New York City Slave Revolt Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A small group of black and American Indian slaves rebelled against mistreatment and restrictive laws, leading to further legal restrictions on slaves, freed or not, including the weakening of due process rights and the prohibition against owning or inheriting property. Also, slave owners, before they could free a slave, had to pay a bond to the government as well as an annual allowance for life to each freed slave.

Summary of Event

The New York City slave revolt of 1712 calls attention to African slaves Slavery;of Africans[Africans] slavery Native Americans;as slaves[slaves] having become more firmly established in colonial New York than in any other British province north of Chesapeake Bay. Slaves were already an integral part of the labor force when England conquered Dutch New Netherland Netherlands;New Netherland colony New Netherland in 1664. As European immigration lagged, slave labor became increasingly important. Between 1703 and 1723, New York’s total population almost doubled, increasing from 20,540 to 40,564; but its black population (slaves and free blacks were lumped together statistically and listed in the census as “Negroes”) almost tripled, jumping from 2,253 to 6,171. [kw]New York City Slave Revolt (Apr. 6, 1712) [kw]Revolt, New York City Slave (Apr. 6, 1712) [kw]Slave Revolt, New York City (Apr. 6, 1712) [kw]City Slave Revolt, New York (Apr. 6, 1712) [kw]York City Slave Revolt, New (Apr. 6, 1712) Slave revolts;New York City [g]American colonies;Apr. 6, 1712: New York City Slave Revolt[0360] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 6, 1712: New York City Slave Revolt[0360] [c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 6, 1712: New York City Slave Revolt[0360] Bickley, May Cuffee (Native American) Dick (Native American) Hunter, Robert Neau, Elias Sharpe, John

As the number of bondsmen increased, so did the anxiety level of white New Yorkers. In 1708, following the grisly murder of a Long Island planter and his family, four slaves were tried, convicted, and executed “with all the torment possible for a terror to others.” Shortly thereafter, the provincial assembly passed the Act Slave codes for Preventing the Conspiracy of Slaves, Act for Preventing the Conspiracy of Slaves (1708) which defined the judicial proceedings and made death the penalty for any slave found guilty of murder or attempted murder. Fear of slave conspiracy led whites to look with ambivalence upon Anglican catechist Elias Neau’s teaching among New York City blacks and American Indians.

Small-scale slave owning prevailed in New York. Few white families owned more than a slave or two, so slave husbands, wives, and children might be scattered among several households. Regulations restricting their freedom of movement were bitterly resented by slaves, because they interfered with their domestic life. Such restrictions often were more apparent than real, because slavery in New York City and surrounding villages, where slaves were most heavily concentrated, was tied to a developing urban economy that demanded a flexible, if not free, labor supply. Slaves in New York City and Albany often hired themselves out, splitting the pay with their respective owners, but otherwise lived separately from their masters. The hustle and bustle of the urban economic scene afforded slaves considerable opportunity to meet, socialize, and discuss common grievances, despite the best efforts of whites to keep them under surveillance.

The slave uprising of April 6, 1712, apparently began as a conspiracy on March 25, the day that was formerly celebrated as New Year’s Day. The ringleaders reportedly were of the Cormantine and Pawpaw peoples, Africans who had not been long in New York; a few Spanish Indian slaves; and at least one free black, a practitioner of African medicine and magic who reportedly supplied special powder to protect the rebels from the weapons of the whites. Their motivation, according to both Governor Robert Hunter and Chaplain John Sharpe, was revenge for ill treatment at the hands of their respective masters. Their goal was freedom, which, claimed Hunter and Sharpe, was to be achieved by burning New York City and killing the white people on Manhattan.

During the early morning hours of Sunday, April 6, 1712, about two dozen conspirators, armed with guns, swords, knives, and clubs, gathered in an orchard in the East Ward on the northeast edge of New York City. They set fire to several outbuildings and waited in ambush for the whites who came to put out the blaze, killing nine and wounding seven. Soldiers were dispatched from the fort, but when they arrived, the rebels had dispersed, taking refuge in the woods surrounding the town. The next day, local militiamen systematically searched Manhattan Island for the rebellious blacks. Rather than surrender, six slaves killed themselves, with several cutting their own throats.

White New Yorkers were in full panic. “We have about 70 Negro’s in Custody,” read a dispatch from New York, dated April 14 but published in the Boston News-Letter on April 21, but it was “fear’d that most of the Negro’s here (who are very numerous) knew of the Late Conspiracy to murder the Christians.” Fear of another uprising drove the judicial proceedings. On April 9, a coroner’s jury implicated thirty-eight slaves, identifying fourteen of them as murderers. In accordance with the 1708 conspiracy act, the coroner’s findings were turned over to the Court of Quarter Sessions of the Peace, which convened on April 11. Attorney General May Bickley handled the prosecution, moving the trials from the Quarter Sessions to the State Supreme Court on June 3.

Forty-two slaves and one free black were indicted and tried. Crucial to both the indictments and trials was the testimony of two slaves: Cuffee, who belonged to baker Peter Vantilborough, and Dick, a boy slave owned by Harmanus Burger, a blacksmith. The coroner’s jury had found Cuffee and Dick guilty of at least two murders, but Bickley apparently promised them immunity, and they became the Crown’s prime witnesses. Some whites, including such substantial citizens as former mayor David Provost, coroner Henry Wileman, and lawyers Jacob Regnier and David Jamison, testified for a few of the defendants. However, the general adequacy of defense counsel may well be doubted. Many of the convictions hinged upon the dubious testimony of Cuffee and young Dick, both of whom were manipulated by Bickley, described by Governor Hunter as “a busy waspish man.” Bickley also demonstrated considerable bias against certain slave defendants, depending upon who owned them. For example, Mars, belonging to Jacob Regnier, a rival attorney with whom Bickley had a private quarrel, was tried twice and acquitted before being found guilty in the third trial and sentenced to be hanged.

Most of the trials were over by early June. Twenty-three slaves were convicted of murder; fifteen slaves were acquitted, along with one free black. Two slaves were found guilty of assault with intent to kill, and two were acquitted of that charge. The twenty-five who were convicted were sentenced to death. Twenty were to be hanged; three were burned alive, one in a slow fire for eight to ten hours until consumed to ashes. Another was broken upon the wheel and left to die, and one was hung in chains and “so to continue without sustenance until death.” Eleven were “executed at once,” including those burned, broken at the wheel, and chained without food or water. These barbaric executions were defended by Governor Hunter as “the most exemplary that could be possibly thought of.”

Yet even Hunter doubted the justice of it all. He postponed the execution of six slaves, including two Spanish American Indians taken and sold as slaves despite their claim of being free men, a pregnant slave woman, and the much tried and finally convicted Mars. At Hunter’s request, Queen Anne pardoned several of them, and perhaps all of those he had reprieved (the record is rather vague), despite the efforts of Bickley in New York and of Lord Cornbury, a former governor of New York, in London to obstruct the pardons.

Significance

There were other ramifications of the slave uprising. The provincial government passed laws making it impossible to free slaves without putting up a £200 bond and paying the freed slave £20 per year for life. Africans, American Indians, and mulattoes Mulattoes were prohibited from inheriting or otherwise owning property. Finally, due process rights were weakened for slaves accused of murder or conspiracy. In the wake of the revolt, Elias Neau, the preacher and catechist of Trinity Church, found it difficult to continue his school for blacks and American Indians. Only two of his many pupils were implicated in the conspiracy, and Chaplain John Sharpe doubted that either was involved in the violence.

After the rebellion, New Yorkers were reluctant to import slaves directly from Africa or to purchase Spanish Indians as slaves. Black slaves from the West Indies were preferred over the other two groups. Yet slavery remained a primary source of labor for both the province and city of New York, slaves constituting about 15 percent of the population. In 1730, other regulations were added to the slave code because “many Mischiefs had been Occasioned by the too great Liberty allowed to Negro and other Slaves.” In 1741, white paranoia and slave discontent provoked a so-called slave conspiracy in which 150 slaves and 25 whites were jailed. Of that number, 18 slaves and 4 whites were hanged, 13 blacks were burned alive, and 70 were sold and sent to the West Indies.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodfriend, Joyce D. Before the Melting Pot: Society and Culture in Colonial New York City, 1664-1730. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992. Chapter 6 provides considerable insight into the life and labors of New York City slaves, both before and after the 1712 revolt.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harris, Leslie M. In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1823. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Chapter 1, “Slavery in Colonial New York,” includes information about the revolts of 1712 and 1741.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoffer, Peter Charles. The Great New York Conspiracy of 1741: Slavery, Crime, and Colonial War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003. Hoffer, a legal historian, reexamines the trials of slaves who were charged with conspiring to destroy New York City in the summer of 1741. He places the litigation in a legal and historic context, and explains how the law defined and policed slavery.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kammen, Michael. Colonial New York: A History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975. Chapter 11 relates the slave revolts of 1712 and 1741 to larger social and economic problems in colonial New York society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lustig, Mary Lou. Robert Hunter, 1666-1734. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1983. Gives a brief but pertinent summary of the slave revolts and the persons most associated with the trials.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McManus, Edgar J. A History of Negro Slavery in New York. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1966. Goes into considerable detail regarding the conditions that contributed to the 1712 uprising.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scott, Kenneth. “The Slave Insurrrection in New York in 1712.” New-York Historical Society Quarterly 45 (January, 1961): 147-165. Describes the revolt and the trials that followed, and notes the pertinent source collections.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wood, Peter. “Slave Resistance.” In Encyclopedia of the North American Colonies. Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993. Relates the 1741 New York revolt to other examples of slave resistance in North America.

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