Black History Month Spotlight — New York Slaves and Slave Riots
“Van Renssalaer’s “History of the City of New York in the 17th Century,” (The Negro in New York, New York Urban League, 1931) points out that The Dutch brought the “swarten” to the colony before Manhattan houses were a decade old.” The Dutch brought in slaves from Angola and Brazil, who formed the nucleus of the largest black population in 1750 north of the future Mason-Dixon line. There were large plantations in New Netherland, particularly in the valley of the Hudson River, and by 1638 many of them were cultivated largely with the labor of Negro slaves.
The Dutch slave code was not elaborate, and manumission was not an unusual reward for long and meritorious service. Although the demand for slaves always exceeded the supply, the number imported by the Dutch never reached such proportions as to cause serious difficulty during the period of their domination.
In 1664, New Netherland fell into the hands of the English, becoming New York, named after the famous Duke of York, and the slave became the subject of colonial legislation. Under the English government, the condition of the slave was clearly defined by law and gradually became one of hardship. On October 24, 1684, an act was passed in which slavery was for the first time regarded as a legitimate institution in….New York. In 1706 a law was enacted stating that baptism of a slave did not provide grounds for the slave’s claim to freedom. A further significant provision was that a slave was at no time a competent witness in a case involving a freeman. In 1715, New York’s legislature enacted a law providing that slaves caught forty miles north of Albany, presumed to be bound for Canada, were to be executed upon the oath of two credible witnesses. Meanwhile, New York City enacted ordinances for the stricter control of slaves.
According to Stile’s History of Brooklyn, “The demand for Neagars” was larger and more steady here than in other colonies of the same latitude, yet slaves were not massed in large plantations, but scattered by twos and threes as household servants among the well-to-do, chiefly in the houses of the aristocracy.”
Free blacks were concentrated mainly in New York City, where they lived in various sections, chiefly around the centers of aristocratic life. The bulk of the black population was in Greenwich Village, centering around Minetta Lane, Christopher and Carmine Streets. The concentration of an increasing number of slaves in the city of New York brought with it increased dangers to the white population. Blacks defied authority and disobeyed laws they considered unjust. Citizens lived in fear and sometimes panic of their enslaved neighbors or servants, who, in reaction to their own enslavement, were often sullen and defiant.
In 1712, the temper of New York blacks flared up over harsh treatment into a fully organized insurrection, in which twenty-three slaves armed with guns and knives met in an orchard and set fire to a slaveholder’s house. In the melee that followed, nine whites were killed and six injured. In the ensuing trial, twenty-one blacks were found guilty and executed.
In [March] 1741, the rumor of an even larger insurrection called the “Negro Plot,” occurred. After a series of fires, the rumor spread that blacks and poor whites were conspiring to destroy law and order in the city and seize control. After the city offered generous rewards for the apprehension of the conspirators, almost 200 whites and blacks were arrested and prosecuted. At least 100 blacks were convicted, of whom 18 were hanged, 13 burned alive, and almost 70 banished. Four white people, including two women, were also hanged.
At the conclusion of the Negro Plot episode, the Legislature of New York turned its attention to additional legislation in respect to slavery, and still more severe laws were passed governing the conduct of blacks. No single act was undertaken calculated to ameliorate the condition of the slave.”
(Slavery in New York, Pre-Revolutionary Period, The Sheriff’s Jury and the Bicentennial, Vernon Jordan, Published by the Second Sheriff’s Jury, 1976, pp. 113-115)