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Fear of Slave Revolts
Digital History ID 83

Author:   Daniel Horsmanden


In 1741, New York City executed 34 people for conspiring to burn down the city. Thirteen African American men were burned at the stake and another 17 black men, two white men, and two white women were hanged. An additional 70 blacks and seven whites were banished from the city.

In 1741, New York's economy was depressed, and, as a result of a punishing winter, the population suffered severe food shortages. The British empire was at war with France and Spain, and there were reports that the Spanish were threatening to invade New York or organize acts of arson. There were also troubling news about the Stono slave uprising in South Carolina. With one-fifth of Manhattan's population consisting of black slaves, it was apparently easy to believe that they, perhaps assisted by Irish Catholic immigrants, were conspiring to set the city ablaze. It seems unlikely that there was an organized plan to set fire to the city and murder its inhabitants, as the authorities alleged. There is, however, evidence of incidents of arson and it appears that some slaves talked about retaliating against their enslavers and winning their freedom.

While slave masters described their slave populations as faithful, docile, and contented, slaveowners always feared slave revolt. Probably the first slave revolt in the New World erupted in Hispaniola in 1522. During the early eighteenth century there were slave uprisings on Long Island in 1708 and in New York City in 1712. Slaves in South Carolina staged several insurrections, culminating in the Stono Rebellion of 1739, when they seized firearms, killed whites, and burned houses. In 1740, a slave conspiracy was uncovered in Charleston. During the late eighteenth century, slave revolts took place in Guadeloupe, Grenada, Jamaica, Surinam, St. Domingue (Haiti), Venezuela, and the Windward Islands. Many fugitive slaves, known as maroons, fled to remote regions like Spanish Florida or Virginia's Great Dismal Swamp.

The main result of slave insurrections, throughout the Americas, was the mass execution of blacks. In 1712, when a group of enslaved Africans in New York set fire to a building and ambushed and murdered about nine whites who arrived to put out the fire, fourteen slaves were hanged, three were burnt at the stake, one was starved to death, and another was broken on the wheel.

The following account was originally published in 1744 by Daniel Horsmanden (1694-1778), who presided over the trial and later served on New York's Supreme Court.


Wednesday, March 18 [1741]

About one o'clock this day a fire broke out of the roof of his majesty's house at Fort George, within this city, near the chapel; when the alarm of fire was first given, it was observed from the town, that the middle of the roof was in a great smoke, but not a spark of fire appeared on the outside for a considerable time.... Upon the chapel bell's ringing, great numbers of people, gentlemen and others, came to the assistance of the lieutenant governor and his family; and...most of the household goods, etc. were removed and saved.... But the fire got hold of the roof...and an alarm being given that there was gun powder in the fort, whether through fear and an apprehension that there was, or whether the hint was given by some of the conspirators themselves, with artful design to intimidate the people, and frighten them from giving further assistance, we cannot say; though the lieutenant governor declared to every body that there was none there.... Such was the violence of the wind, and the flames spread so fast, that in about an hour and a quarter's time the house was burnt down to the ground....

Monday, April 6 [1741]

About ten o'clock in the morning, there was an alarm of a fire at the house of serjeant Burns, opposite fort Garden....

Towards noon a fire broke out in the roof of Mrs. Hilton's house...on the East side of captain Sarly's house....Upon view, it was plain that the fire must have been purposely laid.... There was a cry among the people, the Spanish Negroes; the Spanish Negroes; take up the Spanish Negroes. The occasion of this was the two fires...happening so closely together....and it being known that Sarly had purchased a Spanish Negro, some time before brought into his port, among several others....and that they afterwards pretending to have been free men in their country, began to grumble at their hard usage, of being sold as slaves. This probably gave rise to the suspicion, that this Negro, out of revenge, had been the instrument of these two fires; and he behaving insolently upon some people's asking him questions concerning was told to a magistrate who was near, and he ordered him to jail, and also gave direction to constables to commit all the rest of that cargo [of Africans], in order for their safe custody and examination....

While the justices were proceeding to examination, about four o'clock there was another alarm of fire....

While the people were extinguishing the fire at this storehouse, and had almost mastered it, there was another cry of fire, which diverted the people attending the storehouse to the new alarm...but a man who had been on the top of the house assisting in extinguishing the fire, saw a Negro leap out at the end window of one of them...which occasioned him to cry out...that the Negroes were rising....

Supreme Court

Wednesday, April 22 [1741]

Deposition, No. 1--Mary Burton [a servant], being sworn, deposeth,

1. "That Prince [Mr. Auboyneau's slave] and Caesar [Mr. Varack's slave] brought the things which they had her master, John Hughson's house...about two or three o'clock on a Sunday morning [March 1, 1740].

2. That Caesar, Prince and Mr. Philipse's Negro man (Cuffee) used to meet frequently at her master's house, and that she had heard them (the Negroes) talk frequently of burning the fort; and that they would go down to the Fly [the city's east end] and burn the whole town; and that her master and mistress said, they would aid and assist them as much as they could.

3. "That in their common conversation they used to say, that when all this was done, Caesar should be governor, and Hughson, her master, should be king.

4. "That Cuffee used to say, that a great many people had too much, and others too little; that his old master had a great deal of money, but that, in a short time, he should have less, and that he (Cuffee) should have more....

7. "That she had known at times, seven or eight guns in her master's house, and some swords, and that she had seen twenty or thirty Negroes at one time in her master's house...."

This evidence of a conspiracy, not only to burn the city, but also destroy and murder the people, was most astonishing to the grand jury, and that any white people should become so abandoned as to confederate with slaves in such an execrable and detestable purpose, could not but be very amazing to every one that heard it....

[A Justice administers the sentence to Quack and Cuffee]

You both now stand convicted of one of the most horrid and detestable pieces of villainy, that ever satan instilled into the heart of human creatures to put in practice; ye, and the rest of your colour, though you are called slaves in this country; yet are you all far from the condition of other slaves in other countries; nay, your lot is superior to that of thousands of white people. You are furnished with all the necessaries of life, meat, drink, and clothing, without care, in a much better manner than you could provide for yourselves, were you at liberty; as the miserable condition of many free people here of your complexion might abundantly convince you. What then could prompt you to undertake so vile, so wicked, so monstrous, so execrable and hellish a scheme, as to murder and destroy your own masters and benefactors? nay, to destroy root and branch, all the white people of this place, and to lay the whole town in ashes.

I know not which is more astonishing, the extreme folly, or wickedness, of so base and shocking a conspiracy.... What could it be expected to end in, in the account of any rational and considerate person among you, but your own destruction?

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: Daniel Horsmanden, A Journal of the Proceedings in the Detection of the Conspiracy...for burning the city of New-York, 1774

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