18th CenturyCulturePoliticsUnited States of America

9 September 1739 – Slaves Make a Bid for Freedom

The Stono Rebellion
The Stono Rebellion

The Stono Rebellion is the biggest revolt of its kind in British North America

Twenty miles south-west of Charleston in South Carolina, near the Stono River, in the early hours of 9 September 1739, over twenty men gathered in a field. All of the men were slaves. Their leader was known as Jemmy, and was known among his contemporaries as Angolan although it is more likely that he was shipped from the kingdom of Kongo in Central Africa. Jemmy was the one who was attempting to instill within his fellow slaves the sense of injustice that he felt and was appealing to their thirst for freedom and it was likely to be he who gave them their motto, “Liberty!”

Good progress was made in the beginning by Jemmy and his colleagues. Their first objective was to obtain guns and ammunition, which they achieved by raiding Hutchenson’s stores at nearby Stono River Bridge. They killed two men during the raid. The group then headed south and along their journey they burned any houses owned by white people that they came across, killing between 20 and 30 people in the process. It seems that the acts of violence carried out by the group were not without control though as they spared the life of the man who kept the Wallace Tavern as it was known that he was kind to his slaves.

By noon, the group had managed to recruit more people to their number which had now risen to between 50 and 100 men. In general, when they encountered white people, they killed them, but one key individual managed to get away. His name was William Bull and he was the state of South Carolina’s lieutenant governor and he rode off to raise the local militia. Bull and his men caught up with the slaves the following day near the Edisto River. His report to London read that his men “killed and took so many as to put a stop to any further mischief at that time, 44 of them have been killed and executed”. The rest of them he wrote, “remain concealed in the woods expecting the same fate”.

It seems that the slaves were intending to make their way to Spanish Florida where they would gain their freedom, but none would make it. Within a couple of weeks all of them had been either killed or captured, and so came to an end one of the greatest slave rebellions in British America’s history.

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