THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: NYC REVOLT AGAINST SLAVERY

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Illustration of the New York slave market. (Corbis) courtesy of the Smithsonian.com

(Editor’s Note: No print or online publication can summarize every important historical event.  History happens every day and is made by regular people, not just the politicians and notables.  This is the first in a planned series of articles describing SOME important events.)

APRIL 6, 1712 NEW YORK CITY

Colonial New York had already had a rough birth.  Taken by force of arms from the Lenape people, part of the Algonquin nation (forget the $24 story,) 30 Dutch families settled the area in the 1620’s.  They called it New Amsterdam.  African captives did most of the heavy lifting, figuratively and literally, clearing the land, planting/harvesting crops, building Wall Street, etc.  In 1664, British imperialist thieves stole the area from the Dutch imperialist thieves, renaming it New York.  Conditions of the Africans deteriorated under the British, not to say that any enslaver can be great or good.

In 1711, increases in the “African trade” caused the city to establish a centralized slave market where the East River docks meet Wall Street.  The colonial government wanted  a piece of the action, and centralization made it easier to collect a sales tax.

By that time Africans, enslaved and free, were about 20 % of the City’s 6,000-person population. Black women worked as cooks, seamstresses, house cleaners, nurses, dishwashers, etc.  Blacks males occupied most of what are now called high-paying skilled trade positions – longshoremen, carpenters, brick layers, barrel makers, etc.  Of course, their captors received the wages that were earned.  Over the centuries, these jobs were lost to successive waves of European immigrants.

On the night of April 6, 1712 folks had had enough.  A group of a few dozen recently-arrived Africans led other, born-to-captivity Africans in a planned revolt. A shed or outhouse was torched at what is now Maiden Lane, then at the north end of the settlement.  As fire brigades approached, they were attacked in ambush by Africans using firearms, hatchets, clubs, and knives.  Six captors were wounded and nine were dispatched to hell, or wherever slavers go.  The freedom fighters went into the dense forest north of the settlement.

Over the next days British militia units from New York and Westchester (what is now the Bronx) jailed 27 Africans, some of whom were involved in the uprising, many of whom were not.  Six were said to have committed suicide, 21 were executed in the most brutal manner.

In his report to corporate central, the aptly-named Governor Hunter couldn’t imagine a reason why Africans condemned to a life of misery would rebel.  He talked about imagined or perceived “hard usage,” because “I can find no other cause.”

I must now give your Lordships an account of a bloody conspiracy of some of the slaves of this place, to destroy as many of the inhabitants as they could….when they had resolved to revenge themselves, for some hard usage they apprehended to have received from their masters (for I can find no other cause) they agreed to meet in the orchard of Mr. Crook in the middle of the town, some provided with fire arms, some with swords and others with knives and hatchets. This was the sixth day of April, the time of the meeting was about twelve or one clock in the night, when about three and twenty of them were got together. One…slave to one Vantilburgh set fire to [a shed] of his masters, and then repairing to his place where the rest were, they all sallyed out together with their arms and marched to the fire. By this time, the noise of the fire spreading through the town, the people began to flock to it. Upon the approach of several, the slaves fired and killed them. The noise of the guns gave the alarm, and some escaping, their shot soon published the cause of the fire, which was the reason that nine Christians were killed, and about five or six wounded. Upon the first notice, which was very against them, but the slaves made their retreat into the woods, by the favour of the night. Having ordered the day following, the militia of this town and the country of West Chester to drive [to] the Island, and by this means and strict searches in the town, we found all that put the design in execution, six of these having first laid violent hands upon themselves [committed suicide], the rest were forthwith brought to their tryal before ye Justices of this place….In that court were twenty seven condemned, whereof twenty one were executed, one being a woman with a child, her execution by than means suspended. Some were burnt, others hanged, one broke on the wheel, and one hung alive in chains in the town, so that there has been the most exemplary punishment inflicted that could be possibily thought of.

“Colonial New York’s Governor Reports on the 1712 Slave Revolt,”

The martyrs of 1712 may have engaged in one of the first, if not the first large scale rebellions in the Anglo-American colonies.  Many other such uprisings were to take place in the years ahead.

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