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Publisher's Summary

As the issue of slavery roiled the country, few people became as controversial or consequential as Nat Turner, who was one of millions of slaves in the South before the Civil War but ultimately led the nation’s most notorious slave uprising. In August 1831, Turner led a rebellion that terrorized Virginia for several days, killing dozens of Whites and freeing slaves as his band moved from plantation to plantation. The Richmond Enquirer reported, “A fanatic preacher by the name of Nat Turner (Gen. Nat Turner) who had been taught to read and write, and permitted to go about preaching in the country, was at the bottom of this infernal brigandage. He was artful, impudent, and vindicative, without any cause or provocation, that could be assigned.” Even after the uprising was put down, Turner evaded capture for a few months, and after he was captured, his “confessions” were taken down and published before he was executed. Virginia would put a total of 56 slaves to death for the uprising. 

While Turner’s rebellion remains famous today, a far larger uprising took place a generation earlier. In January 1811, hundreds of slaves in Louisiana attempted to make a new beginning for themselves or die trying. Armed with muskets, cane knives, and axes, and wearing stolen United States militia uniforms, they set out to conquer the city of New Orleans. The goal was to establish a free republic where slavery was outlawed and Blacks had control over their own lives. Understandably discontented with their status and no longer willing to accept it, they were ready to engage in extreme violence to win their freedom, fully aware that death would be the only alternative. 

Between the arrival of the first slave ship in Virginia in 1619 and the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, there were more than 250 incidents of rebellions by 10 or more slaves on present-day United States territory, dating as far back as the 1739 Stono rebellion in South Carolina. But the German Coast Uprising in 1811 was the largest act of armed resistance against slavery in American history, and more than 100 slaves died during or as a result of the German Coast Uprising, whereas fewer than 30 were killed in action or as punishment for Nat Turner’s uprising. The 1811 insurrection also involved the largest mix of slave participants, combining African- and American-born slaves and both men and women. The rebels of 1811 were inspired to a great degree by the most successful slave uprising in history, which had occurred the previous decade in the French colony of Saint Domingue (modern Haiti). There, thousands of enslaved workers launched an organized rebellion, expelling all Whites from the territory and establishing an independent state. The German Coast Uprising was also inspired by charismatic, powerful, and dedicated leaders, including Charles Deslondes, a biracial slave driver, and two African soldiers, Kook and Quamana, who had only recently arrived in Louisiana from Africa on slave ships. 

While they had passionate motives and strong leaders and were well organized, their chances of defeating the strength of the White planter society and United States military were very slim. However, despite being unsuccessful in overthrowing the system, the German Coast Uprising showed a level of organization, leadership, and coordination unseen before by slaves in America, and it was totally unexpected by White owners and officials, which made it a precursor to its much more famous successor. 

The 1811 German Coast Uprising: The History and Legacy of America’s Largest Slave Revolt chronicles the critical but often overlooked uprising, from its origins to its results.

©2020 Charles River Editors (P)2020 Charles River Editors

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