By the mid 18th century the institution of slavery was firmly entrenched in the American South. In a potential response to worsening conditions, a group of enslaved people formed what is now known as the Stono Rebellion in 1739, the significance of which reverberated through the colonies.
The first slaves in British North America were introduced in 1619 at one of the first successful English colonies in America: Jamestown.
From there the institution of slavery slowly expanded throughout the original thirteen British colonies, but was more popular in the southern colonies of Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia.
Southern colonies deemed slavery to be “necessary” due to their agrarian, plantation-based economy. By the mid-18th century, slaves even outnumbered the free white population in the colonies such as South Carolina.
Given the wide population disparity, the white planter class was very careful to keep their slaves under close watch and often resorted to brutal and harsh disciplinary measures. However, in order to appease the enslaved people, they did give them certain freedoms, and many masters even taught their slaves to read and write.
Despite the colonists’ attempts, many slaves still sought their freedom. Enslaved people usually attempted this by running away or, in rarer cases, through a slave revolt or uprising.
Growing tensions between slaves and their masters would eventually culminate in the Stono Rebellion of 1739. The rebellion is known as the largest slave insurrection in British North America.
Who Led the Stono Rebellion?
The Stono Rebellion began in the early morning hours of Sunday, September 9th, 1739. The date is important, as on Sunday mornings most white slave owners attended church and allowed their slaves “work for themselves.” Many enslaved people used this time to relax, gather in groups, and/or tend their own gardens.
The leader of a Stono Rebellion was a slave named Jemmy, or Cato. Historical accounts often describe Cato to be of Angolan descent, though historians debate the accuracy.
Cato was Catholic, along with many of the other rebellious slaves. In addition, some among the slave rebels spoke Portuguese.
Because of these details and given the transatlantic slave trade routes of the time, some historians believe he was actually from the African Kingdom of Kongo. Many in the Kingdom of Kongo spoke Portuguese and the Kingdom had mainly converted to Catholicism in the 15th century.
The causes of the rebellion aren’t definitively known, though historians have several theories. The leading one is that the Spanish offered freedom and land in their Florida territory to any escaped British slaves.
Cato and the rebellious enslaved people were located just 20 miles outside Charleston, South Carolina and thus relatively close to the Florida border.
Another potential reason was that the local newspapers reported of a new law passed in August was to go into effect at the end of September 1739.
The new law, called the Security Act, stated that slave owners needed to carry firearms with them to church on Sundays. The colonial government was paranoid over any slave insurrections and wanted to ensure a quick response if necessary. The literate slave Cato may have seen these reports in the local newspaper.1
Combined with the gradual worsening conditions of enslavement, Cato may have seen the signs and sought to act before it would get exponentially harder to escape.
The Stono Rebellion of 1739
Whatever the reasons for the Stono Rebellion, it was a dramatic and bloody event that petered out within 24 hours.
In the early morning hours of September 9th, 1739, roughly 20 enslaved people met near the Stono River, South Carolina where the rebellion would eventually get its name. These slaves sought to cause chaos on their way to freedom in Spanish Florida.
Their first stop was at a local store that had a large supply of guns and ammunition. The escaped slaves armed themselves and killed the owners.
Cato and the other enslaved people then began marching south, burning plantations and killing white plantation owners as they encountered them. They also freed slaves along the way and encouraged them to join.
Not all enslaved people were eager to partake in the rebellion and some only joined reluctantly. A few slaves even hid their masters as they saw Cato’s group approaching.
It is notable that the slaves spared some white plantation owners. The ones spared had reputations as decent people and for being kind to their slaves.
Eager for freedom, the slaves reportedly marched with banners titled “Liberty,” chanting and shouting along the way. Some may even have been drinking stolen liquor from the plantations encountered.
Then-South Carolina Lieutenant Governor William Bull reported encountering the slaves along the road, though he escaped in time to raise the alarm through the countryside. A militia formed as quickly as possible and made their way on horseback after the runaway slaves.
The militia encountered the group of slaves, now numbering between 60-100 in a field 10 miles south of Stono River. Most of the slaves fled into the brush, though roughly 44 stood their ground.
The Aftermath of the Rebellion
In the resulting confrontation the militia killed or captured all 44 enslaved people. The militia decided to make an example out of the rebellious slaves and swiftly executed those captured on the spot.
The Stono River slaves managed to kill between 20-23 white people before meeting their fate. The escaped slaves were not in the clear either.
The Lieutenant Governor hired Native Americans from local tribes to track the rebels down, rewarding them with valuable items at the time. These enslaved people were either executed as well, or sold to slavers in the West Indies who treated their slaves even more brutally.2
Scouts found a smaller band of the rebel slaves nearly 30 miles south on the way to Spanish Florida. A battle ensued where the local militia either killed or captured the entire band as well.
The Significance of the Stono Rebellion
The significance of the Stono Rebellion lies in the direct response of white slave owners. An armed slave revolt terrified slave owners and they subsequently passed increasingly stricter and harsh measures on slaves to further restrict their limited freedoms in an effort to prevent future rebellions.
The resulting Negro Act of 1740 was in direct response to the Stono Rebellion. The new law made it illegal for enslaved people to gather in large groups, make money, grow their own food, or learn to read.3
The Act also sought to punish white plantation owners via fines for excessive punishment of slaves or overwork. As slaves could not provide legal testimony, these provisions were effectively worthless.
Separate measures also put a halt to the importation of slaves for 10 years. Slave owners believed the imported slaves directly from Africa were more rebellious in nature, and thus South Carolina determined to set a path to develop a native born population.
Largely thanks to this policy the 1808 ban on the Transatlantic slave trade during the Jeffersonian Era did not affect southern states as heavily. Since slave owners already focused on developing a native slave population, they didn’t rely as heavily on newly imported slaves.
Not all historians believe the Stono Rebellion was a significant event. Critics state that localized slave rebellions occurred frequently throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. In their view the Stono Rebellion was a small, localized rebellion that occurred over an incredibly short period.
Supporters of the significance of the Stono Rebellion believe it was a watershed moment that was a drastic reaction to the gradual worsening conditions of enslavement in the Americas.
Regardless of the significance of the event, the rebellion was the largest in the history of the British North American colonies. Future slave rebellions would play a major role in establishing southern society until the inevitable Civil War that abolished slavery.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Smith, Mark M. “Remembering Mary, Shaping Revolt: Reconsidering the Stono Rebellion.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 67, no. 3, 2001, pp. 513–34. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/3070016.
2) SMITH, MARK M., editor. “Rewarding Indians, Catching Rebels.” Stono: Documenting and Interpreting a Southern Slave Revolt, University of South Carolina Press, 2005, pp. 18–18. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvqr1bf0.13.
3) Rasmussen, Birgit Brander. “‘Attended with Great Inconveniences’: Slave Literacy and the 1740 South Carolina Negro Act.” PMLA, vol. 125, no. 1, 2010, pp. 201–03. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25614450.