Digital History

17th Century

Slave Revolts Previous Next
Digital History ID 3587



While slave masters described their slave populations as faithful, docile, and contented, slave owners always feared slave revolt. Those fears heightened in times of crisis, when they provided a scapegoat for anxieties.

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.

The arson conspiracy trials coincided with a depression in New York's economy and severe food shortages that resulted from a punishing winter. 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. These events occurred in the wake of news of 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.

However, there is evidence of incidents of arson and it appears that some slaves talked about retaliating against their enslavers and winning their freedom. 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 20 slaves seized firearms, killed over twenty white people, and burned several plantations before they could be stopped by the local militia.

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.

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