LIVING A DOUBLE LIFE. January 8, 2015, is the 204th anniversary of the great slave revolt of 1811. Daniel Rasmussen’s excellent book, American Uprising, The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt, chronicles the times, the events, and the people involved in this great rebellion.
What fascinates me about this story is the double life the slave ringleaders led. First among them was Charles Deslondes, a mixed blood slave who had the confidence of his white owner. Charles had risen in responsibility as a slave driver on a cane plantation 40 miles above New Orleans. (A slave driver was a sort of second in command to the white overseer, or sometimes a slave driver helped the master run the plantation in lieu of an overseer.)
Charles convinced his owner as well as all the other whites he dealt with that he was a loyal and trustworthy slave. He also convinced the slaves he worked with that he was the white man’s creature. The only ones who knew different were his co-conspirators.
What I love about writing fiction is imagining what is going on in someone else’s head, especially someone very different from myself. I don’t know if I’m capable of the duplicity Charles Deslondes employed in the months and years leading up to the revolt. Maybe we all could do it if the stakes were high enough, and certainly the stakes were high for Charles and the other rebels. If they didn’t succeed, and the leaders knew the odds were that they would not, then they would be killed and their heads set on pikes along the river road.
Another fascinating part of this story is that Charles, unlike 99.99 % of slaves, could possibly read and write. After the great Haitian Revolt a few years before this, refugees, both black and white, flooded the southern parts of the U.S. and brought with them the resounding ideas that excited the rebels in Haiti: liberté, égalité, fraternité. Of course people do not necessarily need to have heard this renowned chorus of rebels everywhere to yearn for their own freedom, but it was surely a help in organizing the other slaves to join him.
One other passing point about the way Deslondes and his lieutenants ran this revolt. They used the cell system, quite familiar to us today, so that only very small groups knew who their immediate leader was and that leader only knew one other leader, and so on. As few people as possible knew who any other rebel-in-waiting was, a necessary precaution when a fellow slave might be willing to alert the master in exchange for an extra ration of bacon for his family.
In a few weeks, my novel about this uprising, titled The Lion’s Teeth, will be out. Meanwhile, next week when the anniversary arrives, I’ll be closing my eyes for a quiet moment of remembrance.