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New York Slave Conspiracy 1741

In the spring of 1741, the city of New York was swept by one of those wild panics that have always attended upon slavery. It forms the darkest blot upon the history of New-York. In 1741, New York had a population of around 10,000 people, some 2,000 of whom were slaves. By another account, the city contained about nine thousand inhabitants, of whom about fifteen hundred were slaves. In a winter of harsh weather, food shortages and difficult economic times, worries about attacks on the Province by the Catholic countries of France and Spain abounded. Reports of slave revolts in other colonies added to the tension. The masters looked with suspicion and hatred on those they had wronged, the slaves perhaps were ready to seek liberty and revenge.

African slavery had existed from an early period in New Netherland. It was encouraged as the most certain and economical way of introducing slavery in a new country, where there was no surplus population. The slave-trade was brought into the Dutch Colony by the Dutch West India Company, and, shortly after its introduction, became a considerable and profitable branch of its shipping interest. A “prime slave” was valued from one hundred and twenty dollars to one hundred and fifty dollars, and below this price he could not profitably be purchased from Africa or the West Indies.

In 1702, there were imported one hundred and sixty-five African slaves; in 1718, five hundred and seventeen. After that year, however, the traffic began to fall off, the natural increase being large. As far back as 1628, slaves constituted a portion of the population of New Amsterdam; and to such an extent had the traffic in them reached, that, in 1709, a slave-market was erected at the foot of Wall street, where all negroes who were to be hired or sold stood, in readiness for bidders. Their introduction into the colony was hastened by the colonial establishment of the Dutch in Brazil and upon the coast of Guinea, and also by the capture of Spanish and Portuguese prizes with Africans on board.

The Boere-knechts, or servants, whom the settlers brought over with them from Holland, soon deserted their field-work for the fur traffic, thus causing European laborers to become scarce and high; and, as a natural result, slaves, by their cheapness, became one of the staples of the new country. In 1652, the Directors at Amsterdam removed the export duty of eight percent, which had been hitherto paid by the colonists on tobacco. The passage-money to New Netherland was also lessened from fifty to thirty guilders; and besides trading to the Brazils, the settlers were allowed “to sail to the coast of Angola and Africa to procure as many negroes as they might be willing to employ.”

Almost every family in the colony owned one or more slaves; and among the richer classes their number was considered a certain evidence of their master's easy circumstances. About the year 1703 — a period of prosperity in wealth and social refinement with the Dutch of New Amsterdam -- the Widow Van Cortlandt held five male slaves, two female, and two children; Colonel De Peyster had the same number; William Beekman, two; Rip Van Dam, six; Mrs. Stuyvesant, five; Mrs. Kip, seven; David Provoostd, three, etc.

Several outbreaks had already happened among the negroes of New Amsterdam; and the whites lived in constant anticipation of trouble and danger from them. Rumors of an intended insurrection, real or imaginary, would circulate (as in the negro plot of 1712), and the whole city be thrown into a state of alarm. Whether there was any real danger on these occasions, cannot be known, but the result was always the same, viz.: the slaves always suffered, many dying by the fagot or the gallows.

Many of the laws for their government were most unjust and oppressive. Whenever three of them were found together they were liable to be punished by forty lashes on the bare back, and the same penalty followed their walking with a club outside of their master's grounds without a permit. Two justices could inflict any punishment except amputation or death, for any blow or assault by a slave upon a Christian or a Jew. Such was the outrageous law. New York then resembled a Southern city, with its calaboose on the Park Commons and its slave market at the foot of Wall street.

Of the condition of the people of the city in 1741-42, one cannot form any pleasant picture. The existence of white and black slavery in all its worst forms must have deprived the free laborer of his just reward. Imprisonment for debt, with all its ancient barbarity, still terrified the honest but unfortunate trader. The building in the Park was the common prison for convicts, negroes, and debttors. A paper currency of doubtful value checked the course of trade. Disease, arising from the uncleanly condition of the city and the habits of the people, raged constantly. It is doubtful if the negro quarters and the kitchens of whites were ever free from smallpox and fevers. No sewers purified the streets ; the docks were foul and filthy; the churchyards spread disease; the bad water and the tainted air of summer often invited yellow fever. Education was almost unknown; the working-people lived in barbarous ignorance; the charms of its situation and the kindly hand of nature alone made New-York the fair and gracious city it seemed to the European visitors.

The winter of 1740—41 had been one of intense severity and suffering to the people of the province. It was known as the "hard winter." The extreme cold began in the middle of November and continued until near the end of March. Never in the memory of the older citizens had such severe weather, such incessant frosts, fallen upon New-York. The Hudson was frozen from shore to shore, and was easily crossed on the ice. Great and frequent falls of snow covered the ground to the depth, of six feet; cattle perished for want of fodder, the wild deer starved and were easily taken in the snow. In the city the poor suffered for want of fuel and food, and political discontent followed. It was one of those rare winters, like that of 1790 or 1835, when the Arctic climate seems to descend and the course of nature to change.

It was believed that the negroes had formed a plot to seize or destroy the town. A great excitement prevailed from a report of a contemplated insurrection of the slaves. The magistrates of the city having offered rewards, pardon, and freedom, to any slave that would testify against incendiaries and conspirators, some abandoned females were induced to declare that the negroes had combined to burn the city and make one of their number governor. There was soon no want of witnesses; the number of the accused increased rapidly; and even white men were designated as concerned in the plot.

On March 8, 1741, a fire broke out at Fort George, the official residence of the Province's governor, and the building burned to the ground. Nine more serious fires occurred in the weeks that followed, and the population of the city was in a state of panic. Not a chimney caught fire—and they were not at that day very well swept—but the incident was attributed to design. It became obvious to all that there was actually a conspiracy for compassing such a stupendous act of arson as the burning of the entire town and murder of the people. There seemed little doubt that they had been the result of some secret plot. At once it was rumored that the negroes had conspired to burn the city. At this moment several of them were heard using threatening language; they were arrested, but denied any knowledge of the plot.

As Hume remarks of the Popish plot in the reign of Charles II, “each breath of rumor made the people start with anxiety; their enemies, they thought, were in their bosoms. They were awakened from their slumbers by the cry of Plot, and like men affrighted and in the dark, took every figure for a specter. The terror of each man became a source of terror to another, and an universal panic being diffused; reason, and argument, and common sense, and common humanity, lost all influence over them.”

Supreme Court of Judicature Judge Daniel Horsmanden, was charged with leading an inquiry into the origins of the fires. The court convened in City Hall on April 21, 1741 and a grand jury was empaneled for the investigation. One of the first witnesses to be examined was a young servant named Mary Burton. She was indentured to John Hughson who ran a bar frequented by slaves and sailors in the vicinity of Trinity church.

Initially, Mary was reluctant to testify, but when she was threatened with confinement in the jail in City Hall, she gave evidence about a robbery that had occurred in February of that year at a small shop owned by Mrs. Hogg in Broad Street. The robbery was instigated by a sailor named Wilson but was carried out by three slaves, Ceasar, Prince, and Cuffee, whom Wilson had met at John Hughson's bar. She also testified against Hughson, who was suspected of receiving stolen property.

Following further threats from Justice Horsmanden and inducements that promised an end to her indenture and financial award, Mary Burton began to testify to a plot that up to then, she had never mentioned. She told of a plan by a group of people to burn the city and murder its inhabitants. Those she named included the three slaves against whom she had testified on the charge of stealing, and John Hughson and his wife. Based on her testimony, the slaves named Caesar and Prince were charged with the February burglary (but not with the alleged plot), found guilty and sentenced to death. The following day, a fire resulted in the destruction of several barns and two slaves caught in the vicinity were immediately burned at the stake.

On 11 May 1741, the trials of the others accused by Mary Burton of involvement in the plot commenced. The judges of the court were James De Lancey, Daniel Horsmanden, and Frederick Philipse. Ever-escalating rounds of arrests, naming of others as conspirators, further arrests and further accusations, began.

One Arthur Price, a servant, charged with stealing, next added his testimony ; and as he was in prison, was employed by the magistrates to act as a spy upon other prisoners. He soon told extravagant tales of what they had disclosed to him. Peggy Salinburgh, a woman of bad character, was the next informer; new arrests were made among the negroes; the magistrates were incessantly engaged in the discovery of new victims; the grand jury, composed of the most respectable citizens, lent its aid to the general infatuation, and the whole town was agitated by suspicion and terror.

A reward of one hundred pounds was offered for the discovery of the persons engaged in the plot to set fire to the city ; the three informers, Burton, Price, and Peggy, were never idle, and their extravagant tales grew with the public terror and excited fresh alarm. They were evidently wholly unworthy of belief.

Mary Burton had first testified that no white persons were present at the meetings except her master, mistress, and Peggy; she now charged one John Ury, a nonjuring Episcopal clergyman, supporting himself by teaching, with being a Jesuit, and with having been concerned in the plot; next she charged that Curry, a dancing-master, was also at the meetings at Hughson's. Ury, once supposed to be a Catholic, was an object of suspicion. He was indicted, tried, and executed, and at the place of execution solemnly denied the charge, and called upon God to witness its falseness.

Mary Burton received the reward of a hundred pounds, but her testimony was at last doubted ; the dancing-master, Curry, was discharged for want of proof; it was seen that every white person in the town was in danger from the false witnesses. In this strange panic and reign of savage cruelty one hundred and fifty-four negroes were imprisoned, of whom thirteen were burnt at the stake, eighteen hanged, seventy-one transported, and the rest pardoned or discharged.‘ Twentyone white persons were arrested, of whom Hughson, his wife and maid, and Ury, were hanged.

Judge Horsmanden served as both principal investigator and a judge of the court that heard the cases. With his professional reputation at stake, he published a journal describing the proceedings, which historian Jill Lepore described as "one of the most startling and vexing documents in early American history."

Historians William Bryant and Sydney Gay condemned the entire proceedings, stating that "its disregard of all rules of legal evidence, for its prostitution of the forms of law for the perpetration of cruelty, for popular credulity and cowardice, for the abnegation of all sense of mercy, for the oppression of the weakest and most defenceless, it was without precedent, and has had no parallel in any civilized community."

Like the alarms so common in slave communities, it was baseless, and upon the most insufficient evidence, and in a trial where they had no counsel, eighteen were convicted and hanged, thirteen burned at the stake, and seventy-one transported. The bar of New York then consisted of eight members, and they all took part in the trials, and vied with each other in fanning the baseless excitement. It ended in charging a non-juring schoolmaster with being a Catholic priest in disguise, and inciting the slaves by a promise of absolution. He was condemned and executed.

Then, as in the case of the Popish plot and the prosecutions for witchcraft in Salem, the magistrates and jurors began to pause. But not until many had been sent to their final account by the spirit of fanaticism which had bereft men of their reason, as innocent of the charges laid against them as the convicting courts and jurors themselves.

By the time it ended, some two hundred people had been tried in the Supreme Court of Judicature. Although many appeared for the prosecution, none of the lawyers in New York were willing to represent those accused in the plot, whether slave or white. Based upon questionable testimony, thirty people were sentenced to death and seventy others to slavery in the Caribbean. Among those executed were John Hughson, his wife Sarah and his daughter, also called Sarah.

The exciting trials, the madness of the community, the burnings, the hangings, must have made New-York a scene of endless horror - fierce, rude, pitiless.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2017 18:03:25 ZULU