RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: At this plantation, more than petticoat mirrors

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson

DESTREHAN PLANTATION, La. – You could not ask for a more evocative scene than this – one day and 202 years after the largest slave revolt in this country began near here.
A misty fog makes the sky moss-green, and the ground is puddled with yesterday’s rain. Live oaks the size of grain silos frame a levee that holds at bay the Mississippi River. A few miles from the New Orleans airport, this place is a world away from the city’s siren bray and hustle.
The big house here was built and most probably designed in 1787 by a slave, Charles Paquet, who not only bought his freedom with the construction, but afterward was rewarded with a slave of his own. Human life might not have been cheap, but it was for purchase.
Slaves along the Great River Road plantations – the so-called German Coast – presumably had heard about the successful slave coup in Haiti in 1804 and carefully, over several years, planned one of their own. On Jan. 8, 1811, the time must have seemed right.
With the drumbeat of freedom in their heads, the slaves began their doomed march. Historians say eventually the army was anywhere from 150 to 500 strong, men and women, led by a rebel slave driver named Charles. Some believe he originally was from Haiti, where his inspiration gelled.
The determined group first attacked a planter, Manuel Andry, and killed his son. The insurgents had heard that the Louisiana Militia had weapons stored at the Andry Plantation, thus the tactical choice.
But that cache had been moved, so the marauding slaves armed themselves with whatever crude weapons they could muster and marched on toward New Orleans and the seat of territorial government.
Word spread. Houses and property were pillaged and burned. There was panic in the white community, with many planters fleeing to New Orleans. The rebellion that began with bloody bluster quickly was squashed. Within 48 hours, better-armed militia troops from Baton Rouge and New Orleans had ended the feeble slave effort.
Two whites were killed. About 100 blacks. One report has 66 killed in battle and 18 executed after summary trials, one held right here Jan. 13 – five days after the revolt began – at Destrehan. Nobody knows for sure how many slaves were killed, but many of their corpses were mutilated. Documents show the executed had “their heads harvested” and displayed on poles along the levee.
The piked heads of their fellow slaves would serve to keep others in line. Or so went planter reasoning.
An economy that depended on the enslaved to harvest its sugar cane crops would not show mercy. Destrehan documents said execution and the grotesque display of human heads was “necessary to suppress a revolt which could take on a ferocious character if the chiefs and principal accomplices are not promptly destroyed.”
Today, a few primitive art paintings depict the bloody rebellion and are displayed in an outbuilding on the Destrehan property. The imagination has to do the rest.
In the world of plantation tours – endless petticoat mirrors, shoo-fly fans and four-poster beds – this one may hold the most important history lesson of all.
Syndicated columnist Rheta GrimsleyJohnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.