The 1811 Louisiana slave revolt that was almost lost to history
It was raining on the night of Jan. 8, 1811, at the Andry Plantation in St. John the Baptist Parish just outside New Orleans. And that was only fitting — because a storm was, indeed, brewing. As the rain slackened, a mulatto slave driver named Charles Deslondes led a band of an estimated 25 like-minded slaves into “the Big House,” where they attacked the slumbering Andry and killed his son Gilbert. The slave revolt that is recognized by historians as the largest in American history had begun.
For years, the story of the German Coast slave revolt — as it has become known, named after the area originally settled by German pioneers — was a largely overlooked part of history, by the design of slaveholders. That has changed in recent years, fueled by recent scholarship, most notably historian Daniel Rasmussen’s 2011 book “American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt,” which finally told that story in full — and which went on to become a New York Times best-seller.
- After taking over the Andry Plantation, Deslondes and his small army sacked a store of weapons, ammunition and militia uniforms being warehoused on-site. They then began a two-day march toward New Orleans, where they hoped to join with other revolutionaries there and take over the city.
- As they marched — burning other plantations along the way — they were joined by other slaves. They eventually built an army of an estimated 500 people, according to Rasmussen.
- As they neared current-day River Town in Kenner, Deslondes’ army met with federal troops, who ended the uprising once and for all when the slaves ran out of ammunition. An estimated 20 slaves were killed in the skirmish and 100 taken into custody afterward.
- Those captured were tried and summarily executed. Their heads were then chopped off and displayed on poles along the river, a grisly display stretching some 60 miles, according to one account, and intended to discourage future uprisings.
- Today, Andry Plantation is known as Woodland Plantation and is located in LaPlace. (It is not to be confused with a like-named plantation-turned-B&B in West Pointe a la Hache.) Neglected for 10-plus years, the LaPlace plantation is currently for sale. The asking price: $450,000.
- Jazz pioneer Edward “Kid” Ory was born at LaPlace’s Woodland Plantation.
- Historians believe the uprising was inspired by the 1791 revolt on the French island of Saint-Domingue, which — led by Toussaint L’Ouverture (aka “the Black Spartacus”) — resulted in the abolition of slavery there and the establishment of the sovereign state of Haiti.
- Many white residents of the area sought safety from the 1811 uprising at the Destrehan Plantation, which has an educational exhibit dedicated to the revolt.
- “I don’t think the United States as a whole understood that the enslaved black population were as unhappy as they were,” said Hazel Taylor, the special project coordinator at Destrehan Plantation, in a 2011 interview with The Times-Picayune. “Slave owners had a tendency to say that (slaves) were happy. What this did was put awareness on the people who were being oppressed.”
While the leaders of the 1811 uprising didn’t succeed in their ultimate goal, the German Coast revolt wasn’t entirely a failure, historically speaking. In addition to helping to shatter the myth of the “happy” slave — which slaveholders were all too eager to perpetuate — it marked an early blow in the war against the institution of slavery, and a heroic one, according to Rasmussen. “Too often … we think of the slaves as victims,” he told NPR in 2011. “But the slaves were more than that. These were heroes. These were men that fought and died for their beliefs and freedom and equality.”