Hoffer, Peter Charles. the Great New York Conspiracy of 1741: Slavery, Crime and Colonial Law

Article excerpt

Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2003. Bibliography, index. Pp. vii, 190. $14.95 (paper), $29.95 (cloth).

In the early eighteenth century, slaves organized two major conspiracies in New York City. The first began in April 1712, when roughly two dozen slaves set fire to wood buildings on the city's periphery and used guns, axes and swords to attack those who tried to put out the blaze. The conspirators killed or wounded twenty whites before the militia rounded up and jailed seventy slaves. Governor Robert Hunter convened a special court, and it tried twenty-seven slaves for murder and treason. The court meted out harsh penalties to the twenty-one slaves it found guilty. Most of the city's residents turned out to watch the executioner gibbet, hang, or bum the convicted. After this spectacle of terror, colonial officials enacted a number of new laws -- a black code -- which restricted the activities of slaves and eased the fears of whites. The fires, the bloodshed, the trials, and the executions created a legal and cultural context that noted legal historian Peter Charles Hoffer uses to examine the second slave conspiracy: the New York Conspiracy of 1741.

In the early months of 1741, New York City's atmosphere was thick with suspicion and fear. In February, a group of slaves committed a series of robberies, and in March and April, a series of fires destroyed homes, barns and the city's most visible symbol of the British Empire, Fort George. On 6 April, convinced that a slave rebellion was underway, the New York Supreme Court launched an investigation. Eventually, it arrested over 160 blacks and twenty-one whites for conspiring to burn and loot the city. Before the trials ended, the justices condemned four whites and seventeen blacks to hang, thirteen blacks to burn at the stake and seventy-two blacks transported out of the colony. Some historians, most notably Michael Kammen, are convinced that colonists were overcome by "popular hysteria, Negrophobia, and anti-Catholicism" (p. 3). For Hoffer, this is not an adequate explanation. He scrutinizes the evidence the courts gathered and the laws it used to convict men and women of capital crimes. As a result, Hoffer makes a number of valuable contributions to our understanding of the conspiracy. First, he argues there is ample evidence that some attempted to burn the city and shed slavery's yoke. Second, he places the institution of slavery, the trials and the executions in the historical context of the early eighteenth century. The resulting study reminds us how the city's residents have sometimes reacted to the challenges of living in a diverse society.

Hoffer divides his examination of the conspiracy into two parts. The work's first chapters place the events of 1741 in a historical context. Much like its predecessor, the "Negro Plot" was, in part, a product of the Atlantic World's lucrative slave trade. Although barred from participating in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, city merchants found smuggling and selling slaves imported from the Caribbean produced tidy profits. The city's slave population dramatically increased from seven hundred in 1700 to over two thousand in 1740 -- when slaves made up over 20 percent of the total population. This led many to wonder if profit-seeking merchants had unwittingly sown seeds for another rebellion. After 1739, three events added to this anxiety. First, reports of armed slaves murdering whites during South Carolina's bloody Stono Rebellion reached the city. Second, news that Britain was at war with Spain (King George's War, 1739-1748) made residents uneasy and more likely to believe rumors that Catholics were planning an attack on the city. …