It was cold. The pitch black night, normally full of nocturnal activity, was silent except for the ever present rain hitting the ground. Festival season in nearby New Orleans had ended and these were the dark days – a time when the Devil could be found playing in his den. In the faint light of candle glow, a group of men gathered in an old cabin. They spoke in whispers and nods. The planning was done, now was the time for action.
The year was 1811. It was early January on the German Coast of Louisiana. In this place, civilization sat on the very brink of failure, despite the glorious wealth on display up and down the River Road. Year in and year out, acre after acre, men and women alike toiled in the oppressive fields up and down the great river. Many of those laboring had been ripped from their ancestral home. Caught up in tribal warfare, they were sold to slavers who packed them in cargo ships, bound for the unknown.
Sugar cane is an brutal master…in the prime harvest season, workers toiled up to eighteen hours a day. You didn’t live long as a slave harvesting cane. The oppressive heat, flies, and unfiltered sun of the Louisiana Territory was only interrupted by the crack of the overseer’s whip – a reminder that you were no longer free to choose your destiny. You were at the mercy of others – a fact that Charles Deslondes, a mulatto born into slavery in French Saint-Domingue, knew well. As he sat beside the others in the candlelight, Charles had decided the time had come for change. On this night he would gamble everything on a chance at freedom.
Inside the big house, two generations of the Andry family slept. Of French origins, they, like other planters on the German Coast, had come here to scratch their fortune out of the rich soil of the Mississippi Delta. Manuel Andry was in his mid fifties and had been appointed Commandant of St John the Baptist Parish by King Carlos III of Spain, back when New Orleans was Spanish territory. He had three sons, ranging in age from eighteen to twenty-eight. On this night, his oldest son Michel was off in New Orleans, but his middle son Gilbert, along with his daughter-in-law Marie, slept in a room nearby.
No doubt the pouring rain muted the sound of bare feet coming up the back staircase onto the second floor landing. If there had been moonlight it would have glinted off the steel of long cane knives and axes held by the enslaved men as they approached the bedroom of their master. Manuel Andry awoke with a start to the sight of shadowy faces coming at him with an axe. He quickly shook off the grogginess of sleep and raised his arms to fight off the attack, but not before being struck a glancing blow. He was momentarily surprised at the site of the man wielding the axe – Charles was his coachman – the man who had helped him run the plantation for over ten years and had earned his trust.
Somehow Andry fought his way through and made it to a window, escaping out on the second floor veranda. He briefly looked back to see his son Gilbert fighting for his life. In this moment he had to make a terrifying choice, help his son or flee to warn others. Andry knew that this was a planned attack, not a random act of violence – he had to warn his neighbors by getting ahead of the rebels, so he ran out across the yard to a pirogue tied up at the dock, jumped in and headed across the river in the dark of night.
Before long, several hundred people, some on horseback and others walking with cane knives and any other weapon they could carry, were marching down the east bank of the river towards New Orleans. As word spread, so did fear. Planters sent their families to the safety of the swamps. Women and children ran through fallow fields in the dark of night, many with only the clothes on their back. The cold rain was relentless, drenching them to the bone. As they ran, they could hear the steadily increasing sound of drums, the sound of the mob on the march. Finally in the relative safety of the swamp, they would sit in fear, watching a glow spread across the night sky as fires raged.
Alternatively, the rebels experienced their own kind of uncertainty and fear. They marched for freedom, committed to doing whatever it would take to gain it. They had nothing to loose and knew failure meant death. They had come to far to stop at this point, so they proceeded towards New Orleans hoping the element of surprise would see them through. Unfortunately it was not to be. The rebellion was quelled quickly after a skirmish in which about forty of the rebels were killed. Eighteen of the rebels were rounded up for trial at Destrehan Plantation, but Charles Deslondes was not one of them.
After being hunted down by dogs, Charles had one hand chopped off and then the other. He was then shot in each leg until both were broken and burned alive. The brutality of his killing and of about 100 others ultimately executed for the rebellion sent a clear message – rebellion of any kind would result in torture and horrible death. Fear bred fear – the planters were jarred by the organization required for the rebellion. They were jarred by the number of slaves that participated. They realized that the only chance they had of maintaining control when they were completely outnumbered, was fear…and fear became their number one weapon in the aftermath of the revolt.
A few weeks later, as the ramp up of another planting season began, all along the river road were displayed the decapitated heads of those that participated in the revolt. No greater message could have been sent than the smell of decaying flesh in the hot spring sunshine. The planters were back in control…if only for now…
All unmarked photos were taken by the author. Cover photo courtesy of the fantastic photographer Lee Jeffries (Homeless series).