Even before the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina seared itself into American consciousness, New Orleans had a fabled place in the nation’s history.
From the battle that marked the end of the War of 1812 and the beginning of Andrew Jackson’s ascent in public life to the cauldron in which Louis Armstrong was forged to the annual Mardi Gras festivities, the Crescent City has been associated with high living, pleasure in the moment and a stew of cultures.
It has not, however, been associated with slave revolts.
Thanks to Dan Rasmussen, who completed his undergraduate studies at Harvard in 2009 with a slew of academic honors and prizes, we have American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt.
The book will be published in early January, precisely 200 years after the revolt happened.
Rasmussen built on his senior thesis to examine the 1811 that involved anywhere from about 125 to 500 slaves who sought to overthrow their masters. The book seeks to excavate a previously hidden history and to place the uprising in proper regional and national context.
To a large degree, he succeeds-a success that is magnified when one considers his extreme youth.
American Uprising’s primary contribution is in lifting up this erased story. In the book’s final pages, Rasmussen goes through the historiography, showing how historians, if they dealt with it at all, accepted the version of the French overlords who viciously murdered the revolutionaries and cast the event in far less threatening terms.
After connecting with Leon Waters, a New Orleans stalwart who has been assiduously collecting evidence about the revolt for years, Rasmussen expanded his research to tell the story.
It is an engaging tale.
Rasmussen covers the background to the Louisiana Purchase, the horrors of the Middle Passage, the force and brutality by which slavery was maintained, and the particular colonial situation in New Orleans.
He works to show the building tension between the slaves and their masters, pointing in particular to one slave who was initially seen as an overseer, but who actually worked to plan and foment the revolt.
The uprising drew blood on both sides. The slaves struck first and killed a number of masters and family members before the owners rallied, putting down the revolt and ruthlessly and publicly decapitating those they captured.
Rasmussen fares best in the sections of the book when he writes about his original research and thereby advances public understanding of that time.
He does less well when extrapolating from the incident to a cursory history of the Civil War, and when he borrows from Tim Tyson’s converted dissertation to write about Robert F. Williams. These sections are cursory and feel more like a survey than an in-depth examination of the events, their meaning and their connection to each other.
There are also a number of holes in the documentary record that Rasmussen fills in surprising ways. He responds to the absence of evidence about Kook and Quamana, two of the Asante leaders, by invoking Olaudah Equiano without having any real certainty that the experiences were indeed similar enough to warrant the comparison.
The book’s dust jacket asserts that there were 500 slaves involved in the revolt, yet the text instantly scales down the estimate to as little as 25 percent of that number. More generally, Rasmussen’s tendency to write, “perhaps”, “maybe” or “probably”, while understandable, feel both a bit unnecessary and at times distract from the project’s forward momentum.
These and other limitations, Rasmussen is to be commended for bringing this story of armed struggle to light. I look forward to reading his future work and what I am confident will be his deepening sophistication and analytical depth.