Dangerous Economies: Status and Commerce in Imperial New York

Dangerous Economies: Status and Commerce in Imperial New York

Dangerous Economies: Status and Commerce in Imperial New York

Dangerous Economies: Status and Commerce in Imperial New York


Before the American Revolution, the people who lived in British North America were not just colonists; they were also imperial subjects. To think of eighteenth-century New Yorkers as Britons rather than incipient Americans allows us fresh investigations into their world. How was the British Empire experienced by those who lived at its margins? How did the mundane affairs of ordinary New Yorkers affect the culture at the center of an enormous commercial empire?

Dangerous Economies is a history of New York culture and commerce in the first two thirds of the eighteenth century, when Britain was just beginning to catch up with its imperial rivals, France and Spain. In that sparsely populated city on the fringe of an empire, enslaved Africans rubbed elbows with white indentured servants while the elite strove to maintain ties with European genteel culture. The transience of the city's people, goods, and fortunes created a notably fluid society in which establishing one's own status or verifying another's was a challenge. New York's shifting imperial identity created new avenues for success but also made success harder to define and demonstrate socially.

Such a mobile urban milieu was the ideal breeding ground for crime and conspiracy, which became all too evident in 1741, when thirty slaves were executed and more than seventy other people were deported after being found guilty--on dubious evidence--of plotting a revolt. This sort of violent outburst was the unforeseen but unsurprising result of the seething culture that existed at the margins of the British Empire.


First, a picture. Looking north into Manhattan from the East River, one sees a panorama of boats: dinghies, sloops, and three-masted schooners. The mass of ships, many with sails billowing, nearly obscures the modest collection of buildings in the background. A more careful inspection of the ships reveals that each one is flying an outsize Union Jack. Upon even closer inspection, one sees tiny figures on the dock in the foreground. Individuals on the Manhattan shore are too distant to distinguish. Hidden from view behind the big sugar warehouses are other landmarks of the city. A telescope might allow us to see the city’s gallows on the northeastern shore. (See Figure 1.)

At those gallows one man jumped off the hangman’s cart “with a halter around his neck.” Another “behaved decently, prayed in Spanish, kissed a crucifix, and declared his innocence.” A woman “stood like a lifeless trunk.” Yet another man removed his wig and helped fit the noose around his own neck. Another seemed to hope that even at the scaffold he would receive a pardon. Still more terrible were the deaths of thirteen men burned at the stake. One man laid his leg onto the burning wood and then accused two others with his dying breath. In all, thirty-four people were sentenced to horrible deaths in New York City in 1741. Seventeen men and two women were publicly hanged; some of their corpses were displayed in iron cages on the shores of the East River until they decomposed and burst open. Some ninety people were banished from the colony, and many of them were exiled outside the British Empire. Nearly all of the ninety were black slaves.

These deaths make sense only within the larger picture of a city nearly veiled by British flags fluttering in the wind. The executions ended a series of events that began with the burglary of a small shop but grew to become an enormous cause célèbre, generating publicity throughout the British Empire: a conspiracy, some said, of slaves and Catholics to burn down the city of New York and hand it over to Britain’s Catholic foes. This vivid illusion of New York in flames has gripped the imaginations of all who studied the events, from contemporaries to modern-day scholars.

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