New York Slave Conspiracy of 1741
NEW YORK SLAVE CONSPIRACY OF 1741
NEW YORK SLAVE CONSPIRACY OF 1741. Beginning in early 1741, enslaved Africans in New York City planned to overthrow Anglo American authority, burn the city, and turn it over to the Spanish, possibly setting up a black governor. Emboldened by the War of Jenkins' Ear, recent slave revolts in South Carolina and the West Indies, and personal attacks on local slave owners and Atlantic slave ships, groups of conspirators in and around New York City planned a massive uprising. At meetings in taverns, on wharves and street corners, and at homes of free Negroes, dozens of enslaved Africans swore their allegiance to the plot. Participants included enslaved people owned by masters from every ethnicity and rank in local society, South American free blacks captured by privateers and sold into slavery, and criminal gangs of escaped slaves. Among white people implicated were John Hughson, a tavern keeper; Peggy Kerry,
common-law wife of Caesar, alias Jon Gwin, a black conspirator; and John Ury, a dancing instructor. The plot was discovered after an arson investigation of the fire that destroyed Fort George on the tip of New York. Municipal authorities tried dozens of conspirators whose confessions were later published by Daniel Horsmanden, the city recorder. Reaction by local officials was merciless. After quick trials, thirteen conspirators were burned at the stake, seventeen blacks and four whites were hanged, and seventy enslaved people were transported to the West Indies.
Horsmanden's record of the trials has become a classic piece of evidence for legal, African American, and Atlantic culture scholars. Within the slaves' confessions are fascinating glimpses of black culture. At Hughson's tavern, for example, black conspirators met on weekends and holidays, ate large meals and drank numerous toasts to their plans, gambled, danced to fiddle music, and swore loyalty oaths inside a chalk circle.
Historical memory of the event remains controversial. Throughout the eighteenth century, the conspiracy was seen as fact. During the antebellum period, a combination of historical amnesia about the cruelty of slavery in New York and abolitionist views of blacks as loyal citizens cast doubt on the veracity of Horsmanden's journal and the reality of a plot. During most of twentieth century, scholars believed that no extended conspiracy existed and that the affair revealed murderous white hysteria toward rumors of revolt. The prevailing view now accepts that enslaved people did conspire to overthrow the slave society. A short-term effect of the conspiracy was an increased emphasis on slave imports directly from Africa, avoiding seasoned slaves from the West Indies, who had proven to be troublemakers. Long-term effects were worsening racism and the preparation of enslaved Africans around New York for military roles during the American Revolution.
Horsmanden, Daniel. The New York Conspiracy. Edited by Thomas J. Davis. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971.
Linebaugh, Peter, and Marcus Rediker. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.