Daniel Rasmussen’s book, “American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt,” is the first one ever written about the largest slave revolt in American history.
Rasmussen, who graduated from Harvard in 2009, spoke Monday at the Gilder Lehrman Center on Prospect Street about the book, which grew out of his undergraduate senior thesis. The rebellion he studied, called the German Coast Uprising, was not well-publicized in its own time and is not covered in most modern U.S. history textbooks, even those used in Louisiana, Rasmussen said. He emphasized the importance of adding this gory event to the annals of American history.
“Forgetting this event is the biggest event of collective amnesia in American history,” he said.
Rasmussen, a Washington, D.C. native, studied history — specifically slavery and the American South — at Harvard. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude, and his thesis won three prizes including the Hoopes Prize, Harvard’s highest undergraduate academic honor.
Because the primary source material about the revolt was very limited, Rasmussen said he used unconventional tools for his research. In his talk, he described coloring in charts and typing distances into Google Maps to figure out where slaves were killed, and how long it took them to march their route.
The German Coast Uprising took place on Jan. 6, the first day of Mardi Gras, in New Orleans in 1811. The unrest started on sugar plantations outside the city, and the slaves — ultimately over 200 in number — marched towards New Orleans for two days, causing destruction along the way. Rasmussen described how the planters violently put down the rebellion and massacred the slaves, tearing their limbs apart and putting their heads on stakes. Charles Deslondes, one of the leaders, was burned alive, he said.
Rasmussen began by talking about the Haitian Revolution, which was the only successful slave revolt in history, and inspired the Louisiana rebellion. The slaves who participated in the German Coast Uprising dressed in uniform, to mimic the members of the Haitian Revolution, he said.
“[Haitian events] were commonly known in New Orleans because planters feared it would happen in New Orleans too, and it eventually did,” Rasmussen said.
He also acknowledged the planters’ perspective, saying that they fought back because “everything they built was at stake.”
Four attendees interviewed said they were impressed by Rasmussen and think his work is relevant to their own projects.
Vienna Carroll ’76 traveled more than two hours from New York City to hear him speak. She is writing a play about the “rebellion culture” of the early 1800s.
Sam Schaffer GRD ’10, who helped plan the event, called Rasmussen’s work “excellent.”
“[It shows] the important interaction between federal involvement, international relations, the American West, and the American South,” he said. “[Rasmussen] has smartly timed the release to be at the same time as the bicentennial of the revolt.”
Heather May ’13 said she hoped to relate the talk to her residential college seminar, “Imagining the American South.”
About 20 people attended the talk, which was part of Gilder Lehrman Center’s Brown Bag Lunch Series.