The Stono Rebellion of 1793 was the largest uprising of African slaves on the mainland of North America during the colonial period. It began when about twenty slaves, likely first-generation Africans, attacked a local shop about fifteen miles southwest of Charles Town, South Carolina, and secured guns, powder, and other weapons.
Throughout the encounter, the slaves demonstrated a familiarity with military tactics, learned from military training in Africa. After all of the slaves had been killed or captured by the militia, South Carolina authorities instituted draconian measures in an effort to control the black majority in the colony.
Despite the apparent success in suppressing the rebellion, a grave and often unwarranted fear of slaves conspiring to kill their masters and escape from bondage would persist among white South Carolinians throughout the colonial and antebellum periods.
The uprising began early on Sunday morning, 9 September 1739. The slaves surprised and killed local storekeepers and then began attacking whites who lived in the surrounding countryside, as they slowly made their way toward the Spanish fort at St. Augustine, Florida. The slaves believed they would receive freedom and sanctuary from the Spanish, who had long encouraged runaway slaves from the British colonies.
In a fateful coincidence, the rebels encountered the mounted party of Lieutenant Governor William Bull, Sr., and his entourage. The lieutenant governor and his party evaded capture and made their way on horseback to sound the alarm. Meanwhile, the rebellious slaves, flushed with both their success and seized liquor, encamped.
They raised a banner and beat drums in an effort to attract more slaves to their revolt and by afternoon, their numbers had increased to between sixty and one hundred. At the same time, the white militia had mustered and embarked for the African camp.
Possessing superior numbers, training, and firepower, the militia overwhelmed the slaves in a brief, fierce fight. About a dozen of the rebels were killed by the first volley and most of the rest were caught while others fled into the countryside.
The escapees were pursued for a week before a large group of them was caught and killed 30 miles south of the original struggle. Others managed to evade capture for months and one slave was captured more than two years after the uprising. Most of those captured were interrogated, tried, and summarily executed.
The Stono Rebellion generated considerable conspiracy-minded hysteria in South Carolina. More than twenty whites had been killed with relative ease during the uprising. The slaves had acted in a manner that demonstrated prior planning and discussion, and without Lieutenant Governor Bull’s chance encounter with the rebels, the devastation to the colony could have been far worse. A state of emergency prevailed in Stono through the winter, as fears remained elevated and the white colonists passed rumors of further revolts.
In the aftermath of the uprising, South Carolina took several steps in an effort to control its African majority. The first was a stronger and more regular system of patrols, greatly expanding the power of the militia.
In the spring of 1740, a thorough revision of the colony’s slave codes was enacted. Slaves would now be held as personal chattel, enabling stricter control over humans held as property.
Furthermore, prohibitions on slave assemblies and gatherings, on teaching Africans to write, and on possessing liquor were all reinforced. However, the new slave code also mandated that masters provide their slaves with adequate clothing and prohibited masters from requiring work on Sundays.
In an effort to limit the number of Africans entering the colony, especially because it was believed that recently arrived slaves had led the rebellion, a duty of £100 was enacted for each new African imported during the next three years. It was hoped that this duty would sharply reduce the number of blacks entering the colony and help the colony to achieve a white majority population.
Despite these efforts, South Carolina had little success in attracting white settlers to the colony. The black majority persisted and legislative efforts to curtail the activities of black slaves largely failed.
The Stono Rebellion remains the bloodiest known conspiracy of African slaves in North America. In the eyes of whites living in South Carolina and other colonies with significant enslaved populations, it highlighted what could happen if the vigilant control of blacks was relaxed, and fueled a conspiracy-minded fear of future slave uprisings.