Slavery’s Revolutions in Louisiana

This article is a part of our series, entitled “Age of Slavery,” which explores the existence, persistence, and abolition of slavery in the revolutionary era.

By Patrick Luck

In 1795, enslaved people conspired to rebel against Louisiana’s slave regime. The investigation of the conspiracy, named the Pointe Coupée Conspiracy after its location, revealed the worst fears of Louisiana’s elites: the revolutionary events then roiling the Atlantic World had helped inspire the conspirators.[1]

Sixteen years later, in 1811, enslaved people again conspired against Louisiana’s slave regime, this time rising in the largest slave rebellion ever to take place in North America, the German Coast Insurrection. Due to poor documentation, the motives behind the 1811 revolt are less clear. However, considering the events of the previous decades, at least some rebels were likely inspired by revolutionary events and ideals.[2]

In both 1795 and 1811, elites violently crushed the conspirators and rebels, killing dozens and displaying bodies and body parts. However, the broader aftermaths of the two events were quite different. In 1795, the uncovering of the conspiracy led to elite panic over the future of the region’s slave system. In 1811, in contrast, the crushing of the rebellion led to elite boasting and the propelling forward of the slave system to ever greater heights. As these differing reactions suggest, Louisiana dramatically transformed during the middle years of the Age of Revolutions.

In the early 1790s, after decades of stagnating as a colonial project, Louisiana entered an acute crisis.[3] Elites felt besieged by revolutionary currents entering the largely francophone colony through its connections with France and the French West Indies. In response, Louisiana’s Spanish governor published a pamphlet in 1794 appealing to the colony’s residents to unite to defend the colony from “American brigands” and “French emigres” who, led by “monsters escaped from the Cape” (a reference to Haiti) threatened to descend upon the Mississippi River to bring “[looting], the loss of your properties; the massacre of your families; the repetition of all the disasters which have devastated St. Domingue.”[4]

A year later, the investigation of the Pointe Coupée Conspiracy ratified these fears of revolutionary upheaval. While the conspiracy would have been motivated by the violence and demands enslaved people faced from their enslavers as well as a desire for freedom, the revolutionary moment also influenced the conspirators by making freedom seem attainable. Enslaved suspects testified that whites and other enslaved people informed them that they were already free by royal decree or soon to be freed by the French, who had abolished slavery in the French Empire the year before. Some even urged them to follow the example of the Haitian Revolution and violently seize their liberty.[5]

To add to the sense of crisis, the two main export crops of the region, tobacco and indigo, collapsed in the early 1790s. Tobacco collapsed largely due to the ending of Spanish government purchases to supply Mexico’s tobacco market, purchases that had bolstered the tobacco industry throughout the 1780s. Indigo collapsed largely due to adverse weather conditions and pests. [6] As fears of revolution – particularly revolution undertaken by their enslaved workers – proliferated, Louisiana planters and farmers entered severe economic crisis.

In response to these crises, the region’s slave system experienced a period of uncertainty and reform. After the Pointe Coupée Conspiracy, the Spanish governor issued a decree on slavery intended to reform slavery and prevent the conditions that the Spanish believed had led to the Haitian Revolution: overly abusive masters and overly autonomous enslaved people.[7] At the same time, beleaguered elites urged the Spanish to halt the slave trade, which they did in 1796.[8] Finally, during the mid-1790s, the market for enslaved people collapsed, and Louisiana’s slave system seemed on life support.[9]

The response to the German Coast Insurrection sixteen years later could not have been more different. After crushing the rebellion, elites crowed about their triumph. For example, the Orleans Territory’s House of Representatives boasted just after the rebellion that “the disaffection was partial, the effort feeble and it suppression immediate” and “the Blacks have been taught an important lesson – their weakness…”[10] No voices were raised linking the events of 1811 to the revolutions of the previous decades, a striking fact as thousands of free and enslaved St. Domingue refugees had entered the colony in 1809.[11]

In addition, rather than trying to slow the expansion of slavery, the region’s elites continued to enthusiastically expand the system while implementing few reforms to it. In the immediate aftermath of the revolt, no changes were made to Louisiana’s slave code or the regulation of the internal slave trade. Elites did reform Louisiana’s militia law and request the permanent basing of US Army soldiers in the region, showing that they believed the lesson of the revolt was that coercion would be sufficient to keep enslaved people cowed and working to their profit. Individual investment in the slave economy also continued. About two months after the revolt, for example, US Army General Wade Hampton, who had been involved in suppressing the revolt and wrote afterwards that “insurrections are crushed for some years at least,” purchased a plantation that, by the 1820s, would be the largest sugar plantation in Louisiana (and hence the United States).[12]

How do we explain these starkly different reactions? While there are several interconnected explanations, including shifts internationally, the sugar and cotton revolutions as well as the extension of American sovereignty to Louisiana were fundamental changes within the region that help explain this disparity. Crucially, in 1795, the very year of the Pointe Coupée Conspiracy, the region’s planters and farmers began to embrace agricultural revolutions that remade the region’s economy and increased their desire for and their ability to purchase enslaved labor.

First was the cotton revolution, a response to the surging demand for cotton in the rapidly industrializing United Kingdom. Large-scale cotton production first became possible in 1795 when a regional resident, upon returning from a trip to Georgia and the Carolinas, constructed the first Eli Whitney-style cotton gin in Spanish Natchez. Spanish officials, farmers, and planters lunged at the opportunity to use the new machine, which exploded across the region and made the cultivation of short-staple cotton for export possible.[13]

Second was the sugar revolution, a response to the hole blown in the world sugar market by the Haitian Revolution. According to his own narrative, failed indigo planter Étienne Boré recognized the opportunities that sugar offered (and crucially took advantage of the sugar making skills of the St. Domingue refugee Antoine Morin) and committed himself and the people he enslaved to cultivating and producing sugar. In 1795, he and Morin successfully granulated sugar on Boré’s plantation located just outside New Orleans where Audubon Park is today. Sugar spread in the region with Boré estimating that Louisiana had 70 sugar mills by 1803.[14] With cotton and sugar, slavery once again had the firm economic basis it had lost in the early 1790s.

Another crucial shift in the years prior to the 1811 revolt that helps explain renewed elite confidence was the elites’ capture of the region’s governments and their bending of those governments to serve their own interests. This was a central, although by no means immediate, legacy of the imposition of American sovereignty, and a crucial way that the other great revolution of the late 1700s (the American Revolution) influenced the region’s future.[15]

In response to being initially barred from choosing their own representation in the government of Orleans Territory (as the modern state of Louisiana was called during its territorial period), elite Louisianans asserted their “right” to the legacy of the American Revolution and to equal participation in Jefferson’s empire of liberty as a self-governing community.[16] For example, in a memorial sent to Congress in 1804 Louisianans drew parallels between their efforts to be treated as equals and the Revolutionary “heroes who died in [the] defence” of the Revolution’s principles.[17]

In 1805, Congress partially acceded to demands for self-government by creating an elected lower house for Orleans Territory’s legislature.[18] This lower house immediately began to challenge federal policies, protesting, for example,  how Congress regulated land titles that pre-dated the Louisiana Purchase.[19]  Most crucially, elites went to work adjusting their slave system more to their liking. In Mississippi, which had been part of Louisiana until 1798, the legislature swept away Spanish slave law and imposed harsh replacements.[20] In Louisiana, the shifts were more subtle as the legislature retained some, although by no means all, of the ameliorative aspects of French and Spanish slave laws but, for the most part, removed most ways to enforce them.[21]

Over the following years, regional elites would claim ever more control, ending with statehood for Louisiana in 1812 and Mississippi in 1817 and, thus, almost total local control over government. In both states this control was explicitly elitist (and hence enslaver-dominated) with property requirements for office-holding that increased for higher-level offices.[22] While it would be an exaggeration to say elite enslavers were entirely free to mold their society to their liking – the reality was more complex – they were largely successful in taking direct control over their slave society, empowered by the American Revolutionary tradition of local self-government.[23]

Self-government also allowed the elite to take control of the suppression and response to the German Coast Insurrection in a way that had not been possible during the Pointe Coupée Conspiracy scare. In 1795, Spanish officials led the response to the conspiracy, often prioritizing imperial interests over those of enslavers. Of course, these officials ordered the brutal execution and other punishments of dozens of accused rebels to enforce the slave system, showing how imperial and enslaver interests often overlapped, but they also carefully investigated the conspiracy in an apparent attempt to fairly apply Spanish law even to enslaved people.[24] As already mentioned, the Spanish even attempted to limit enslaver power in response to the conspiracy.

 In 1811, local enslavers took control of the response, putting down the rebellion themselves and meting out “justice” more akin to lynch law than a judicial process: trials left few records, elites dominated “tribunals,” and the accused were executed shortly after conviction.[25]  Such direct control must have been immensely satisfying and empowering for an elite class who had felt under assault for the previous two decades. 

During the Age of Revolutions, direct action by oppressed people, influenced by the French and Haitian Revolutions, challenged Louisiana’s anemic slave society. Elites successfully weathered those challenges by embracing countervailing revolutions: the sugar, cotton, and American Revolutions. Enslavers entered the 1800s with their plantations revitalized and slavery on a firm footing. They were on course to becoming one of the crucial hubs of the Deep South region of the United States, successfully transitioning from the Age of Revolution into the second slavery of the 1800s.[26]

Patrick Luck is an assistant professor of history at Florida Polytechnic University where he teaches a variety of American history courses, including classes on the history of slavery and Native Americans. His research focuses on the history of slavery in the Americas and the United States. His first book, Replanting a Slave Society: The Sugar and Cotton Revolutions in the Lower Mississippi Valley is forthcoming from the University of Virginia Press later this year.

Link to faculty page:

Title Image: New Orleans in 1803.

Further readings:

Faber, Lo. Building the Land of Dreams: New Orleans and the Transformation of Early America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo. Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

“Louisiana Slave Conspiracies,”

Luck, Patrick. Replanting a Slave Society: The Sugar and Cotton Revolutions in the Lower Mississippi Valley. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2022.

Paquette, Robert. “‘A Horde of Brigands?’ The Great Louisiana Slave Revolt of 1811 Reconsidered.” Historical Reflections 35, no. 1 (Spring 2009): 72–96.


[1] Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992), 344-380.

[2] For a popular account see Daniel Rasmussen, American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt (New York: Harper-Collins Publishers, 2011). For scholarly analysis see Nathan Buman, “To Kill Whites: The 1811 Louisiana Slave Insurrection,” master’s thesis, Louisiana State University, 2009 and Robert Paquette, “‘A Horde of Brigands?’ The Great Louisiana Slave Revolt of 1811 Reconsidered,” Historical Reflections 35, no. 1 (Spring 2009): 72–96.

[3] Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 77-90, 195-214 and John G. Clark, New Orleans, 1718-1812: An Economic History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1970), 1–201.

[4] Francisco Luis Héctor Carondelet, Circulaire, Adressée par le Gouvernement à Tous les Habitans (New Orleans,1794), 1-2, 4.

[5] Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana, 349-354.

[6] Clark, New Orleans, 187-192.

[7] James A. Padgett, “A Decree for Louisiana, Issued by the. Baron de Carondelet, June 1, 1795,” Louisiana Historical Quarterly, 20 (July 1937): 600-605.

[8] Gilbert Din, Spaniards, Planters, and Slaves: The Spanish Regulation of Slavery in Louisiana, 1763–1803 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999), 185-186.

[9] Joseph Xavier Delfau, baron de Pontalba, Letters of Joseph X. Pontalba to His Wife, 1796, trans. Henri Delvile de Sinclair (Survey of Federal Archives in Louisiana, 1939), 101–102.

[10] William C.C. Claiborne, Official Letter Books of W. C. C. Claiborne, 1801–1816, ed. Dunbar Rowland(Jackson, MS: State Department of Archives and History, 1917), 5:130.

[11] Nathalie Dessens, From Saint-Domingue to New Orleans: Migration and Influences (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010),27–29.

[12] Patrick Luck, Replanting a Slave Society: The Sugar and Cotton Revolutions in the Lower Mississippi Valley (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2022)161-162. Quote from Hampton to Eustis, January 19, 1811, Letters Received by the Secretary of War Registered Series, 1801–1870. Records of the Office of the Secretary of War. Record group 107. Microfilm, National Archives Building, Washington, DC. Reel 37.

[13] Luck, Replanting a Slave Society, chapter 2.

[14] Étienne Boré, “Culture du sucre sa restauration en 1795 par Mr. Boré habitant,” June 27, 1803, Pierre Clément Laussat Papers, MS 125, Historic New Orleans Collection, New Orleans.

[15] Lo Faber, Building the Land of Dreams: New Orleans and the Transformation of Early America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016) and Peter Kastor, The Nation’s Crucible: The Louisiana Purchase and the Creation of America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), esp. chapters 3 and 4.

[16] Julien Vernet, Strangers on Their Native Soil: Opposition to United States’ Governance in Louisiana’s Orleans Territory, 1803-1809 (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2013).

[17] Memorial presented by the inhabitants of Louisiana to the Congress of the United States, in Senate and House of Representatives, Convened, Translated from the French (Washington, DC: Samuel H. Smith, 1804), 8.

[18] Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America from the Organization of the Government in 1789, to March 3, 1845 (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1845), 2:322–23.

[19]  Vernet, Strangers on Their Native Soil, 103-105.

[20] Christian Pinnen, Complexion of Empire in Natchez: Race and Slavery in the Mississippi Borderlands (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2021), 193-196

[21] Acts Passed at the First Session of the First Legislature of the Territory of Orleans (New Orleans: Bradford and Anderson, 1807), 150–191.

[22] Constitution or Form of Government of the State of Louisiana (New Orleans: Jo. Bar. Baird, 1812), 5, 8, 12 and “The Mississippi Constitution of 1817,” Mississippi History Now.

[23] For this complexity see Kenneth Aslakson, Making Race in the Courtroom: The Legal Construction of Three Races in Early New Orleans (New York: New York University Press, 2014) and Rashauna Johnson, Slavery’s Metropolis: Unfree Labor in New Orleans during the Age of Revolutions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

[24] Many of the original documents of the investigation are available at “Louisiana Slave Conspiracies,”

[25] “Interrogatoire Procès et Jugement des nègres arrêtés pour cause l’insurection,“ St. Charles Parish, La., Original Acts, misc. court records, 1741–1899, part 17, 1810–1811. Microfilm, City Archives and Special Collections, New Orleans Public Library, New Orleans.

[26] “Second slavery” refers to the revitalization and expansion of slavery in the Americas, particularly in Brazil, Cuba, and the American South, even as slavery was being challenged during the Age of Revolutions. For the now classic statement of this concept see Dale Tomich, Through the Prism of Slavery: Labor, Capital, and World Economy (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), 56–71. Examples of recent works exploring second slaveries in different times and places include Luck, Replanting a Slave Society; Daniel B. Rood, The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery: Technology, Labor, Race, and Capitalism in the Greater Caribbean (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017); and Dale Tomich, Rafael de Bivar Marquese, Reinaldo Funes Monzote, and Carlos Venegas Fornias, Reconstructing the Landscapes of Slavery: A Visual History of the Plantation in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021).

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