The Great New York Conspiracy of 1741: Slave Rebellion
Why are historians still debating an event that happened in 1741? What do rumors, trials, conspiracies, and fears reveal about a shifting public consciousness amongst 18th century New Yorkers? Why is The Conspiracy of 1741 particularly resonant in 2019?
Enslaved African-Americans in New York City first rebelled for their freedom in 1712, setting fires to buildings and killing 9 whites before the rebellion was violently crushed. The whites in New York City feared a second rebellion and placed severe restrictions on the enslaved population. On March 18, 1741 an enslaved man named Quaco set fire to Fort George. The Fort was a political and military center of the northeast, and the damage was significant. Over the course of the next 3 weeks–at the end of a particularly cold winter– 10 fires were to other buildings in Manhattan leading to outbreak of paranoia that targeted the city’s African-American population. Arson was an accessible tool for revolt and greatly feared since many of the New York’s structures were built on wood frames.
More than two hundred enslaved Africans, and a few white people accused of co-conspiring, were thrown into a makeshift jail in the basement of City Hall. A Grand Jury concluded that arsonists carried out this attack as part of a city-wide rebellion of enslaved persons. It was speculated that they’d been trying to overthrow the city and win their freedom.
The prosecution’s argument during the proceedings rested almost entirely on the testimony of Mary Burton, a 16-year-old Irish indentured servant, who was offered significant compensation for her cooperation. It was recorded that Burton would only “remember” details of the fires when she was pressed hard enough.
That summer, 17 Africans-Americans were hanged, 13 were burned at the stake, and 2 were chained to posts at Foley Square, near the African Burial Ground. 70 were sold into the even more backbreaking slavery of the Caribbean. 4 white people were hanged. Because of the frequent public burnings, the executions came to known as “The Bonfire of the Negroes.”
News of this scandal rang throughout the northeast, where it was met with criticism and controversy. There was little evidence supporting the alleged elaborate plot, and journalists liked the Conspiracy proceedings to the Salem Witch Trials, which happened 50 years prior.
But more damage was done in New York in 1741 than in the witch trials. The two hundred people held in jail were likely physically and psychologically manipulated into naming other conspirators and providing false confessions, which 81 of them did. Tight restrictions placed on New York slaves made their movement very limited, often only to the home in which they worked and the nearby well for water supply.
The City passed restrictions limiting the rights of enslaved people in New York even further. The Night Watch system in New York expanded after the Conspiracy of 1741. No enslaved person could lawfully be outside after sundown without holding a lantern up to their face to identify themselves. If a slave broke this law, they were arrested, jailed, and subject to 39 lashes. These increased punishments incentivized slave holders to enforce stricter policies in their homes, for if their slave was arrested, they would be responsible for paying the court fees and the cost of the public whipper.
New laws also made it more difficult for slaveholders to manumit their slaves. After 1741, a slaveholder would have to pay the city more than 5 times what they initially paid for their slave in order to offer manumission. As policies tightened, the odds continued stacking against the establishment of a free black community in New York.
How can one group’s fear change laws and shape infrastructure? What story is most commonly told about the Conspiracy of 1741, and whose perspective is privileged in those accounts? What is the danger is not knowing the full story?
Take our Slavery and The Underground Railroad walking tour to visit sites related to the rebellion and learn more about what happened there.