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At The Intersection of The Stono Rebellion and Jenkins’s Bloody Ear—Or, Freedom is Freedom

Stono Rebellion

Image via Wikipedia

The Stono (or Cato’s) Rebellion, which occurred in 1739, is considered the largest insurgency of enslaved Africans in the United States. In the same year, England declared war on Spain in the “War of Jenkins’s Ear.” It began as a routine act of maritime aggression between the old rivals, when the Spanish cut off the ear of British sea captain Robert Jenkins who later displayed the ear to the Prime Minister. As a result, the American colonists in Georgia and South Carolina found themselves embattled in an exchange of hostilities with the Spaniards holding Florida. One of the many issues of The War of Jenkins’s Ear involved the permission (asiento) to sell Africans who had been enslaved, though this impetus of “free trade” is often minimized in the discussion of this war. Nonetheless, in the English colonies Blacks in South Carolina continued their revolts against slavery. In 1740 the African’s involved in The Stono Rebellion were executed in Charleston, South Carolina.  The War of Jenkins’s Ear merged into the conflict of Austrian Succession which formally pitted France and Spain against England. In the American colonies, this was known as King George’s War. In the expression of many histories of conflict war is depicted as structured and valorous if you are an imperial power; but it is, at best, acknowledged as a fortuitous act of frustration by a renegade band (and more than an irritant) if you are enslaved. Imperial wars are often presented as celebrated acts of liberation or the preservation of freedoms.

Centurion s battle with the Spanish galleon Nu...

Considerable detail about the leaders, soldiers, battlefronts, strategies, tactics and weaponry are discussed in the subsequent histories. Of particular note Africans in the English colonies struggled ceaselessly for their freedom. Often their increasing presence, and certainly their actions, defined them as free and equal people, so much so that the colonial Slave/Black Codes of the late 1600s found it necessary to implement a variety of repressive laws—all designed to exclude African people from the ranks of humanity. When the rebellions and conspiracies of enslaved Africans are enumerated, the sense of grandiosity and courage is usually lost.  In matters of war, a centralized command under a national government is the prevailing model in contemporary society; suggesting that the oppressed, especially when bereft of nationhood, have no right to freedom-seeking actions. In spite of this, the ultimate goal is always liberty. People do not wage war to become slaves.

A woodcut image of Harriet Tubman

More than 100 years after Stono and the War of Jenkins’s Ear, with American slavery firmly embedded yet under siege (i.e. the abolitionist efforts of Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, etc.), the objective was the same. It is true that Spain and Britain were at odds over several issues, particularly access to enslaving and exploiting Africans. Yet, that this was a motivation is ironic, as it is contextual. In 1845 when freedom-fighter Harriet Tubman, for the first time, experienced her own liberation from bondage as a noble escapee, she recalled “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person.  There was such a glory over everything.”  Just as the Stono Africans rebelled, and in the aftermath of their exposure and penalty, those that eluded capture continued acts of rebellion and stimulated future revolts and forms of resistance among Blacks. With epic implications, Harriet Tubman persisted in the spread of “glory” by freeing other Africans and inspiring generations.

Dr. Katherine Bankole-Medina

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