|Two Rebellions in Colonial Louisiana
French settlers at the Natchez settlement were massacred by neighboring Natchez Indians. The Natchez collaborated with African and Indian slaves living on the tobacco plantations in the French settlement. African and Indian slaves worked together, formed couples, had children, and escaped together. They also developed trade networks with neighboring Indian tribes and with communities of escaped slaves living in the cypress swamps beyond the plantations.
Knowing that the slaves would side with them, Natchez hunting parties visited the plantations of the French settlement, asking to borrow guns and ammunition for their hunt in exchange for food. The settlers, who were usually short of food, agreed and were thus peaceably disarmed by the Natchez before the attack. During the massacre, many French and African women and children were taken captive by the Natchez.
While some African slaves sided with the Natchez and used the attack as an opportunity to escape into the cypress swamps, others sided with the French. Indeed, when the French militia attacked, in alliance with the Choctaws, to regain their captives, African slaves fought alongside the French. They earned their freedom as a reward, and this set the stage for the establishment of the black militia in Lower Louisiana.
In the next several years, other plots between Africans and Indians were discovered, though all before they could be carried out. Governor Perier of the French colony proposed a plan to stop this collaboration, ending Indian slavery and setting Africans and Indians against each other by rewarding Indians handsomely if they captured run-away slaves and also by forbidding planters and settlers to take African slaves with them into Native American settlements.
A major plot among slaves at Pointe Coupee to rise up, kill their masters, and abolish slavery in Louisiana started on the estate of Julie Poydras. The plot involved African slaves, particularly those on large plantations who had been recently imported from Africa, and some local whites. The plotters intended to kill the white slave owners and any black creoles (that is, people of African descent born in America) who opposed the rebellion.
The Pointe Coupee rebellion was not a movement of blacks against whites. Both sides were mixed. It was also part of a “multiracial abolitionist movement supported by a large segment of the dispossessed of all races in Louisiana and throughout the Caribbean: a manifestation of the most radical phase of the French Revolution, which had spilled over from Europe to the Americas.” (Africans in Colonial Louisiana, p. 345)
In the 1790s, Louisiana (now under Spanish control) was a marginal colony, characterized less by large-scale staple agriculture than by trade, smuggling, and piracy. People came in and out of Louisiana from Europe and the Caribbean through this trade. In the 1790s, traders, pirates, sailors, and soldiers all brought news of the French Revolution and its effects. In 1791, revolution broke out in the French colony of Saint Domingue in which a few whites allied with African slaves and free blacks to demand equality and an end to slavery. In 1792, the French government extended full civil and political rights to free blacks in the Caribbean. In 1794, France abolished slavery and declared that all men in France or its colonies were French citizens. Fearing for their property and their lives, French slaveholders in the Caribbean fled to British and Spanish islands, leaving the cause of the French Revolution in the hands of soldiers, port workers, and seafarers, as well as some merchants, local officials, clergy, shopkeepers, and small planters. These people spread the word of freedom and equality throughout the Caribbean, and the news and hope of freedom spread to Louisiana. “This internationalist, revolutionary effervescence among the lower classes led by seafarers, the gens de mer, washed up on the shores of Louisiana, radiating to New Orleans and along her major waterways. Louisiana was ‘blanketed with partisans of the revolution who came in many guises and colors.’” (Africans in Colonial Louisiana, pp. 347-8)
Louisiana was, at this time, under Spanish rule, as it had been since France ceded it to Spain in 1763. But the Spanish feared—rightly—that the French revolution might lead to rebellion in Louisiana too. Slaves at Pointe Coupee knew about the revolution in St. Domingue and hoped that it portended freedom for them too. Rumors spread that slaves in Louisiana were also free but that masters were refusing to free their slaves. Worse, slaves believed they were being told to sign a paper that would give up their freedom. These rumors and fears gave rise to rebellion.
Leaders of the rebellion vigorously and widely recruited among slaves from their own and neighboring plantations and farms. They met in the cypress swamps, behind the plantations, where slaves could meet freely without any supervision. They were aware that they outnumbered whites in the area 3 to 1. Not everyone in the area—even all the blacks—were in support of the rebellion. On small farms, slaves were much more reluctant to join, both fearing and reprisal and apparently out of some affection for their owners. Free blacks, however, were involved in the conspiracy.
However the plot extended beyond the Pointe Coupee area. It was linked to a projected French invasion of Louisiana, and there was some discussion of plans between local slaves and soldiers and boatmen on the Mississippi who knew about the wider plot.
In contrast to 1729, no Indians supported the rebellion. Indeed, the plot was betrayed by Tunica Indians. By the 1790s, Native Americans in Lower Louisiana were tightly linked to the Spanish government, which offered them some protection from the British and then the Americans. There were only a few Tunicas living in the village near Pointe Coupee, but several lived and worked on the plantations where they spied on African slaves. In addition, Tunicas helped track runaways both before and after the planned rebellion.
Although the plot was discovered and the plotters arrested before the rebellion took place, a whole series of other plots developed in the next few years, all over the Lower Louisiana region.
The 1795 conspiracy “was broadly based and included slaves of all colors and nations, free people of African descent, and poor whites: voyageurs, indentured servants, and soldiers. The leaders of the conspiracy claimed that there would be no lack of whites to help them. The slaves of Pointe Coupee were well informed about revolutionary developments in France, in Haiti, and throughout the world. The Declaration of the Rights of Man was read to them by Joseph Bouyavel, an abolitionist white schoolteacher and tailor who worked on the Goudeau estate. He admitted that he had burned two other books that he had bought in New Orleans. The leaders of the conspiracy traveled widely and sent couriers throughout lower Louisiana. Jacobins of all colors traveled through Pointe Coupee, informing the slaves that they had already been freed but that their masters were not telling them. Slaves were aware that slavery had been abolished in all French colonies and that if France won the war, they would all be free. Their revolt was to be coordinated with slave uprisings in Natchez, Opelousas, the German Coast, and New Orleans, probably linked to the anticipated French invasion. The 1795 conspiracy of Pointe Coupee was not a race war. Jacobins of Louisiana of all races and nationalities fought against slavery and social tyranny. It was a sophisticated, well-organized movement.” (Africans in Colonial Louisiana, pp. 373-4)