This conflict also known as “The New York Conspiracy Riot” was an amazingly intricate and brutal affair that in addition to its local implications had an international twist as well.
In the context of the longstanding European conflicts, English colonists in New York City felt anxious about the French presence in Canada to the north and Spanish colonies in the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi River Valley to the South and West. They also felt threatened by a recent influx of Irish immigrants, whose Catholicism might incline them to spy for France and Spain.
Above all, they feared that the city’s growing slave population, might revolt. In the winter of that year a Spanish vessel arrived with a cargo of Africans, who were to be sold at New York’s slave market, and then located at the eastern end of Wall St. These Africans were said to be very troublesome and that their rebellious demeanor reignited long-standing grievances and resentment of the local slave population. As it happened, in March and April of that year ten fires broke out in the city, with four fires on a single day in early April and some whites concluded that the slaves were responsible.
An investigation was launched by New York City officials. As a result numerous slaves and others were brought in for questioning but no real evidence or testimony came forth even though the authorities offered pardon and a reward of £100 to anyone who would turn State’s evidence. However, an indentured servant, known as “Peggy the Newfoundland Beauty”, implicated three or four blacks in the face of threats of jail saying that she heard them talk about burning the City down. Another indentured servant, Mary Burton also gave damning false testimony against several other black men in exchange for freedom from her indenture.
A grand jury concluded that the fires were the work of black arsonists (and some of their white acquaintances) who had ties to a larger conspiracy to burn the city and murder all the white people. Between May 11 and August 29, 1741, even though there had been neither a riot nor any serious fires, the execution at the stake and gallows took place in the public square. In addition, imprisonment, beating and banishment of the city’s enslaved and free black people began in earnest. Thirteen slaves were burned at the stake, and 70 others were sold into the backbreaking slavery of the Caribbean.
Additionally, two white men and two white women were also hanged. Two slaves, Cuffee and Quack, were among the first to be burned at the stake. Seven other whites were permanently expelled from New York City. Critics from New England accused the New Yorkers of imagining the plot and did not hesitate to point out similarities between the events of April 1741 and the Salem, Massachusetts witch trials of 1692. In fact, the nature of the confessions closely resembled the confessions at Salem. During their interrogation, slaves were beaten, harassed and heckled by whites. These tactics probably contributed to the confession of eighty-one blacks.
After the confessions, executions and deportations, the New York Assembly expanded its night watch, passed a restriction on slaves fetching water at any but the nearest pump and took other measures to restrict the movement of blacks. During the court cases, the prosecution kept changing the grounds of accusation, ending with linking the insurrection to a Popish plot of Spanish and other Catholics.
Five men known as the “Spanish Negroes” were among those arrested. These dark-skinned Spanish sailors, who had been sold into slavery by a privateer, contended they were full Spanish citizens and unfairly enslaved. At that time, Britain was at war with Spain and these particular black men raised official suspicions about anyone with Spanish and Catholic ties. In this regard, five Spanish blacks were convicted and hanged.
This is a part of a series about 18th and 19th century racial and ethnic riots in the city of New York. The terms Negro and Black are used here in their historical context.series about 18th and 19th century racial and ethnic riots in the city of New York
Illustration: Slave about to be burned at the stake by British authorities after 1741 Slave Revolt in New York City, artist unknown.