Carolina.
With the increase in slaves, colonists tried to regulate their relations, but there was always negotiation in this process. Slaves resisted by running away, work slowdowns, and revolts. At the time, Georgia was still an all-white colony, without slavery. South Carolina worked with Georgia to strengthen patrols on land and in coastal areas to prevent fugitives from reaching Spanish Florida.
In the Stono case, the slaves may have been inspired by several factors to mount their rebellion. Spanish Florida offered freedom to slaves escaped from British colonies; the Spanish had issued a proclamation and had agents spread the word in the British colonies about giving freedom and land to slaves who reached Florida. Tensions between England and Spain over territory in southern North America made slaves hopeful of reaching Spanish territory, particularly the free black community of Fort Mose, founded in 1738 outside St. Augustine. Stono was 150 miles (240 km) from the Florida line.
A malaria epidemic had recently killed many whites in Charleston, weakening the power of slaveholders. Lastly, historians have suggested the slaves organized their revolt to take place on Sunday, when planters would be occupied in church and might be unarmed. The Security Act of 1739 (which required all white males to carry arms even to church on Sundays) had been passed in August of that year in response to earlier runaways and minor rebellions, but it had not fully taken effect. Local officials were authorized to mount penalties against white men who didn't carry arms after 29 September.
Jemmy, the leader of the revolt, was a literate slave described in an eyewitness account as "Angolan". Historian John K. Thornton has noted that, because of patterns of trade, he was more likely from the Kingdom of Kongo in west Central Africa, which had long had relations with Portuguese traders. His cohort of 20 slaves were also called "Angolan", and likely also Kongolese. The slaves were described as Catholic, and some spoke Portuguese, learned from the traders operating in the Kongo Empire at the time. The patterns of trade and the fact that the Kongo was a Catholic nation point to their origin there. The leaders of the Kingdom of Kongo had voluntarily converted to Catholicism in 1491, followed by their people; by the 18th century, the religion was a fundamental part of its citizens' identity. The nation had independent relations with Rome. The region had slavery prior to the introduction of Christianity to the royal court of Kongo, and it was regulated by the Kingdom. Slavery was still practiced as late as the 1870s.
Portuguese was the language of trade as well as one of the languages of educated people in Kongo. The Portuguese-speaking slaves in South Carolina were more likely to have learned about offers of freedom by Spanish agents. They would also have been attracted to the Catholicism of Spanish Florida. In the early 18th century, Kongo had been undergoing civil wars, leading to more people being captured and sold into slavery, including trained soldiers. It is likely that Jemmy and his rebel cohort were such military men, as they fought hard against the militia when they were caught, and were able to kill 20 men.
Events of the revolt
On Sunday, 10 September 1739, Jemmy gathered 20 enslaved Africans near the Stono River, 20 miles (30 km) southwest of Charleston. This date was the Catholic celebration of the Virgin Mary's nativity. Taking action on this date connected their Catholic past with present purpose, as did the religious symbols they used. The Africans marched down the roadway with a banner that read "Liberty!", and chanted the same word in unison. They attacked Hutchenson's store at the Stono River Bridge, killing two storekeepers and seizing weapons and ammunition.
Raising a flag, the slaves proceeded south toward Spanish Florida, a well-known refuge for escapees. On the way, they gathered more recruits, sometimes reluctant ones, for a total of 80. They burned seven plantations and killed 20–25 whites along the way. While on horseback, South Carolina's Lieutenant Governor William Bull and four of his friends came across the group; they quickly went off to warn other slaveholders. Rallying a militia of planters and minor slaveholders, the colonists traveled to confront Jemmy and his followers.
The next day, the well-armed and mounted militia, numbering 20–100 men, caught up with the group of 80 slaves at the Edisto River. In the ensuing confrontation, 20 whites and 44 slaves were killed. While the slaves lost, they killed proportionately more whites than was the case in later rebellions. The colonists mounted the severed heads of the rebels on stakes along major roadways to serve as warning for other slaves who might consider revolt. The lieutenant governor hired Chickasaw and Catawba Indians and other slaves to track down and capture the Africans who had escaped from the battle. A group of the slaves who escaped fought a pitched battle with a militia a week later approximately 30 miles (50 km) from the site of the first conflict. The colonists executed most of the rebellious slaves; they sold other slaves off to the markets of the West Indies.
Stono River Slave Rebellion Site
Site where the rebellion began, 2013
|Nearest city||Rantowles, South Carolina|
|NRHP Reference #||74001840|
|Added to NRHP||May 30, 1974|
|Designated NHL||May 30, 1974|
Over the next two years, slave uprisings occurred independently in Georgia and South Carolina. Colonial officials believed these were inspired by the Stono Rebellion, but historians think the increasingly harsh conditions of slavery since the turn of the century under the rice and cotton cultures were sufficient cause.
Planters decided to develop a slave population who were native-born, believing the workers were more content if they grew up enslaved. Attributing the rebellion to the recently imported Africans, planters decided to cut off the supply. They enacted a 10-year moratorium on slave importation through Charleston. When, a decade later, they opened the port to the international slave trade again, planters imported slaves from areas other than the Congo-Angolan region.
In addition, the legislature passed the Negro Act of 1740 to tighten controls: it required a ratio of one white to ten blacks on any plantation. It prohibited slaves from growing their own food, assembling in groups, earning money, or learning to read. In the uncertain world of the colony, several of the law's provisions were based on the assumption that whites could effectively judge black character; for instance, whites were empowered to examine blacks who were traveling outside a plantation without passes, and to take action.
The legislature also worked to improve conditions in slavery in order to avoid problems; it established penalties for masters who demanded excessive work or who brutally punished slaves. These provisions were difficult to enforce, as the law did not allow slave testimony against whites. They also started a school to teach slaves Christian doctrine. At the same time, the legislature tried to prevent slaves from being manumitted, as the representatives thought that the presence of free blacks in the colony made slaves restless. It required slaveholders to apply to the legislature for permission for each case of manumission; formerly manumissions could be arranged privately. South Carolina kept these restrictions against manumission until slavery was abolished after the American Civil War.
The legislature's action related to manumissions likely reduced the chances that planters would free the mixed-race children born of their (or their sons') liaisons with enslaved women, as they did not want to subject their sexual lives to public scrutiny. Such relationships across ethnic and power lines continued, as documented in numerous contemporary sources, including Mary Chesnut in her published diary and Fanny Kemble in her journal, published in 1863, as well as subsequent histories. For instance, by 1860 the 200 students at Wilberforce University in Ohio, a school established for people of color, were mostly mixed-race children of white wealthy southern planter fathers, who had the money to pay for their education. African-American oral histories and genetic genealogy also attest to white paternity in multiple generations.
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- George Cato, interviewed by Stiles M. Scruggs, " 'As It Come Down to Me:' Black Memories of Stono in the 1930s", in Mark M. Smith, Stono: Documenting and Interpreting a Southern Slave Revolt, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2005. ISBN 1-57003-605-5, pp. 55-d
- Hoffer, Peter Charles: Cry Liberty. The Great Stono River Slave Rebellion of 1739. (Oxford University Press 2010). ISBN 978-0-19-538661-5.
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- Wood, Peter. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion, New York: Norton, 1975. ISBN 0-393-00777-4.
- Niven, Steven J. (February 22, 2016). "The Stono River Slave Rebellion Was Nearly Erased from SC's History Books". The Root.