- Cierra Chenier
Charles Deslondes & The Forgotten Revolution of 1811
Most New Orleanians know of Deslonde Street in the Lower 9 and the bounce songs that rep it, but the story of Charles Deslondes is often left out of history.
Though debated whether he was born in Haiti or Louisiana, we know that Charles Deslondes was of Haitian descent and born to an enslaved mother. As a young man, he served as a "slave driver" on Woodland Plantation, located just outside of New Orleans in LaPlace, Louisiana. Slave drivers possessed a position of privilege. They held the trust of their white owners and the responsibility of disciplining other slaves. Externally, Deslondes fit the description of what one would call a "house Negro." Internally, he was meticulously planning a revolution.
January 8 marks the anniversary of the largest slave revolt in American history: The 1811 Slave Revolt. Many people have heard of The Haitian Revolution and Nat Turner's Rebellion, but few know the story of the revolution that occurred right in our backyard.
On Carnival Day in 1811, thirty-one-year old Deslondes joined forces with slaves from both Woodland Plantation and other plantations along the levee. While the white elite were busy tending to parades and Carnival balls, Deslondes and his co-conspirators were finalizing their plan for the night. They attacked their master in his sleep and killed his son with an axe. Dressed in uniform and armed with weapons, Deslondes and up to 500 recruited slaves embarked on a two-day, twenty mile march along the river towards New Orleans.
Source: (Wikimedia Commons, edits by Cierra Chenier)
Along the way, two white men were killed and three plantations were burned down. Panic traveled down River Road and paranoia struck New Orleans. Governor of Louisiana Territory, William C.C. Claiborne (yeah, like Claiborne Claiborne), caught wind of the oncoming Black rebels, and put the city of New Orleans on lockdown.
Deslondes and his men made it as far as Kenner before marching BACK towards LaPlace. The reason being was that they realized that word of the revolt had traveled to New Orleans. They reverted to present-day Norco, where they were met by the Orleans military. Ninety-five enslaved people were executed, with some publicly hung in present-day Jackson Square. Charles Deslondes was captured, shot in the legs and chest, his hands were cut off, and he was set on fire. Following the uprising, local government officials held "The Destrehan Trial." Eighteen of those captured were executed and their heads were placed on the fence of Destrehan Plantation (along with Deslondes' body parts) to instill fear in the enslaved population.
Art installation at Whitney Plantation depicting the execution of Charles Deslondes and his comrades
The largest slave revolt to ever occur in American history is entirely absent from our history books. However, the stories of the patriots and the Founding Fathers are drilled into our brains at a young age. When Patrick Henry stated, "Give me liberty or give me death!" in reference to the Revolutionary War, American history wrote him in as a hero. Charles Deslondes sacrificed his life for the very same reason, and his name didn't even make the fine print.
The mission of Charles Deslondes and his militia was very clear: to take over the city of New Orleans, free all of the slaves, and establish a Black republic. Although they never reached city lines, the uprising was monumental in posing one of the greatest threats to white supremacy in the age of slavery.
Deslondes and his men tried to set a fourth plantation on fire during their uprising, but a slave by the name of Bazile stopped it in order to save his master's house. He was spared execution for doing so. Bazile's life was spared, but when he eventually died, he died a slave. Charles Deslondes was executed in the most horrific way, but died in martyrdom, rather than captivity.
Even as a slave, Charles Deslondes held a position of privilege. Instead of complying with his role, he used his privileges to liberate others. As human beings, I believe that we have a duty to do the same. Let the name Charles Deslondes serve as a reminder that we are all fighting for something bigger than ourselves.