The following essay is by Michael Brenes of Hunter College, who tied for first place in the 2006 Eighteenth-Century Reading Room Essay Contest. Congratulations to Michael!
The Origins of the New York Slave Conspiracy of 1741: Slavery, Racism and Historical Memory in Colonial New York
In July of 1763, the attorney general of New York, John Tabor Kempe, wrote a letter to the newly appointed Chief Justice, Daniel Horsmanden, regarding the abduction of a freed African American man.1 For what appeared to be the purposes of profit, the kidnappers were intent on sending the freedman to South Carolina, where he would be sold back into the bonds of slavery.2 Kempe implored Horsmanden to prevent this from occurring, requesting that a warrant be issued to bring those responsible for the man’s capture to justice.3 While Kempe normally would have made it a point to visit Horsmanden in person, being known for his industriousness, he had been “quite undressed having been very much engaged all day.”4
With the disadvantage of not being in person to address Horsmanden, Kempe had to employ vociferous rhetoric to describe the direness of the situation. Kempe exhorted Horsmanden to salvage the destiny of the freeman otherwise “he may never be able to extricate himself” from slavery.5 Hoping that Horsmanden possessed a modicum of humanitarianism, Kempe claimed that Horsmanden should intervene because the man was “so unfortunate as to have a Black Face, and be Friendless and unable to assist himself.”6 Kempe went on to apologize to Horsmanden for “the Trouble of this Letter” but that he was compelled to petition the Chief Justice because of his “Detestation of the cruel practice of infringing the Liberty of a poor Man.”7 If this argument failed to persuade Horsmanden, Kempe also deferred to the unflagging rule of the law when it came to the legal status of blacks, writing that the man “is certainly free and…ought to be protected in his Liberty as much as a White Man.”8
Kempe’s twofold appeal to Horsmanden was most likely grounded in his knowledge of Horsmanden’s racism and his previously harsh treatment of African Americans that had been brought before his court. In 1741, Daniel Horsmanden was the city recorder and the third presiding judge in what became known as the New York Conspiracy trials. After a series of fires had consumed several buildings in New York within a span of weeks, slaves were perceived to be the primary suspects. Based on a collection of circumstantial evidence and on the coerced testimony of one witness, the cadre of New York’s legal elite arrested dozens of supposed criminals, both black and white, and ended up executing the ringleaders of the fires as well as exiling many others.
Whether a conspiracy truly existed is a topic of contention, but the hysteria that led to the mass arrests is undeniable. Many scholars have acknowledged the origins of the conspiracy but they have failed to explore them in detail as they have been shrouded in the broader concerns of whether a conspiracy did in fact occur. While the evidence is available to explore the viable explanations for the mass terror that engendered the executions of slaves, there appears to be no concise monograph on the topic. However, when one reviews the sources of the conspiracy, one finds that the New York Conspiracy of 1741 was due to whites’ racist and conspiratorial fear of African Americans as well as the nature of slavery in New York.
The alleged slave plot that would come to terrorize the residents of New York City for almost a year began with a burglary in the late winter of 1741. On February 26th, a young man named Wilson came into a shop owned by one Mr. Robert Hogg in order to make some purchases.9 Hogg’s wife had been in charge of the shop that morning, and after Wilson had bought his items, Mrs. Hogg produced “a considerable quantity of milled Spanish pieces of eight” when she went to make change.10 The large sum of money appealed to Wilson and he decided to steal the coins.11 To accomplish this, Wilson recruited slaves “of very suspicious character” to confiscate the money from Hogg’s house where it was presumably stored.12 These slaves included Caesar, owned by John Vaarck, Prince, owned by John Auboyneau, and Cuffee, owned by Adolph Philipse.13 The plan was further abetted by business owner John Hughson, who caught notice of the plot and agreed to hold the stolen items at his house.14 Hughson was a tavern owner and alleged sympathizer of enslaved African Americans, as his bar was known to be “a place where numbers of negroes used to resort.”15
Originally, everything went according to plan up until March 1st, when Wilson returned to Mrs. Hogg’s shop. It was then that she told Wilson she had been the victim of theft.16 Earlier in the week, Mrs. Hogg had seen Wilson eyeing the coins, and when they had gone missing, she immediately suspected he was the culprit.17 To deflect the blame from himself, Wilson alerted the authorities to where the money was and claimed that Caesar was the person who had stolen it.18 When the money was reclaimed at Hughson’s, an indentured servant named Mary Burton (who was living at John Hughson’s residence at the time of the robbery) was then questioned by the town clerk.19 Initially, Burton was reticent to reveal what she knew about the robbery, but after being brought before the court, she eventually implicated both the slaves and Hughson in the robbery after she was told that “she might be taken care of” if she confessed.20
Burton would not only become the key witness to the robbery but also the slave conspiracy as it began to unfold. On March 18th, a fire engulfed “his majesty’s house at Fort George” and burned it to the ground.21 A pair of fires then subsequently broke out within the next two weeks. On April 4th, fires erupted at two more residences, one of which was determined to be set “upon examination…whereon a negro slept.”22 The following day, Mrs. Earle spotted three slaves together sauntering down Broadway.23 One was “Mr. Walter’s Quaco” who Mrs. Earle heard exclaim with “a vaporing sort of an air, “Fire, Fire, Scorch, Scorch, A LITTLE, damn it, BY-AND-BY.”24 Again on April 6th, multiple fires broke out, one of which was at a storehouse owned by Adolph Philipse where a witness had seen “a negro leap out at the end window” of the building ablaze.25 The African American man turned out to be Philipse’s own slave Cuffee who “had a great deal of idle time, which…he employed to very ill purposes,” and he was soon hunted down and arrested.26
With Mrs. Earle’s accusations and the seizure of Cuffee, New Yorkers were convinced that the fires had been the effort of slaves who had intended “to burn the town, kill the white men, and take their wives and daughters as mistresses.”27 After Cuffee’s arrest, Burton would implicate Hughson as the person who orchestrated the slave uprising.28 Eventually, he would be one of the first suspects to be hanged.29 Burton continued to accuse greater numbers of slaves in order “to please her patrons” and those she indicted pointed to others with the hopes that it would stave off any attempts at legal retribution.30 When the trials waned down in early 1742, by then, up to 152 blacks had been arrested, eighty one of whom had implicated more slaves that were either burned at the stake or hanged.31
Only a few months after the events had reached their dissolution, people questioned whether the executions were justified. Some began to critically examine whether a slave conspiracy really existed.32 These doubters feared they had unfortunately been captured by “the merciless Flames of an Imaginary Plot.”33 To counteract the criticisms revolving around the vicissitudes of the conspiracy, Daniel Horsmanden wrote a lengthy account of the trials to explicate the actions of the court and finally put to rest these concerns. Relying on his own observations of the events as well as court records, Horsmanden recreated the events of 1741 in his one-sided, subjective version of the plot and the trials.34 However, Horsmanden’s account failed to persuade many people, including historians.
By the nineteenth-century, the notion that the plot had been a fabrication in the harried and panic-stricken minds of New Yorkers was insinuated into popular historiography. In 1839, William Dunlap, a playwright turned historian, published his multivolume history of New York. In his concise treatment of the conspiracy, Dunlap claimed that the conspiracy was indeed invented, and that the “best parallel” to the New York Conspiracy of 1741 was the “popish plot of 1679 in the reign of Charles II.”35 Dunlap’s ostensibly abolitionist leanings also appear in his book as he suggests that the abhorrent nature of slavery created the conditions for the uprising.36
Indeed, Dunlap’s inference that the nature of slavery in New York had exacerbated fears of a plot has merit. In the city, “the free and the slave lived in close proximity” as close to 20,000 people inhabited an area approximately 1.1 square miles.37 Of these twenty thousand, the 1737 census revealed that blacks comprised nearly 25% of the total population in New York.38 The predominant numbers of African American men present in the colony made the white colonists’ uneasy and aroused fears that slaves would overwhelm the whites. William Dunlap wrote that before the conspiracy, “slaves were comparatively small” in number, but their population had increased by 1741, spreading fear of a slave uprising.39 In addition, lawyer William Smith feared that New Yorkers “shall never be quite safe, till that wicked [black] race are under more restraint, or their number greatly reduced within this city.”40
The primary fear among whites was that a gathering of slaves would share collective experiences of oppression, decide that their situation had become intolerable, and foment a revolution. In response to these fears, New York City had promulgated a variety of legal barriers to restrict the autonomy of African Americans. New York’s “Negro Law” was comprised with the intent to discourage “the ability of enslaved people to move at will, and to gather.”41 Slaves were proscribed from social activities that required group participation. Gambling was deemed illegal for slaves as well as drinking in taverns without the presence of their masters.42 To avert slaves from acting in concert under the cover of darkness, those who were “over the age of fourteen had to be off the streets by sunset” unless escorted by their owners.43 Slaves could not even leave “from their Masters Houses or Plantations on the Lords Day” without documented proof that their owners permitted them to be off the premises.44
These laws were legal extensions of New Yorkers’ racist attitudes towards slaves. Because they believed that slaves “were naturally annoying and vexing,” whites thought they had to be consistently vigilant and restrictive with their slaves out of trepidation that they would incite a rebellion.45 Reflecting on the conspiracy in his Journal, Horsmanden wrote that it demonstrated that slave owners should view their slaves as “enemies of their own household, since we know what they are capable of” doing.46 Horsmanden recommended that masters should not provide slaves “with too great liberties” of which they will only “make use of to the worst purposes” including “caballing and confederating together in mischief, [and] in great numbers.”47
Yet despite the multifarious controls on their liberty, slaves did find ways to circumvent such restrictions. Slaves would commit various crimes as acts of opposition to white hegemony, including drinking, stealing and sleeping with white prostitutes.48 However, one of the most popular crimes for slaves in colonial New York was arson. As Edgar McManus writes, “next to theft, arson was the most common crime committed by slaves.”49
Fire was an enduring threat to New York City in the mid 18th century.50 Just the fear of fire alone was disconcerting to the colonists.51 When recalling the burning of Fort George, Horsmanden wrote that the “flames spread so fast, that in about an hour and a quarter’s time the house was burnt down to the ground.”52 Compounding this fear, prior to the conspiracy of 1741, slaves had established a precedent that they would use fire to voice their discontent.53 When the fires in 1741 broke out in such quick succession, the accusations of slaves being involved in their inception was therefore a reflexive conclusion. Indeed, when Cuffee had been spotted in the midst of the storehouse, he was not considered to be the lone culprit, as there were cries that all of “the negroes were rising” throughout the city.54
In addition to being worried about the eruption of fire, colonial New Yorkers were perpetually concerned about slave uprisings. Before March 1741, fears of vast conspiracies pervaded the minds of most American colonists, not just New Yorkers. The British colonists were sensitive to any gossip that intimated that slaves and Native Americans would subvert their way of life. In 1738, inhabitants of Nantucket thought that there was a Native American “conspiracy to destroy all the English, by first setting Fire to their Houses…and then falling upon them with their Fire Arms.”55 Such a plot turned out to be false, as did one in Kingston, New York, where after a group of slaves were involved in a physical scuffle, it was reported by whites as a sign of a nascent rebellion.56 Despite the repudiation of the plots, the American colonists continued to remain suspicious of others and “spotted plotters lurking behind nearly every shadow.”57
However, slave conspiracies were not entirely an illusion by the time fires started to destroy buildings in 1741.58 Slave rebellions were nearly ubiquitous events in the early eighteenth-century. Newspapers invariably brought accounts of slave conspiracies throughout the colonies. Of the most infamous in the prewar era, slave revolts in Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina and Pennsylvania had appeared since the mid 17th century.59 But more recent accounts of slave conspiracies alarmed New Yorkers. In Jamaica, a slave named Cudjoe led a group of slaves who had fled from their owners in the 1730’s and established self-sufficient outposts on the island.60 New Yorkers were also cognitive of the Stono Rebellion in 1739, where one hundred rebel slaves took the lives of over twenty whites before their revolt came to a violent end.61
However, the slave conspiracy that hit closest to home was one that occurred in New York almost thirty years before the conspiracy of 1741. In 1712, a slave insurrection unlike New York had encountered since its settlement by the Dutch shook the attention of the citified elite. A group of slaves on April 6th armed themselves with a variety of weapons and proceeded to unleash a furious attack on the whites of the town.62 Two slaves took revenge upon those slave owners who had continuously reduced them to chattel, personally stabbing and shooting Andrew Beekman, Joris Marschalk and Adrian Hoighlandt.63 By the time the murders were squelched, nine white New Yorkers were killed and a handful more suffered wounds.64
Despite the space of nearly thirty years separating the conspiracies, the happenings in 1712 were still fresh in the minds of many New Yorkers. As Jill Lepore writes, there were indeed “hints that whoever set the fires in 1741…was commemorating 1712,” as there were a great deal of similarities between both.65 To begin with, the two conspiracies occurred on the dates of March 25th and April 6th.66 Both involved fire, as those who rose up against whites in 1712 did so by setting fire to a building and then fleeing.67 Additionally, slaves in 1712 kept their plans for insurrection well-hidden before they struck.68 Whites who were therefore compelled to blame the fires in 1741 on slaves had a founded basis on which to make such a conclusion, as they most likely based their accusations on the affinities the fires shared with the most recent slave uprising in memory.
The events of 1712 were also kept alive because a number of the city’s white leaders who were spectators to the 1712 conspiracy had a vital role in the prosecution of slaves in 1741 as well. Of those involved in the conspiracies of 1741 and 1712 were Adolph Philipse, Rip Van Dam and Gerardus Beekman, who survived the death of his son in 1712 at the hands of slaves.69 These men possessed lucid memories of 1712 and the punishments that were then meted out to slaves. Lawyer William Smith was angered by what he viewed as the slaves’ insubordination, claiming that the conspiracy of 1741 was “the second attempt of the same kind that this brutish and bloody species of mankind have made within one age.”70 He thought it appropriate to invoke the legacy of 1712 to claim that the “Justice that was provoked by Former Fires…should have been a perpetual Terror to the Negroes that survived the Vengeance of that Day, and…a Warning to all that had come after them.”71
In order to understand the origins of the New York Slave Conspiracy, one must examine it within the broader context of the history of slavery in the United States.
The New York Slave Conspiracy of 1741 was the product of several factors: racism, fear of slave rebellion, and the distinct nature of slavery in New York. The reactions of white New Yorkers to the conflagrations, thefts and other crimes that sprouted throughout the city in 1741 are symptomatic of much bigger historical issues. Ultimately, the conspiracy of 1741 takes an important place in the recurrent oppression of African Americans throughout history and is an example of how slavery forever altered American society.
1. John Tabor Kempe to Daniel Horsmanden, July 14, 1763, Charles J. Tanenbaum collection, 18th century Reading room of the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, New York.
4. Ibid. For Kempe’s work ethic see Catherine Snell Crary, “The American Dream: John Tabor Kempe’s Rise from Poverty to Riches,” The William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 14 (1957) 176-195. http://www.jstor.org (accessed March 13, 2006), 184.
9. My account of the plot is taken directly from Daniel Horsmanden, The New York Conspiracy, or a History of the Negro Plot, with the Journal of the Proceedings Against the Conspirators in the Years 1741-2. Together with Several Interesting Tables (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969) 15-16. The edition I consulted is the reprint of the second edition of Horsmanden’s Journal, printed in 1810.
27. Leopold S. Launitz-Schurer, Jr., “Slave Resistance in Colonial New York: An interpretation of Daniel Horsmanden’s New York Conspiracy,” Phylon 41 (1980): 137-152. http://www.jstor.org/ (accessed March 15, 2006), 138.
30. See William Dunlap, History of the New Netherlands, Province of New York, and State of New York, to the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, Vol. 1., (New York:, Carter &Thorpe, 1839), 330.
31. Lepore, xvi. See also Appendix B of Lepore’s book, beginning with page 248. Lepore lists the names of the slaves that were arrested, their pleas, their sentences, and whether they confessed to the crimes brought before them. This list is extensive and takes up eleven pages of her book.
40. Horsmanden, 93. Part of this quote from Horsmanden’s Journal also appears in Thomas J Davis “The New York Slave Conspiracy of 1741 as Black Protest,” The Journal of Negro History 56 (1971): 17-30. http://www.jstor.org (accessed March 13, 2006), 22.
59. Marion D. deB. Kilson, “Towards Freedom: An Analysis of Slave Revolts in the United States,” Phylon 25 (1964): 175-187. http://www.jstor.org (accessed March 20, 2006). See Table 1 on p. 177 and Table 2 on p. 179.