The first African slaves to arrive in what would become the United States arrived in 1619 carried on a ship that also brought 50 Anglican Christian missionaries to the area. Slavery was important to the economic growth of the plantation economy of the American south. In less than a century there were more African slaves in South Carolina than there were European colonists. While the white slave owners prospered with the institution, for the slaves their lives were brutal and unpleasant. While later propagandists for slavery in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries would paint a picture of happy Africans working for benevolent capitalistic masters, the fantasy of this view is shattered by the large numbers of slaves who escaped, attempted to escape, committed suicide, and, in some extreme cases committed infanticide so that their children would not grow up enslaved.
Some of the African slaves in the colony of South Carolina had been captured (i.e. kidnapped) from the Kingdom of Kongo in west central Africa. In 1506, King Alsono I had converted to Catholicism and had established the Roman Catholic Church in the kingdom. He worked with advisers from Portugal. As a result, some of the South Carolina slaves were Catholics who spoke Portuguese.
By 1739, the leader of the Kongo African slaves was a man known as Jemmy (also identified as Cato in reference to the fact that he was owned by the Cato or Cater family). On Sunday September 9, 1739, the largest slave uprising in the British mainland colonies prior to the American Revolution started when Jemmy led 20 African slaves, all of whom were from the Kingdom of Kongo, south to the Stono River.
Kongo was a country which had been undergoing civil wars. Many of those who had been captured and sold into slavery were men who had been trained as soldiers and had seen military action. It was quite likely that most, if not all, of Jemmy’s original group were, in fact, former soldiers.
The slaves may have been inspired by stories of slaves who had successfully made it to Spanish Florida where they were granted freedom. As the stories of Fort Mose, a legally established town of free Africans, spread north, slaves were inspired to seek their own freedom. Jemmy and his small group from Kongo spoke Portuguese and were Catholic. Thus Spanish-speaking Catholicism in Florida would have been attractive to them.
The starting date of their rebellion was culturally and religiously important to them as it was the Catholic celebration of the Virgin Mary’s nativity. By starting their rebellion on this date, they connected their Catholic past with their current desires for freedom.
They marched down the road with a banner reading “Liberty.” When they reached the Stono River bridge, they attacked Hutchenson’s stored, killed two storekeepers, and seized the store’s weapons and ammunition.
The small group of rebels managed to recruit 60 more to join their cause. They burned seven plantations. This slave army killed 22-25 whites before the South Carolina militia caught up with them near the Edisto River. The militia of planters and slaveholders had been raised by South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor William Bull who had come across the slave army while out on horseback with some friends.
In the battle of Edisto River, 20 whites and 44 Africans were killed. The well-armed and mounted militia was victorious. This single battle stopped the slave rebellion. The colonists mounted the severed heads of the dead slaves on stakes and placed them along major roadways as a warning for any other slaves who might consider rebelling against their owners.
Chickasaw and Catawba Indians were hired to track down the rebel slaves who had escaped from Edisto River. One group of slaves who escaped made it another 30 miles. A week later these remnants of Jemmy’s army were found by the militia and a pitched battle ensued. Most of the slaves were executed and the rest were transported to the West Indies where they were sold to new masters.
In the two years following the Stono Rebellion, a number of independent slave uprisings took place in Georgia and South Carolina. Colonial officials felt that the Stono Rebellion inspired these events. Because the Stono rebels had been Africans from Kongo, the planters decided that they had to develop their own slave population rather than relying on imported slaves. They reasoned that native-born slaves, being born and raised in slavery, would be more docile and more likely to accept their status as slaves.
South Carolina responded to the Stono Rebellion by passing the Negro Act of 1740. Under the Act slave assembly, education, and movement were restricted. It was now illegal for slaves to learn to write English (there was not, however, a prohibition against learning to read English). Slaves were also not allowed to earn money or to raise their own food.
The Act also called for a 10-year moratorium against the importation of African slaves. When the moratorium expired and the South Carolina slave trade was again opened to imported slaves, they still prohibited slaves from Kongo.
The Act established penalties against the harsh treatment of slaves by their owners. This was difficult to enforce, however, because blacks were not allowed to testify in court.
Slave owners were allowed to kill rebellious slaves. It was assumed that whites could determine the intentions of blacks simply by looking at them, and thus they could immediately tell if the slave was intending to be rebellious.
The Act also required legislative approval for manumissions. It was felt that the presence of free blacks in the colony would make the slaves restless and more prone to violence. The restrictions on manumission also reduced the likelihood that slave owners would attempt to free their mixed race children resulting from their sexual liaisons with female slaves. In seeking legislation for manumissions, the slave owners would have to publicly acknowledge their sexual lives. South Carolina kept the restrictions against manumission until after the Civil War when slavery was abolished.
South Carolina also started a school to teach slaves Protestant Christian doctrine to counter any possible Catholicism that might be present.
The site where the Stono Rebellion began, the site of Hutchinson’s store, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1974 and was named the Stono River Slave Rebellion Site. There is now a South Carolina Historical Marker at the site.