Social Education 59(3), 1995, pp. 125-129
National Council for the Social Studies
The rapid expansion of the slave population worried officials concerned with maintaining order. They attempted to control the population through a series of repressive ordinances known as the "Laws of Bondage and Servitude." However, the rigidity of these laws convinced slaves that only open and armed revolt could eradicate the evils of the system. The result was two black slave insurrections, in 1712 and 1741, which created mass fear and hysteria in the Province.
The Growth of the Slave Population
In the first part of the eighteenth century, the demand for slave labor exceeded the supply. In 1701, only thirty-six slaves were imported to New York from the West Indies and the African coast. Eleven years later the number of black slaves imported by private traders in a year had increased to four hundred and thirty. 1
This population increase meant not only that a significant minority of the population were resentful of the system which enslaved them; it may also have provided a sense of "safety in numbers" for the slaves, should the decision be made to revolt violently against the slave system.
While black slaves were retained for the menial labor of the New York "plantations," or "patroons" (estates), many were sent into towns and urban areas to be employed in skilled trades and crafts. The rise in the number of slaves residing in the urban areas provided an opportunity for them to converse with other black slaves. Channels of communication between the slaves were further enhanced through the architectural construction of the cities themselves, whose many buildings, and twisting and turning streets and alleys, allowed encounters that could not be closely monitored by slaveowners.
The Legal Regulation of Slavery
Because of fears of slave maneuverability, laws and regulations aimed not merely at defining the master-slave relationship, but also at controlling and restricting the freedom of movement of slaves. The major corpus of law during this period, the Laws of Bondage and Servitude passed in the first part of the eighteenth century, defined the nature of the institution of slavery and delegated authority to the slaveowner and white community to regulate the slave. These laws built on earlier legislation in New York, consisting mainly of several laws and statutes passed between 1664 and 1702 to prescribe the nature of "indentured servitude." Slaves were subjected to these laws until their numbers were sufficiently large that laws explicitly dealing with slavery were enacted.
The first legislation in the province consisted of the "Duke of York's Laws, 1665 to 1675." The Law of 1665 required, among other things, that "all labourers and servants shall work in their callings being thereunto required the whole day," 2 whether they worked in the fields, crafts, or as domestics.
Freedom from indentured servitude could be sought at first through conversion to Christianity. In 1664, Christianity became a pre-requisite for exclusion from indentured servitude, with the exception of cases in which people had sold themselves into servitude. The realization that a conversion of faith would result in the gradual diminution of a cheap labor force brought legislative revision in 1706 by the Governor's Council and Assembly, as the slave population became larger. According to the new provisions, "the Baptizing of any Negro, Indian, or Mulatto Slave shall not be any cause for the setting them or any of them at liberty." 3
In 1683, a law was enacted to prevent more than three slaves meeting together at any time or place away from the service of their master in the City. The fear of slave conspiracies prompted the white inhabitants of New York to demand the restriction of slave assemblage and armament.
And that noe such Slave doe goe Armed att Any tyme with gunns, Swords, Clubs, Staves Or Any Other kind of weapons Wt Soever, under the Penalty of being whipped at the Public whipping poste. Ten lashes, unless the Master or Owners of Such Slave will Pay Six Shillings to Excuse the Same 4 Slave owners in New York feared slave uprisings, especially during the period 1680 to 1708 when there was slave unrest in a number of colonies: South Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey and Maryland. The masters were also concerned with the loss of their "chattel property" through flight. Governor Thomas Dongan enacted a bill against fugitive servants in 1684, which made clear that runaway servants would be caught and serve double their time for such an absence. When war broke out between England and France between 1702 and 1713, slaves tried to leave New York and cross to Canada, which was under French occupation, to seek their freedom. The result was a new law in 1705: An Act to Prevent the Running Away of Negro Slaves Out of the City, and County of Albany to the French at Canada.
The same Act of 1706 that barred conversion to Christianity as a means for slaves to obtain their freedom further stated that the status of the mother, slave or free, would determine the status of the child born to the mother. Thus the "Barbados Code" of the West Indies was transplanted to New York to perpetuate the system of slavery there. A child who was the product of a sexual union between a female slave and a white freeman was therefore deemed a slave.
The provincial laws on miscegenation were harsh and the penalties severe for any white women who had sexual relations with a Negro slave. Although most children born of miscegenation were predominantly dark pigmented, there were many who could "pass as white" due to their light color. The hereditary characteristic of dark pigmentation became a mark of distinction barring the "black coloniaquot; from entering white colonial New York society.
To prevent the possibility of social assimilation, white political leaders enacted two important laws defining and organizing the system of slavery within the province. The laws of 1702 and 1712 determined the method and means of punishing blacks who sought freedom. The Act for Regulating Slaves of 1702 delegated authority to the master, or mistress, to punish their slaves at their discretion as long as the punishment did not extend to life, or member. An Act regulating slavery after the insurrection of 1712 prescribed methods of punishment for criminal offenses committed by the slave. It granted authority to the community to appoint a "Common Whipper," whose job was to lash the back of any person in violation of provincial, or community laws, especially slaves. The number of lashes inflicted was determined by the severity of the crime.
Punishment was often arbitrary, and could in large measure be based on the color of skin and the religious affiliation of the accused. Although the whip became the prescribed method of punishment, and a vital means of securing the slave's obedience to the institution of slavery, the death penalty could also be inflicted on any slave who committed a serious felony. The laws of 1702 and 1712 regulated any attempt of a slave to defend himself against the brutality of the white slave owner.
Slavery and Dehumanization
Although the workmanship and expertise exhibited by slaves in the trades and crafts were comparable to those of white skilled laborers, the black slave was a "chattel possession" bought and sold on New York's Slave Market. Many black laborers who did menial work on the plantations, or patroons, were hired out by their master to work as apprentices or journeymen in the skilled crafts of the towns, villages and cities. Some of the slaves who were employed under this "hiring system" would be given tips by their city, village, or town craft employer to keep. Eventually, by saving sufficient money, the slaves could strike a bargain with their master for their freedom in exchange for the money they accumulated through this system. Eventually, the "hiring system" was abandoned because it became a means of liberty and freedom for the slave.
The sale of slaves was advertised in the various journals and newspapers of the day. New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania were leading centers of the printed word, and their records are revealing. The following advertisement in a New York weekly typifies the value placed on the Negro slave:
To be sold by Obadiah Wells, in Prince Street A LIKELY NEGRO BOY, about 20 years of Age, is well recommended, and suitable for either Town or Country; also a parcel of Corrage, Spuryarn, Iron Pots, and sundry sorts of European Goods. 5 The purchase of one or more slaves became an ever-widening practice accepted and perpetuated by middle and upper class whites. Representative of this attitude is a letter dated December 7, 1721, in which Mr. Cadwallader Colden, the future governor of New York, expresses his desire to purchase domestics:
I am oblidged to you for your kinde offer of buying me three or four slaves and that in so doing you will particularly consider my interest. Please to buy mee two negro men, about eighteen years of age. I designe them for labor and would have them strong and well made. Please likewise to buy mee a Negro girl about 13 years old my wife has told you that she designes her chiefly to keep the children & to sow & therefore would have her likely & one that appears to be good natured. Pray send them upon my account & risque as soon as you can purchase them. 6A Tale of Two Insurrections
In a letter dated June 23, 1712, Governor Robert Hunter affirmed that the Negro slaves "had resolved to revenge themselves for some hard usage they Apprehended to have received from their Master." 7Several of the slaves were armed with firearms, swords, knives, and hatchets. The signal to begin the revolt began when Coffee, a slave of a Mr. Vantilburgh, set fire to an out-house of his master. Once Coffee returned to the orchard, the insurrectionists rallied with their arms and marched to the site of the fire.
The flames of the fire were immediately detected and attracted the attention of a large number of white inhabitants. While many of the whites were attempting to extinguish the flames, they were fired upon by the insurgents. Nine white people were shot and killed, and some five others were seriously wounded. A detachment of militia, stationed at Fort George, was sent to the scene, but the slaves dispersed into the neighboring woods. The next morning, several whites began to search the area for the rebels and on the afternoon of April 7, the rebels were captured and then brought to trial.
The trial of the insurgents was held immediately, with the testimony of several eyewitnesses to the crimes of arson and murder. Of the twenty-seven slaves tried for the crime, twenty-three were convicted and executed. The majority of these slaves suffered the penalty of death by hanging, or by being burned at the stake.
One direct consequence of the slave insurrection of 1712 was that the fear and anxiety of future plots stimulated the passage of additional laws to strengthen those that existed. A more repressive slave code was enacted in December 1712. Another code in 1717 dissuaded slaveowners from setting their slaves free by the unusual device of making the owner pay two hundred pounds annually to the freed slave, as well as twenty pounds to the Colony of New York.
During the era from 1716 to 1734, laws were passed to derive revenue from the importation of slaves, as well to attempt to dissuade whites from importing slaves on too large a scale. To ensure gradual diminution of the number of slaves imported, a revenue tax was levied on each slave in 1716. When the importation of slaves increased rather than decreased, a further duty was legislated in 1734 on goods, and another tax was levied on imported slaves.
In the years that followed, fear and anxiety about slave reprisals resulted in the stricter enforcement of the slave system through the implementation of the laws previously mentioned. New York slave owners became harsher and more brutal in their treatment of slaves in an attempt to instill obedience and quell any desires for freedom. The brutality of the system did not, however, dampen the fires of rage and insurrection, but rather became a catalyst for another revolt in 1741.
That year, the first outbreak of violence occurred on February 28 in the City of New York. On this particular Saturday night, a robbery was committed at the shop of a merchant, Robert Hogg. Several articles of cloth and silver coins were taken. While the police and magistrates of the city were investigating the theft, a fire broke out at the Governor's mansion, the Chapel, and other buildings in the area. During the months of March and April, fires broke out throughout parts of the City, destroying nine edifices (Table 2). Although the fires were suppressed, the white community believed that slaves were plotting to destroy the city.
The day before the robbery in Hogg's shop, Wilson, a Negro youth seventeen years of age, and a Spanish Negro sailor had entered the shop to purchase some check linens. Mrs. Hogg sold the merchandise to the customers. While exchanging the large amount of currency given to her, Wilson and the sailor inspected the contents of the bureau drawer of the shop, which contained a considerable quantity of milled Spanish pieces-of-eight. The following day, Mr. Hogg's shop was robbed of linens and silver coins.
Upon reflection, Mrs. Hogg remembered the visit of Wilson and his friend. Through an intense search for the stolen items and the whereabouts of Wilson, the authorities recovered several stolen items in the home of a John Hughson. It seemed that the Hughsons were in some way participants in the robbery, and received the stolen merchandise from a black slave, Caesar. Upon further investigation it appeared that John Hughson was not only responsible for the robbery, but could also have been implicated in the succession of fires that broke out in February. The association of the Hughsons and their servant, Margaret Kerry, a woman of "immoral character," with two slaves, Caesar and Prince, led the white population to believe that the Hughsons and a majority of the slaves were conspiring to murder the white inhabitants of the city.
In March 1741, the Hughsons, Margaret Kerry, Caesar and Prince were arraigned for the crimes of arson and robbery. On April 17, a proclamation was offered by the Governor, offering one hundred pounds for any information about the identity of those involved in setting the fires in town. This proclamation provided a major incentive for whites and blacks to testify in the court. Although the defendants pleaded not guilty, the testimony of Mary Burton, a sixteen-year-old servant of the Hughsons, and John Varrack, a baker and slaveowner of Caesar and Prince, was sufficient evidence to convict the defendants of the crimes of robbery, arson and conspiracy. On May 11, 1741, John Hughson, Caesar and Prince were convicted and executed in the City of New York.
The evidence supporting the validity of a slave conspiracy was never substantiated in detail. Although Hughson and his wife admitted they were the recipients of stolen goods, they pleaded innocent to arson and conspiracy. The fear and anxiety of the white populace was reminiscent of the insurrection of 1712.
From May 11 to March 13, 1742, approximately one hundred and sixty slaves were accused and arraigned on charges of conspiracy against the City of New York. While it is impossible to trace the outcome of all cases, the records show that forty-one slaves were convicted of conspiracy, while seventy-seven confessed either at the stake or in court. Approximately thirteen slaves were burned alive at the stake, eighteen were hanged, and seventy-one were exported to islands in the Caribbean Sea. 8Seventeen were acquitted.
Injustice triumphed as a result of the reactions of a white community fearful of its slaves, who had ample reason and provocation to rebel. A predominantly white society not only pre-judged the defendants, but failed to provide them legal counsel for their defense, since "the lawyers of the City refused to a man to assist the slaves in their trials on this occasion." 9The resulting inability to present an adequate defense, as well as the testimony of Mary Burton and Arthur Prince, resulted in mass convictions.
It was a sign of hope for the future that there were members of society who believed the trials and judicial procedures were violations of English law. In an unsigned letter to Cadwallader Colden, a member of the Governor's Council, on June 23, 1741, the following viewpoint was expressed:
I am humbly of the opinion that such confessions unless some certain Overt Act appear to confirm the same are not worth a straw; for many time they are obtain'd by foul means, by force or torment, by Surprise, by Flattery, by Distraction, by Discontent with their Circumstances, through envy that they may bring others in to the same condemnation; or in hopes of a longer time to live, or to dye an easier death. 10Such views were, however, in the minority. Slavery continued to be legal in New York until late in the eighteenth century. Those studying or teaching the history of the period may find it enlightening to examine slavery in New York and northern cities, as well as the more commonly studied southern plantations. The slave rebellions and the fears they generated offer dramatic insights into the instability of a socio-economic system based on humiliation and degradation.
1. See E.B. O'Callaghan's Documentary History of the State of New York (Albany, New York,1849-1851) I: 693.Marc Newman teaches history for grades 11 and 12 at the Valley Central High School, Montgomery, New York. He has been the recipient of many national and state awards for historical instruction.
2. Colonial Laws of New York from the Year 1664 to the Revolution, 5 vol. (Albany, New York,1894) I: 47.
3. Colonial Laws of New York from the Year 1664 to the Revolution, I: 598.4. Minutes of The Common Council of the City of New York,1675-1776. 8 vol. (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co.,1905) I: 13
4. In this quotation, as in other direct quotations cited in this article, the original language and spelling have been retained.
5. The New York Weekly Post Boy, January 30, 1749.
6. Letters and Papers of Cadwallader Colden, 1711-1775, 9 vol. (New York: New York Historical Society) V: 51.
7. Daniel Parish, Transcripts of Material On Slavery, 1688-1760, 1695-1713, and 1740-1747. New York Historical Society Collections, Collection 1695-1713: 163.
8. See Daniel Horsmanden's The New York Conspiracy: History of The Negro Plot,1741-1742 (New York,1810): 19-36. Daniel Horsmanden was one of three New York Justices appointed to preside over the case. His account appears to be an attempt to justify the verdicts and mass executions in 1741 and 1742.9. David T. Valentine, ed. Manual of the Corporation of New York (New York: Francis P. Harper, 1900): 449.10. Letters and Papers of Cadwallader Colden, VII: 41.