Most of the important ideas spawned on South Carolina soil have been discredited by history: the nullification of federal laws, as espoused by John C. Calhoun; the romanticism of plantation culture, created by novelist William Gilmore Simms; the celebration of the “Lost Cause,” first proclaimed by Charleston clergyman John L. Girardeau.
Yet, another idea, one which is coming to shape the course of national and international relations, one which may provide a framework for future world order, had an early and forceful shout out right here in the Lowcountry. That, at least, is the argument of Denison University scholar and Orangeburg native Jack Shuler in his book Calling Out Liberty: The Stono Slave Rebellion and the Universal Struggle for Human Rights.
On Sept. 9, 1739, a group of slaves broke into a storehouse 15 miles south of Charleston, killing two storekeepers and arming themselves with guns and powder. This was the opening act of the Stono Rebellion, a brief and violent uprising that left 23 whites and some several dozen slaves dead. The revolt was put down in less than 24 hours and has been largely forgotten in popular history and memory. Yet it has reverberated for nearly three centuries through the subconscious mind of the South, taking the form of racial fears, racist laws, and the politics of regional extremism.
With some evidence, Shuler makes the argument that the Stono rebels — recent arrivals from Portuguese West Africa — were Catholic converts with an understanding of the Portuguese language. As such, they would have been able to communicate with Spanish agents from Florida, who infiltrated the wilderness plantations on the periphery of the colony, mingled with the slaves, and promised freedom to all who could escape their bonds and flee to St. Augustine. He also argues that communication among slaves was more sophisticated than most scholars have assumed; Shuler claims that slaves used drums, flags, shouts, and perhaps written messages to communicate. White accounts of the rebellion do indicate that as the Africans moved across the countryside, killing, plundering, and recruiting more participants, and later as they stood and fought a hopeless battle against white militia, they used flags and battle formations. What is not as easy to accept is that they were “calling out liberty” as they marched along.
The idea of liberty — as in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” as in “Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!” — was part of an 18th century dialogue, to be sure, but it was a dialogue of intellectuals, aristocrats, and bourgeoisie. Shuler expounds at length on the evolution of Enlightenment thinking through the 17th and 18th centuries, including the writings of John Locke, who also created the founding constitution for the Carolina colony.
There is no question that the slaves of St. Paul’s Parish wished to escape their bondage, to flee the rice plantations and make their way south. There is no question that they were enraged at their white tormentors and wreaked a bloody vengeance on them. But Shuler argues that they were imbued with some 18th century bourgeois notion of liberty and that the rebels were deliberately striking at the social and economic infrastructure of the colony. His evidence is sketchy and circumstantial, to say the least.
It is much easier to believe that the Stono slaves did what slaves have done from the beginning of history — took any opportunity to rise up against their masters and flee toward the light of freedom.
Shuler is much more effective in arguing that the Stono Rebellion fed the rising 18th century conversation about political rights and personal freedom.
Of course, at the same time the Revolutionary spirit was rising in this country, terrified whites were passing ever more repressive laws to control their slaves.
There are a number of incidents cited that the reader can see reflected in modern attitudes. The South Carolina Gazette, the colony’s only newspaper in 1739, felt that its first responsibility was to protect the image of the colony, and so kept the story of the rebellion from its pages altogether. After the rebellion, colonial leaders insisted that the only reason their slaves had revolted was that they had been provoked by Spanish agents. Their argument anticipated by more than two centuries those white southern leaders who insisted that racial strife in their fiefdoms was the result of “outside agitators.”
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