"Only Draw in Your Countrymen": Akan Culture and Community in Colonial New York City

Article excerpt

Shortly after noon on March 18, 1741, fire alarms sounded at Fort George--headquarters of British royal government in New York. Beginning on the roof of the governor's residence, flames quickly spread to nearby buildings. The combination of high winds and wooden buildings perhaps explains the destructive power of the fire. Within two hours, the governor's house, the King's Chapel, the provisional secretary's office, and the troop barracks all collapsed into smoldering heaps. Whipped by high winds, the blaze moved northward towards Stone Street and lower Broadway. Given the fact that, at the time, New York City was a compact urban strip roughly one mile long and one-half mile wide, the fire threatened to wreak havoc on much of the settled portion of Manhattan Island. Only a concerted effort on the part of citizen volunteers and a timely rainfall saved the city from further destruction. (2)

This would not be the last threat the residents of New York City faced over the next few months. No less than ten fires between March and April 1741 consumed both private homes and public buildings throughout the city. Perhaps because authorities were in the midst of investigating a criminal theft ring involving black criminal associations and their white accomplices who fenced stolen goods, attention almost immediately turned to the possibility of an elaborate slave conspiracy. Two specific events confirmed New York City authorities in their fears of an arson plot hatched by enslaved Africans and African Americans. The first took place on Sunday, April 5, when Abigail Earle overheard a conversation between three enslaved men walking up Broadway towards Trinity Church. One of the men named Quaco Walter, allegedly stated to the other two "Fire! fire! Scorch! scorch! A little damn it by and by!" (3)

The day after Earle reportedly heard these ominous words, four separate fires erupted throughout the city. While Quaco's alleged statement was ambiguous, it alarmed Earle enough to report the incident to a city alderman within a few hours. When called before court officials on April 6, Quaco admitted to making the statement but denied any involvement in a plot to bum the city. Giving what the judges considered a "cunning excuse," he claimed that he and his companions were talking about a recent British naval victory over the Spanish near Jamaica. Quaco even brought his two companions to court to attest to this interpretation. Despite this attempt, the court interpreted his words to mean "that the fires which we had already seen, were nothing to what we should have by-and-by for that then we should hall all the city in flames, and he would rejoice at it." The fact that seven fires erupted in a three day span in early April 1741 made Quaco's words even more alarming and influenced Lieutenant Governor George Clark's decision to order a full military watch. (4)

The second event casting a cloud of suspicion over the enslaved population of the city involved Cuffee Philipse--one of three leaders of an infamous black criminal association called the Geneva Club. Seen acting in a curious manner during a fire which threatened to destroy a building owned by his master, Cuffee soon became the center of a citywide investigation. On April 6, local residents saw smoke bellowing from Colonel Adolph Philipse's storehouse at about four o'clock. Though a group of townsfolk extinguished the flames, one man on the scene--Jacobus Stoudenburgh--witnessed Cuffee leap from the window of the building shortly after those who helped put out the fire left to attend to another blaze several blocks away. Because the slave left the scene with "great haste" and "very good speed," Stoudenburgh cried out "a negro; a negro. ... that the negroes were rising," after his failed attempt to capture Cuffee. Once the identity of the slave was known, the cry changed to "Cuff Philipse, Cuff Philipse" and a crowd of whites dragged the suspect from Philipse's house to a nearby jail. …