Thursday, February 05, 2009

CWL--- Writing History: Documenting and Interpreting a Slave Revolt

Rebellion: Documenting and Interpreting a Slave Revolt, Mark M. Smith, University of South Carolina Press, 134 pp., bibliography, notes, maps, 2005, $14.96.

Assessing the meaning and nature of any social or political revolt is difficult, whether it is a civil war or a war of liberation. South Carolina's Stono River Rebellion of 1739 was a local event that was deeply connected to trans-Atlanic history. The participants were Kongolese Africans influenced by Portuguese Catholicism and both loyal and murderous to their masters. Mark Smith has collected both primary documents and reflective essays that show a "complicated, textured, malevolent world in which the slaves and the white South Carolinians lived in 1739."

Slave resistance conspiracies and slave revolts marked the decade of the 1730. The islands of Bahama, Antiqua, Jamaica, St. John, and Guadalupe quivered with the anticipation of revolts or quaked with their actual occurrence. Decapitation, maiming and arson were used by the whites and the slaves. On September 9, 1739 a campaign of judgment was begun, first by blacks on whites, then by whites on blacks. By noon five homes were burning and probably 21 whites were dead. During the late afternoon, marching by drum beat and under a banner about 60 slaves had covered 10 miles. The Lieutenant Governor with about 100 militia men approached. During the battle about 30 of the renegades escaped. The militia let those captives go whom they felt had been coerced into rebellion. Those slaves who were most involved in the revolt were shot and beheaded. A week later the escaped renegades were discovered and battled.

"A fundamental alteration in the character of Carolina society [occurred]with a less open and less compromising slave system." The 1740 Negro Act was passed and militia men were required to constantly patrol their neighborhoods. Monetary levies increased on slaveholders who purchased imported slaves. Slave masters' rights and privileges to free slaves was withdrawn by the colonial government.

Submitting 15 documents to the reader, Smith places them in a context that "helps students to understand contemporary views of the revolt and gauge its impact on colonial South Carolina society." The essays by historians illustrate how "historians build on others' work in an effort to advance historical understanding, sometimes using the same sources differently, sometimes using newly discovered sources, and almost always engaging with and building on earlier interpretative insights and analyses." Smith intention is not be provide a comprehensive review of the Stono Rebellion "but to provide a useful staring point for anyone beginning research on the topic."

Smith's book illustrates how a historian's hypothesis is developed and how the historian specifically uses evidence to support it. Stono: Documenting and Interpreting a Southern Slave Revolt is a fine introduction for undergraduates, graduates and laymen to the historical method. Additionally, Smith's book exposes the roots of what Steven A. Channing in 1970 revealed as a crisis of fear in Charleston, South Carolina in the late fall 1859 through the election of Lincoln. John Brown's Harpers Ferry Raid in October 1859 convinced South Carolina that it would be safer outside the Union than inside the Union. The ghosts of Stono and the ghost of John Brown haunted South Carolina.

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