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Book review: American Rising:The Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen

Uncovering an amazing story from U.S. history

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American Uprising: The Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen (Harper Perennial, 288 pp., $15.99).

In January 1811, 500 or so slaves in south Louisiana, armed primarily with farm implements, marched for two days toward New Orleans. Most of them wore military uniforms, their leaders rode horses, and together they set fire to five big plantation houses and thousands of acres of sugar fields. It was the largest slave revolt in American history. Even though it failed, you'd think that such a seismic event would be common knowledge in the U.S., something we all learned about in school. However, news and discussion of the German Coast Uprising, named for the south Louisiana area where it began, was soon stifled.

To the white population around New Orleans, the reality of a half-thousand organized, politically aware slaves destroying their owners' homes and livelihoods was so terrifying, it triggered a kind of general insanity. Officials formed militias that quashed the rebellion, and continued to pursue suspected rebel slaves for two weeks. All told, 95 slaves were executed, many of them torn limb from limb by mobs, their heads cut off and put on pikes, to be displayed at various plantations, the New Orleans city gates, and along both banks of the Mississippi for miles on end.

The author, Daniel Rasmussen, tells his story in a chilling fashion, describing both the uprising and its horrific aftermath matter of factly, as if such violence were a routine part of life. What you realize after reading Rasmussen's book is that for that time and place, where slaves were often worked to death in insufferable heat, plagued by the cane fields' snakes and biting ants, not to mention the overseers' whips, violence was common enough to be seen as normal, even mundane.

After the craziness of the post-revolt revenge died down, news of the rebellion was sent to other Southern slave owners. The result was a kind of vow of silence, as officials hid accounts of the revolt, and the few whites outside New Orleans who knew of it decided to keep quiet, lest their own slaves find out about it and lead their own uprisings.

Thus the story of — even the existence of — the uprising was suppressed so successfully, it was practically forgotten until the study of history itself changed in the U.S. and historians began digging deeper beneath the "official" versions of the past.

Rasmussen's historical detective work on the 1811 revolt leads readers to another fascinating, even poignant revelation. That's because readers can't fully understand the uprising without also learning about its roots, and those roots comprise the most important single event to be relegated to the hemisphere's historical memory hole: the Haitian revolution. From 1791 to 1804, slaves in what was then an astonishingly rich colony named St. Domingue successfully fought and defeated armed forces from France, Spain and Britain, and became the second European colony (after the U.S.) to win its independence through warfare. St. Domingue's slaves included 90 percent of the population, and were, in general, more educated, leading to a degree of political and military sophistication unheard among slaves of the American South. After the revolution, however, the rest of the world turned its back on St. Domingue, now Haiti, refusing to trade with the new regime, or to help rebuild the nation which, after 13 years of war, was essentially reduced to a cinder. Some sugar plantation owners fled Haiti during the revolution, many of them settling in south Louisiana, along with as many slaves as they could round up. The political and military skills that so surprised and horrified the white residents of New Orleans in 1811 had been brought to their shores by slaves who were heavily influenced by, and in some cases took part in, Haiti's political inferno.

The surprises and the extraordinary historical digging continue throughout American Uprising, revealing more than ever that the narrative of slaves trying to free themselves was ignored or denied by our historians for far too long. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. says of this book, "It tells us something about history itself — how fiction can become fact, and how 'history' is sometimes nothing more than erasure."

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