Claiming roughly eighty black and white lives and involving as many as one hundred slaves and perhaps as many whites, the Stono Rebellion of September 1739 was one of the most significant and violent slave uprisings in colonial America. Although the rebels failed in their attempt to reach St. Augustine and claim freedom under Spanish rule, the revolt shaped South Carolina slave society in some important ways and its legacy lingered for years after the event.
The rebellion began at the Stono River in St. Paul's Parish, near Charleston, South Carolina. Several factors played a role in the timing of the rebellion. It is likely that the slaves organized their revolt to take place before September 29, when a certain provision was to go into effect requiring all white men to carry firearms to Sunday church services. It is also probable that many of the rebels were recently imported from the Kingdom of Kongo and that their religious beliefs (a syncretic form of Catholicism) influenced the uprising's timing. Contemporaries thought that the revolt was inspired in part by a visit to Charleston by a priest who relayed the Spanish offer of freedom in Florida. It is also likely that the slaves viewed a yellow fever epidemic that swept the area in August and September and rumors of war between Spain and England as fortuitous to their timing of the insurrection.
From Stono River, the rebels moved to Stono Bridge, where they equipped themselves with guns, killed five whites, and burned a house. Turning southward, they reached a tavern before sunup, sparing the innkeeper because they considered him "a good man and kind to his slaves" but killing his neighbors (Wood, p. 315). Other slaves joined the rebellion and, in Kongolese military fashion, the insurgents used drums, flags, and songs to inspire and fortify the group and coordinate their march southward.
South Carolina's Lieutenant Governor, William Bull, and four companions encountered the insurgents before noon, but managed to escape and warned other whites of the revolt. The rebels continued their march, pausing at the Edisto River to rest and also to draw more slaves to their ranks. At four p.m., up to one hundred armed planters and militiamen, possibly alerted by Bull, confronted the rebels. Even in the eyes of their enemies, the insurgents fought bravely. White firepower won the day, however. A few slaves were released but others were shot and some were decapitated, their heads displayed conspicuously on posts. About thirty rebels escaped, although most of them were captured the following week. But the revolt was not yet over and fighting continued in piecemeal fashion at least until the following Sunday, when militiamen encountered and defeated a group of disbanded rebels. White fears lingered and the militia remained on guard. Some of the insurgents were rounded up in the spring of 1740, with one leader eluding capture until 1742.
legacy of slave uprising
The Stono Rebellion reminded whites that although they had successfully discovered conspiracies in 1714 and 1720, not all plots could be detected. The ferocity of the revolt led authorities to try to increase the number of whites in the predominately black colony and beef up rules concerning the surveillance and regulation of slaves. On November 8, 1739 the South Carolina General Assembly appointed a committee to consider how to safeguard against future insurrections. The principal outcome of the committee's deliberations was the so-called Negro Act of 1740; in historian Darold D. Wax's estimation, "a thorough revision of the South Carolina slave code that survived into the nineteenth century" (Wax, p. 139). Designed to regulate more closely the activities of slaves and free blacks, the Act restricted the manumission of slaves and mandated patrol service for militiamen. The colony also imposed a prohibitive duty on the importation of new slaves in 1741 in an effort to stem the growth of South Carolina's slave population. A system of rewards for slaves who betrayed plots and imminent revolts was initiated, and finally, South Carolina tried to inspire loyalty to their owners by introducing slaves to a slanted form of Christianity.
Although these provisions placed tighter controls on slaves, they were not wholly effectual in regulating slave behavior. South Carolina slaves continued to revolt and conspire periodically throughout the colonial and antebellum period. Moreover, the drive for profit ensured that the moratorium on the slave trade lasted only three years, and by the mid 1740s, African slaves were again being imported at a rate and level that ensured that South Carolina's black population would remain large. However, the ferocity of the Stono Rebels heightened the anxieties of whites over internal security in South Carolina slave-holding society for years to come. The example of the Stono insurrection inspired some northern abolitionist literature in the antebellum period and remained in the memories of African Americans well into the twentieth century.
Olwell, Robert. Masters, Slaves, and Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Low Country 1740–1790. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.
Pearson, Edward A. "'A Countryside Full of Flames': A Reconsideration of the Stono Rebellion and Slave Rebelliousness in the Early Eighteenth-Century South Carolina Lowcountry." Slavery and Abolition 17, no. 2 (1996): 22–50.
Smith, Mark M. "Remembering Mary, Shaping Revolt: Reconsidering the Stono Rebellion." Journal of Southern History 67, no. 3 (2001): 513–534.
Thornton, John K. "African Dimensions of the Stono Rebellion." American Historical Review 96, no. 4 (1991): 1101–1113.
Wax, Darold D. "'The Great Risque We Run': The Aftermath of Slave Rebellion at Stono, South Carolina, 1739–1745." Journal of Negro History 67, no. 2 (1982): 136–147.
Wood, Peter H. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina From 1670 through the Stono Rebellion. New York: Norton and Co., 1975.
Mark M. Smith