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.