Jemmy, leader of the Stono Rebellion, the largest and deadliest revolt by enslaved people in colonial British North America, was most likely born in the Kingdom of Kongo, now part of Angola, and brought as a slave to the British colony of South Carolina in the 1730s. Although his exact origins are not known, the majority of African slaves sold by the British Royal African Company and shipped to South Carolina originated in Kongo. The Kingdom of Kongo was an independent kingdom which converted to Christianity in the 16th-century, meaning that Jemmy worshipped both Roman Catholicism and older African faiths and had working knowledge of Portuguese which was the lingua franca of slave traders and the elite in Kongo. Jemmy’s Kongolese origins also linked to his abilities as a military leader which was probably acquired in wars fought in the Kongo region in the early 1700s. These wars, by the 1720s and 1730s, were fought using pistols and muskets, meaning that knowledge of modern military tactics and weaponry were brought along with slaves, like Jemmy, to South Carolina. Jemmy also likely had knowledge of rice cultivation, which made him particularly skilled for work on plantations in South Carolina.
Although it is unclear how long Jemmy had been in South Carolina when the Stono Rebellion broke out in 1739, he was part of a rapidly growing slave population in the region, resulting not only in an increase in the volume of rice exports but also the population of young, male, African-born slaves. These young men strained against the long hours of rice cultivation and resented being forced to perform agricultural tasks typically performed by women in Kongo. In the 1730s over 250 South Carolina slaves fled to nearby Florida, then a Spanish colony, where the authorities offered freedom to escaped slaves both to counter British influence in the United States and also to offer refuge to fellow Catholics. In August 1739, the tensions between Britain and Spain threatened to spill over into a full war, causing the South Carolina legislature to pass the Security Act requiring that all white men carry firearms to church on Sundays.
On September 9, 1739, Jemmy and twenty fellow slaves were working on a road gang near the Stono River bridge. Before dawn, Jemmy led the men to a nearby store where they stole firearms and ammunitions and then killed the two men guarding the store. The group then moved to the house of a man named Godfrey, burning down his home and killing Godfrey, his son, and his daughter. They then moved to Wallace Tavern, sparing the innkeeper but killing his neighbors and over twenty other whites. Soon after, they gathered more munitions and progressed south, accumulating more rebels as they travelled. Other slaves fought against Jemmy and the rebels and notified authorities who gathered a militia to face off with the rebels at Edisto River bridge. Fourteen slaves were killed in this standoff, while others escaped into the woods, presumably continuing to Florida to gain their freedom. It is unclear whether Jemmy was among those who was killed at Edisto Bridge or if he made it safely to St. Augustine.
Though not as deadly as similar revolts in Jamaica and other British colonies in the Caribbean, the events in the South Carolina low country in September 1739 persuaded colonial authorities to take swift action to avoid a repeat of Jemmy's uprising. In 1740, for the first time in South Carolina's history, the legislature enacted a rigid slave code so that potential rebels such as Jemmy would be “kept in due subjection and obedience.” This slave code gave slaveholders more power to regulate, control, and punish their slaves. It also prohibited slaves from assembling in groups, learning to read, or even earning their own money. Such measures largely succeeded in preventing further large-scale slave revolts in South Carolina during the colonial period.
Read the full, original biography by Steven J. Niven in the African American National Biography
Steven J. Niven. "The Stono Slave Rebellion Was Nearly Erased From US History Books," TheRoot.com Feb 22, 2016, http://bit.ly/JemmyNiven
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Smith, Mark Michael, ed. Stono: Documenting and Interpreting a Southern Slave Revolt. (2005).
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Elizabeth Timbs and David Glovsky
Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
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