Enslaved Merchants, Enslaved Merchant-Mariners, and the Bermuda Conspiracy of 1761

By Maxwell, Clarence | Early American Studies, April 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Enslaved Merchants, Enslaved Merchant-Mariners, and the Bermuda Conspiracy of 1761


Maxwell, Clarence, Early American Studies


Men themselves make history but in the given environment that conditions them.

Friedrich Engels, quoted by Jean-Paul Sartre in Search for a Method

INTRODUCTION

Early in the evening of October 12, 1761, at the island's eastern parish of Smith's, a resident, John Vickers Jr., was walking by the home of another Smith's resident. It was then that he allegedly overheard some 'Negroes'1 talking about an impending insurrection.2 Vickers promptly reported this incident to the parochial justice of the peace, and he was subsequently asked to appear at the next Governor's Council meeting, on October 15. This he did, but armed with a deposition.

According to the deposition, Vickers never reported much of what he actually saw: though he declared that as he passed near the Richard Taylor residence, he "saw several Negroe Men, and as best remembers to the number of about six or eight," what follows consists of what he heard. Vickers thus heard "one of the said Negro men, and so he believes was a Negro Man late the property of Mr. Thomas Cox, and commonly called Natt," declare that he possessed a cow, and that "no white Body should have any of it." He was said to have uttered an imprecation against all whites,' declaring that he "hoped to have a frolick with it": "that would be his part and his wife's [in it]," he is recorded to have concluded. Part in a revolt was clearly implied.3

Then Vickers heard another voice from the group threaten the first "white Body" that took anything from him: "[They] should kill him or he would kill them." Indeed, declared another voice out of the night, "there would be a very great Victory gained hear soon, or if not, one half or two thirds of the Negroes will be hanged in Bermuda."4 Vickers also recalled that on the morning of the very same day a 'Negro man' named Peter, a pilot owned by another Smith's resident, Margaret Spencer, declared that "if any White Body shou'd take any cloths from him he would know the reason of it and be avenged."5 Margaret was the wife of a recently deceased Smith's inhabitant, Captain Nicholas Spencer. It did not seem, following the deposition, that Peter was among the group John Vickers had heard that Monday night; but the passive "be avenged" was clearly interpreted as suggesting involvement in a potential insurrection.6 Finally, Vickers identified, as part of the group meeting that evening, George, a 'Negro man' owned by a fellow Smith's Tribe7 resident, John Spencer.8

Vickers was apparently not alone the night he heard these men talking boldly among themselves. Although he was leaving the house of his mother, Mary, and going to where he was living (the house of his father-in-law), he was accompanied by Mary's slave, a 'Negro woman' named Frank. Vickers invoked her name as a support for his declaration in the deposition.9

It had not been since the second half of the seventeenth century that a massive servile conspiracy held the attention of Bermuda's colonial and metropolitan leaders. Indeed, in the eighteenth century, only the poison plots, one especially attributed largely to an aged bondwoman named Sarah Bassett, produced the type of unease associated with the Conspiracy of 1761. But toward the end of the French and Indian Wars (1754-63), Bermuda's colonial elite confronted what Cyril Packwood has characterized as the "last really big conspiracy, planned by Blacks, during slavery."10

Though we can accept that there was indeed a Bermuda Conspiracy of 1761, undertaken by some disaffected bondpeople, questions as to its nature, causality, and context need to be addressed. Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, in their work The Many-Headed Hydra, locate this revolt as one of many that developed within the Atlantic world between 1741 and the American Revolution. For them, the causality of these revolts can be found in a peculiarly Atlantic world product - the "motley crew," a conglomeration of disaffected byproducts of post-Cromwellian commercial and naval reorganization. …

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