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.