Book Review: American Uprising- The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt

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American Uprising by Daniel Rasmussen.

Daniel Rasmussen. American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt. New York: Harper Collins, 2011. RRP $15.99 paperback.

Earlier this year, I visited New Orleans. It is a wonderful city, but it’s history of race relations is troubled, to put it mildly. An area called the German Coast sits just a few miles north-west of the city, on the banks of the Mississippi River. In the nineteenth century, it was some of the richest and most fertile agricultural land in America. The most common crop was sugar, and the owners of the plantations along the river grew incredibly rich from it. But it was a system built on slavery. By 1810, 75% of the local population were slaves. Faced with a daily assault of cruel, dehumanising, and violent treatment, it is no surprise that slaves found subtle ways to resist the system. Occasionally, this resistance took the form of armed rebellion. In January 1811, between 200 and 500 enslaved men undertook an armed uprising on the German Coast. American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt tells the story of this revolt, and makes a convincing argument for its significance in the development of the modern United States of America.

This is a story about slave revolutionaries: their lives, their politics, and their fight to the death against the planters and their militia. Above all, this is a story about America: who we are, where we came from, and how our ideals have at times been twisted and cast aside for the sake of greed and power.

Rasmussen, 2011, p. 3

As author Daniel Rasmussen himself argues, the German Coast Uprising has received limited attention from historians over the years. In addition, because the participants were slaves, archival documents relating to the uprising are scarce–accounts from the perspective of the slaves themselves are almost non-existent. Even the names of most of the participants are unknown to us. As a result, Rasmussen has to be creative in the way that he reconstructs the story of the revolt. For example, he uses the accounts of other enslaved people, such as Olaudah Equiano and Solomon Northup (who’s story of slavery formed the basis for the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave), to give the reader an idea of what life would have been like for the slaves who participated in the revolt.

American Uprising does a good job of  telling the story of the revolt in an engaging and accessible way. But Rasmussen also goes beyond this narrative, to explore how the uprising was represented and interpreted, both immediately afterwards, and later by historians. The uprising was quickly depoliticised by those in authority, its participants portrayed as animalistic and violent criminals in a narrative that is still frequently used in relation to riots and other violent protests.

As the map at the beginning of the book demonstrates, the United States of America was still very much a work-in-progress in 1811; Louisiana had only been part of the Union since 1803, and it didn’t obtain statehood until 1812. Rasmussen explains how the uprising played an important role in justifying the necessity of statehood for Louisiana, and helped pave the way for further American expansionism over the next few decades. This is one of the key points in Rasmussen’s argument that the uprising deserves much more attention than it currently gets.

I bought American Uprising whilst I was in Louisiana in order to learn more about the state’s history of dissent. I got much more than that; the book explores the significance of the uprising far beyond the local area, putting it in the context of the development of a nation. American Uprising is well-written and enjoyable, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of protest, slavery, race relations, or imperial expansionism.

Turbulent Londoners: Flora Drummond, 1879-1949

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus on women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, all of the Turbulent Londoners featured in 2018 will have been involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. This post is about Flora Drummond, a WSPU organiser who was nicknamed ‘The General.’


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Flora Drummond as a young woman (Source: Spartacus Educational).

Flora Drummond (nee. Gibson, later Simpson) was a talented organiser and public speaker. She became involved in the suffrage movement after a personal experience of injustice, and went on to become one of the most well-known organisers in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Thanks to her effective organisation skills she became known as ‘the General’ and embraced this nickname, leading suffragette marches dressed in military style uniform and riding a horse.

Flora Gibson was born on 4th August 1878, the daughter of a tailor. Although she was born in Manchester, she grew up on the Isle of Arran in Scotland. When she was 14 she left school and moved to Glasgow to continue her education. She completed the qualification to be a postmistress, but was denied a job because of new regulations that required workers to be at least 5 foot 2 inches tall. Flora was 5 foot 1 inch. She felt this injustice very deeply, believing that the rule discriminated against women because they were shorter on average. Despite this setback, she went on to get further qualifications in short hand and typing.

In 1898, Flora married Joseph Drummond, and the couple moved to Manchester. Both were active in the Fabian Society and International Labour Party. Flora worked in various factories, so she could better understand what life was like for the women who had no choice but to work there. When her husband became unemployed, however, Flora became the sole breadwinner and worked as manager at the Oliver Typewriter Company.

Flora joined the WSPU in Manchester, and moved with it down to London in 1906, when she became a paid full-time organiser, along with Annie Kenney and Minnie Baldock. Her extensive organisational skills were quickly recognised by the WSPU; in 1908 she was put in charge of the group’s headquarters in Clement’s Inn. She was popular and innovative in this role. Flora also had a flair for dramatic protests. That same year, she hired a boat and floated on the Thames outside the Houses of Parliament, addressing the MPs that were sat on the riverside terrace. In October, Flora was a key organiser of a rally in Trafalgar Square. Because of her role, she was arrested for inciting suffragettes to rush the House of Commons, and was sentenced to 3 months in prison, alongside Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. She was released early when it was discovered she was pregnant. Flora would be imprisoned a total of 9 times for the suffrage cause, and went on hunger strike on several of those occasions. It was around this time that Flora acquired the nickname ‘the General,’ for her enthusiastic and effective organisation skills. She embraced the nickname, and began wearing a military style uniform on demonstrations.

'General' Flora Drummond, 1907.

Flora loved her nickname, ‘the General,’ and played into it, wearing a military style uniform on protests (Source: Getty Images).

In October 1909, Flora moved to Glasgow and organised the first militant pro-suffrage march in Edinburgh. She also ran the WSPU’s general election campaign in 1910, before returning to London in 1911. Flora was captain of the WSPU’s Cycling Scouts. Based in London, this group of women would cycle out to the surrounding countryside to give pro-suffrage speeches. By 1914, Flora’s health was suffering from repeated imprisonments and hunger strikes. She returned to the Isle of Arran to recuperate, but came back to London when war broke out. From this point onward, however, she focused on public speaking and administration, avoiding direct action in order to minimise her chances of arrest; her organisational skills meant she was more useful to the cause outside of prison anyway. During the First World War, Flora stayed loyal to Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and threw herself behind the war effort. Proving she had abandoned the left-wing politics of her youth, Flora toured the country trying to persuade trade unionists not to strike.

In 1918, Flora helped Christabel in her unsuccessful election campaign standing for the Women’s Party in Smethick. In 1922, she divorced Joseph and later married Alan Simpson. Flora co-founded the Women’s Guild of Empire, a right-wing campaign group opposed to both communism and fascism. The group’s main aim was to increase patriotism amongst working-class women and prevent strikes and lockouts. In 1925, the group had 40,000 members. The following year, Flora led the Great Prosperity March, which demanded an end to the unrest which would soon peak with the General Strike.

Flora Drummond older

A portrait of Flora by the artist Flora Lion painted in 1936. Flora is wear a medal in the WSPU colours (Source: National Galleries Scotland).

Flora died on the Isle of Arran on 7th January 1949. Well-liked, witty, and innovative, she is well known as one of the most dynamic members of the WSPU. She continued campaigning for what she believed in even after women won right to the vote, and even in her old age she was a good-natured and determined woman. Although I disagree with her later politics, I wouldn’t mind being a bit more ‘Flora.’

Sources and Further Reading

BBC Scotland. “Ballots, Bikes and Broken Windows: How Two Scottish Suffragettes Fought for the Right to Vote. Last modified 6 February 2018, accessed 6 August 2018. Available at  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/5cdhGvg5Lcy52KPV7xY7YBS/ballots-bikes-and-broken-windows-how-two-scottish-suffragettes-fought-for-the-right-to-vote

Cowman, Crista. “Drummond [nee Gibson; other married name Simpson], Flora McKinnon.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 6 January 2011, accessed 6 August 2018. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/39177 [this reference requires a subscription to access].

Simkin, John. “Flora Drummond. ” Last modified January 2015, accessed 6 August 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wdrummond.htm

The Herald Scotland. “Belated Salute to the General.” Last modified 15th May 2001, accessed 6 August 2018. Available at http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12168905.Belated_salute_to_the__apos_General_apos__At_last_a_memorial_is_to_be_erected_to__an_extraordinary_Scots_suffragette___as_Jennifer_Cunningham_discovers/

Wikipedia. “Flora Drummond.” Last modified 11 July 2018, accessed 6 August 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flora_Drummond

Represent! Exhibition at the People’s History Museum

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The People’s History Museum is devoted to the development of democracy in Britain (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Last week, I wrote about my visit to the Voice and Vote exhibition in Westminster Hall at the Houses of Parliament. As I noted in that post, there a lot of books, events, documentaries, and exhibitions commemorating the centenary of some women winning the right to vote. I recently visited another exhibition inspired by this anniversary, this time at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. The museum’s collections are all about the development of democracy in Britain, so the centenary of the Representation of the People Act is an event they really couldn’t ignore. The result is Represent! Voices 100 Years On, a thoughtful exhibition that explores how far political representation, in a variety of forms, has come since 1918.

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The Represent! exhibition is on at the People’s History Museum until 3rd February 2019 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Represent! is crowd-sourced and inspired by zines–low-cost, self-published magazines that have been closely associated with radical culture since the 1960s. Acknowledging that voting is only one form of political representation, the exhibition also considers other kinds of representation, such as media, self-representation, and voice (protest). It also asks questions about the ‘legacy’ of 1918, questioning whether you (the visitor) feels sufficiently represented, and what can be done to reduce inequality and increase representation of marginalised groups. The exhibition includes images, placards, banners, art, clothing, and films. Much of the text is in the form of quotes from those who contributed the items (such as activists, historians, and journalists), so it feels as if they are telling their story in their own words. There are also a series of ‘referendums’ dotted around the exhibition (e.g. is it ever justified to break the law during a protest? Should the voting age be lowered 16?), so visitors can add their voice to the exhibition too.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is a recently rediscovered banner from the Manchester branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). It was uncovered last year in a charity shop in Leeds, and was bought by the People’s History Museum, partially thanks to a Crowdfunder campaign. There are links throughout the exhibition between the women’s suffrage campaign and modern social movements: a replica suffragette’s outfit is contrasted with the outfit worn by a member of Sisters Uncut at a recent protest; and connections are drawn between suffragette’s experiences of prison and Safety4Sisters, whose work includes campaigning for the rights to detained migrant women. These connections encourage the visitor to think about how far we have (or haven’t) come in the 100 years since the Representation of the People Act.

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The centrepiece of the exhibition is a WSPU banner, more than a century old, that the museum bought last year after it was discovered in a charity shop (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

There is no obvious order in which to move around the exhibition, no single narrative to follow. This is apparently becoming an increasingly common strategy for museums, giving visitors the freedom to choose how they experience exhibitions. Whilst I understand the logic behind it, I still find it a bit disconcerting, like if left to my own devices I might ‘do it wrong.’ This is something that I will probably get used to as I encounter more museums designed in this way; the Museum of Warsaw is another example of this unstructured style that I have visited recently. For now, however, it does make me feel a bit uncomfortable.

Represent! is a thought-provoking exhibition that asks more questions than it answers; I think that is the intention. It is critical and reflective, representing a range of different ideas and voices. I visited on a Saturday and there were very few other people there, which is a real shame, I think it is a fantastic exhibition which as many people should visit as possible. It is open until the 3rd of February 2019, so do go and check it out if you get the chance!

Voice and Vote Exhibition at the Houses of Parliament

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Me at the Voice and Vote exhibition in Westminster Hall at the UK Parliament (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of some women being given the right to vote in the UK. The anniversary has been marked with a whole range of events, books, documentaries and exhibitions (I have collected together all my blog posts on the topics here). One of the exhibitions is Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament in Westminster Hall at the Houses of Parliament. It is only a small exhibition, but it does a great job of putting the story of women’s fight for the right to vote in the context of the spaces women have occupied in Parliament both before and after 1918.

The exhibition is divided into 4 areas: the ventilator, the cage, the tomb, and the chamber. Each area includes a reconstruction of a particular space that women have inhabited in parliament over the last few centuries. These spaces include a ventilator shaft in the loft space above the House of Commons chamber which women used to listen to debates before Parliament was destroyed during a fire in 1834; the Ladies Gallery, a small and stuffy viewing space high up in the rebuilt chamber; the broom cupboard in which Emily Wilding Davison hid on the night of the 1911 census; the Lady Members’ room (known as ‘the tomb’) which became increasingly overcrowded as female MPs were elected in the years after 1918; and the chamber of the House of Commons, in which 208 women now sit.

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The Voice and Votes exhibition in Westminster Hall makes good use of its limited space (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Alongside these recreated spaces are items, documents, images and quotes that illustrate women’s relationship with the UK’s democratic system both before and after they won the right to vote. Parliament has quite substantial archival collections of its own, and many of the items on display came from these collections. Personal highlights for me were a banner used during a protest in which Muriel Matters and Helen Fox chained themselves to the bars covering the windows of the Ladies Gallery in 1908, and a pair of bolt cutters bought afterwards so that similar protests could be dealt with more easily. They were used in April 1909 to remove members of the WSPU that had chained themselves to statues in St. Stephen’s Hall. Other items are loaned from elsewhere, including papers and objects relating to Leicester suffragette Alice Hawkins, which are still owned by her family.

Voice and Vote is a small exhibition, but it makes the most of the space. It contains a lot of items and information, but it doesn’t feel overcrowded. The recreated spaces are an effective way of putting the visitor in the shoes of the women who interacted with Parliament over the last few centuries, even when they were not welcome. They are a clear way of structuring the exhibition, and they are something a bit different–a creative and novel way of engaging with history.

I would highly recommend a visit to Voice and Vote. It is well designed, and puts the campaign for women’s suffrage in wider context of women in Parliament. I also think it will appeal to those who have limited background knowledge, and those who already know quite a bit about women’s history in British politics. The capacity of the exhibition is limited, so it is recommended that you book, and it runs until 6th of October 2018.