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This Day in Labor History: May 30, 1741

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On May 30, 1741, Quack and Cuffee, two slaves convicted of a conspiracy to burn New York and start a slave rebellion, were burned to death. Part of the New York Slave Conspiracy, the events of the spring of 1741 demonstrated both the racial and class tensions in New York, as well as the dependency of that city upon slavery.

Although in popular imagination slavery was a southern phenomenon, in the colonial period, New York was a major destination for slaves. In 1741, in the colonies that would become the United States only Charleston had more slaves than New York. The Dutch imported the first African slaves to New Amsterdam in 1626 and the first slave auction was held there in 1655. The British expanded the slave presence in the city significantly. By 1703, 42 percent of New York households were slaveholders. In 1711, New York established a permanent slave market at the east end of Wall Street, which operated until 1762. These slaves operated in a number of jobs, including household servants, dock workers, working for merchants, and doing much of the grunt work that went into creating that colonial center of commerce.

In March and April 1741, 13 mysterious fires started in Lower Manhattan, including one inside Fort George, where the colony’s governor lived. The Fort George fire, on March 18, burned several municipal buildings. The city freaked out. Some claimed they saw slaves celebrating the fires. In any case, suspicion fell on the city’s large slave population. The city starting trying slaves, offering leniency and even pardon in exchange for confession. The first slaves were hanged on May 11. These slaves, Caesar and Prince, had been convicted of robbing the home of a prominent citizen. Regardless of whether they even committed the robbery, they became associated with the conspiracy. Then on May 30 were the burnings of Quack and Cuffee. The confessed with the torch about to be applied and named names. There is no good reason to believe these were legitimate confessions; moreover, they were burned anyway. In the many arrests and “confessions” that followed, whites decided that there was a large-scale conspiracy to overthrow slavery in New York that would have led to Caesar being named the king of whatever city followed. They believed that the plan was for individual conspirators to start fires and then kill their masters in an orchestrated event.

By June, the New York population decided that it was bigger than just their slaves. No, their slaves were working in league with Catholics to allow the Spanish or maybe the French to invade the city. Tensions were high between the Spanish and English in the late 1730s and the frequent wars between these powers were real to everyday people, so thinking in these terms perhaps made sense, although how the Spanish would coordinate a campaign of slave arson remains a stretch to consider. So Catholics began to be targeted by the authorities as well. Finally, the star witness, Mary Burton, an Irish servant to a tavern owner who had been arrested for theft and who agreed to expose the conspiracy, began to say such ludicrous things, expanding her ever-increasingly accusations to leading white Protestant New Yorkers, leading people began to question the whole enterprise and the mania to subside.

About 150 slaves were arrested and tried for starting the fires. A few dozen whites were arrested as well, usually poor whites who worked with the slaves. The vast majority almost certainly had nothing to do with it. It’s entirely possible that no one was guilty at all. The weather that winter was very cold, making a wooden city very dry with lots of fires going on to keep people warm. There were always many ways fires started in a city constructed of wood. Slaves were frequently accused of plotting to burn buildings and it’s really impossible to know how true these accusations were. They ranged from entirely made up to very real. Media in the colonies frequently reported on slave uprisings, some of which were very real such as in Antigua in 1736. That the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina took place in 1739 made the slaveholders of New York even more nervous.

Even more relevant was that in 1712, slaves in New York had in fact set buildings on fire and then murdered nine whites fighting those fires. But any time slaves got together, whites saw it is as a threat. That could be in taverns, as was often the accusations in New York, or later it could be in churches such as Denmark Vesey’s or even in slave cabins and forests behind plantations at night in the antebelllum South. Forced labor had the downside of making slaveholders rightfully worried that people without other options would rise up violently to free themselves, or at least kill their oppressors. The visit of George Whitefield to spread his evangelicalism in what became known as the Great Awakening put New York slaveholders further on edge, as by 1740 he was openly arguing for better conditions for slaves, to the point that he was arrested in Charleston in 1741 for his arguments about slavery.

Not everyone thought this was a good idea. On August 8, an anonymous letter to Cadwallader Colden remonstrated him for his actions, comparing them to the Salem witch trials. The anonymous author urged Colden, “I intreat you not to go on to Massacre & destroy your own Estates by making Bonfires of the Negros & perhaps loading yourself with greater Guilt than theirs.” But such words would have little effect on a population paranoid over revolt from their slave laborers.

In the end, the bodies of two supposed conspirators, Caesar and the white cobbler John Hughson, whose tavern the slaves were supposed to have started the conspiracy, were gibboted and their corpses left to rot in public. Several slaves were burned at the stake. Overall, at least 30 blacks and 4 whites were killed. 77 others, both black and white, were deported from New York to Newfoundland, which was the British Empire version of being sent to Siberia, or the death traps of the West Indies.

Slavery continued for a long time in New York. Thousands of slaves followed the British as they left New York during the American Revolution. A New York law for gradual emancipation passed in 1799. The last slaves were not freed from New York until 1827, 51 years to the day after the nation declared independence from Britain.

This post borrowed from Eric Plaag, “New York’s 1741 Slave Conspiracy in a Climate of Fear and Anxiety,” published in the Summer 2003 issue of New York History. I have heard good things about Jill Lepore’s recent book on the issue, but I have not read it.

This is the 224th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Bruce Vail

    As a kid in New York’s Hudson Valley in the 1960s and 70s, I don’t think I had ever heard of slave owning and slave trading in my own back yard.

    This has changed. My hometown in Putnam County was part of the Philipse Patent, with the Philipse family now widely recognized as owners and slave traders.

    http://www.hudsonvalley.org/education/philipsburg-manor/telling-story

  • Snarki, child of Loki

    “began to say such ludicrous things, expanding her ever-increasingly accusations to leading white Protestant New Yorkers”

    Everyone remember, in this Trumpian age of renewed harsh interrogation, that the answer to the question “who are your co-consipirators?” is an Anya-esque litany of names: “Cheney, Dubya, Feith, Yoo, Rumsfeld, Gonzales, …”

  • Hondo

    “Some claimed they saw slaves celebrating the fires.”
    As witnessed by Trump’s ancestors?

  • FlipYrWhig

    I really liked the Lepore book, but IANA early Americanist.

    • N__B

      Ditto to both clauses of this sentence.

  • BiloSagdiyev

    I had to look it up.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gibbeting

    I only recently learned of a case of arson as a tool of revenge not that long ago. Durham, NC, during WWII. A bus driver of obvious Barney Fifeish tendencies had a fit because a black U.S. Army soldier wouldn’t obey the seating rules, so the bus driver stood his ground with his revolver, as Southern white men are wont to do. The soldier died.

    Several tobacco and furniture warehouses in downtown Durham went up in flames in revenge for that one.

  • cpinva

    the headsman, over at http://www.executedtoday.com, had an excellent series about this event a couple of years ago. it’s an outstanding site, for those interested in both executions themselves, and the history behind them. it ranges from ancient greece, to the modern era, with everything in between. i strongly urge the people on this here site to give it a gander.

    and they continue to stumble onto old slave burial grounds, in NYC.

  • Cheerfull

    I was going to ponder how New York’s slave history affected its stance on the Constitution until I remembered that its delegation at the convention consisted only of Hamilton, no great friend of the institution.

    Of course skipping ahead a century or so, New York city at least was not particularly abolitionist during the Civil War.

    • Bruce Vail

      New York abolitionists, although outnumbered, were a hardy lot. Their homes and businesses were targeted by the Draft Rioters of 1863 (although they did not suffer the same physical assaults and lynchings as black New Yorkers).

  • Rusty SpikeFist

    a permanent slave market at the east end of Wall Street

    plus ça change

  • Origami Isopod

    But any time slaves got together, whites saw it is as a threat. That could be in taverns, as was often the accusations in New York, or later it could be in churches such as Denmark Vesey’s or even in slave cabins and forests behind plantations at night in the antebelllum South.

    There are echoes of this in laws that prohibit “loitering” and are used disproportionately to target young black people, especially men, gathering on streetcorners or in other public places.

    • Whirrlaway

      Once you start being mean to people, there’s no bottom to it. So you get to a point in your austerity program where you can’t even let people have such fun as they can have. And you’re walking around pretending everything is righteous and with a creepy feeling between your shoulderblades. My, that sounds like fun.

  • Not a real Tory

    For some reason, as a kid in New York State, I definitely learned about slavery in New York. The fact that most impressed me was that Sojourner Truth was born a slave in New York State and grew up speaking Dutch in her owners’ households (she was moved around a bit as a child slave). Her famous Ain’t I a Woman speech was delivered in Dutch and translated by some white woman into the English of a Southern Slave….(perhaps white people couldn’t picture someone of African descent speaking any other type of English???)

    Sadly, I didn’t learn about this particular arson/rebellion event until adulthood but what immediately struck me was the parallel with Salem. The young white female servant who accused so many others, would have occupied a similar position to the young women who played such a role in Salem: young-ish, powerless, in a position of subservience and lacking control over their own lives. I’ve always thought some of this mishegos of crazy, spiraling finger-pointing resulted from the powerless and voiceless becoming drunk with importance when, for the first time in their lives, they are the focus of attention and are actually being listened to.

    • John Revolta

      I was a bit surprised to find out that we were still burning people in the 1700’s. I know there weren’t any witches burned at Salem and that was 50 years before this. Although I suppose the folks who burned the slaves didn’t think they were actually burning people.

      • Cassiodorus

        This is actually the basis of a pretty good jab at “originalist” opponents of the death penalty. Burning people alive was a method of execution in use at the time, so any “original public meaning” of allowing execution has to allow for burning people at the stake. As a bonus, you can add in Scalia’s comment that it’s not unconstitutional to execute an innocent person. So, in effect, originalists are committed to the position that burning an innocent person at the stake is not “cruel and unusual punishment.”

  • rm

    Whitefield may have preached against cruelty to slaves, but he was also a slaveholder who campaigned (successfully) to legalize slavery in Georgia.

  • Bruce Vail

    NYC’s old Colonial-era African Burial Ground was re-discovered in 1991. Although it had been clearly marked on old maps, nobody paid any attention for a long, long time.

    Since the old burial ground is now covered by valuable commercial buildings, the African Burial Ground National Monument was created in the 1990s.

    Wikipedia has a remarkably well-done entry:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African_Burial_Ground_National_Monument

  • By an interesting coincidence, I came across a reference to this event in a novel I’m reading, just hours after reading this post. The book is Golden Hill by Francis Spufford, technically his first work of fiction though obviously Red Plenty straddled that line quite significantly. I’m still about a hundred pages from the end, and so far it’s good but not stunning (and certainly not in the way that RP was). Or maybe my problem is that I’m not quite certain what Spufford is trying to accomplish. At the beginning I thought that he was attempting an examination of mid-18th century New York (and ultimately the entire American colonies) through an economic lens, the way he did with the Soviet Union in RP. But so far it feels more like a social examination, albeit with a particular emphasis on the slavery and the inherent hypocrisy of a society that valorizes liberty on the one hand, and is built on slavery on the other (one of the points the book makes early on is that even people who aren’t directly involved in the slave trade are profiting from it; that the fortunes being made in the New World all ultimately come down to slave labor).

  • Tehanu

    I’m old enough that I never learned any of this, or anything like it, in high school. And I didn’t take any American history courses in college, although the history classes I did take (primarily British, ancient Roman, and medieval European) were less than starry-eyed about their subject matter, and so I started to get the idea that some of what I thought I knew might be wrong. It drives me crazy that not only are kids still not being told the truth about American history, but the goddam Republicans actively want the truth covered up. I don’t think kids are incapable of learning that the inspiring ideals of democracy, liberty, and equality were promoted by people who lived in a society where horrible injustices were perpetrated — even by people who approved of those injustices. It’s the right wing who are incapable, and they think everybody is just as dumb and limited as they are.

    • BiloSagdiyev

      1. Amen, brudda! (or sister)

      2. The right wing is determined to keep everybody dumb and limited, lest they try something.

      3. The more real history I learn as an adult, the better and more fun history becomes, in addition to being more accurate. History as taught to schoolchildren is boring.

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