Remembering Mary, Shaping Revolt: Reconsidering the Stono Rebellion

Article excerpt

ON SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 9, 1739, SIXTY-ODD SOUTH CAROLINA SLAVES took up arms and revolted, killing, as one terrified contemporary styled it, "twenty-three Whites after the most cruel and barbarous Manner."(1) While there is no direct testimony regarding the insurgents' motives in the Stono rebellion, an analysis of some hitherto unexamined sources, bolstered by logic, forensic reconstruction, and a detailed understanding of the insurgents' African and Catholic background, as well as by recent historical work by colonial specialists and Africanists, may offer an answer to a neglected question: Why did the slaves revolt on the particular Sunday of September 9, 1739? The answer has implications beyond the immediate concern of chronology, for it highlights the importance of the rebels' memories of Catholicism generally and of the Kongolese veneration of the Virgin Mary specifically--memories that not only prove to have been crucial factors in the insurgents' timing and iconographic shaping of the rebellion, but that also have broader consequences for historians of eighteenth-century American slavery.

This article will carefully examine the timing of the Stono rebellion in order to better reconceptualize and reevaluate our understanding of African acculturation in colonial North America. Stono's timing and religious geography expose the shortcomings of an older debate on the extent to which transplanted slaves retained elements of their "African" culture, and they also lend credence to recent work that examines the historically specific ways in which Africans who had already been exposed to Europeans prior to their forced relocation to the New World incorporated aspects of this culture into their own cosmologies. This more recent emphasis helps avoid an essentialist and temporally static notion of what is or is not "African" and instead allows for the possibility that pre-enslavement, European-African contact might have helped shaped cultural systems and values in the context of New World slavery. The interpretation offered here helps us move beyond the familiar and unhelpful binary established years ago in the debates between Melville J. Herskovits and E. Franklin Frazier, as well as some of their subsequent supporters and detractors. Herskovits and his followers stressed the continuity of broadly conceived West African culture in shaping Afro-American values under slavery, particularly in the Caribbean and South America. While certainly important for alerting historians, anthropologists, and ethnographers to enslaved African Americans' retention of West African culture under New World slavery, Herskovits's model was too static and sweeping, as several subsequent critics have pointed out. Because it paid insufficient attention to change over time within specific pre-enslaved African societies, Herskovits's argument tended to slight and simplify the process of cultural exchange and syncretism between Africans and European colonizers. In this context it makes little sense to talk of Africanisms and retentions in the New World without understanding how Africans adapted, rejected, or accommodated elements of European colonizers' culture prior to their forced relocation to the Americas.(2)

Work by Stanley M. Elkins and Jon Butler notwithstanding, subsequent scholars tended to support Herskovits's broad conclusions while avoiding the pitfalls of his model. Historical and, especially, anthropological studies by Lorenzo Turner, Norman Whitten and John Szwed, and Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price refined Herskovits's work by showing that Africanisms survived in the New World (the Caribbean particularly) in a bewildering array of forms, including family, kinship, language, and ethnic identity. Mintz and Price offered a more sophisticated interpretation of African-European cultural exchange, not least because they were rightly sensitive to change over time and the specificity of African geography and identities.(3)

In the past thirty years, historians of the American colonial and antebellum South have further refined our understanding of the ways that African cultural identities survived and adapted in the New World. …