An antique map depicting Manhattan in 1712. – map.columbia.edu
by William “Doc” Halliday
In 1607, Jamestown was established by England as its first permanent colony on the North American continent. The principal crop of the colony was tobacco. Once it became clear that tobacco was going to drive the Jamestown colony economy, more labor was needed. The British nobility needed to find a labor force to work on its plantations in the Americas. The major possibilities were indentured servants from Britain, Native Americans, or West Africans.
Indentured servants were used initially as the necessary labor force. These servants provided up to seven years of service in exchange for having their trip to Jamestown paid for by someone in Jamestown. Once the seven years was over, the indentured servant was free to live in Jamestown as a regular citizen. Soon, colonists began to see indentured servants as too expensive, and in 1619, Dutch traders brought the first African slaves to Jamestown.
The Dutch West India Company introduced slavery to New Amsterdam (present day New York City) in 1625 with the importation of eleven enslaved blacks who worked as farmers, fur traders, and builders.
Three hundred and five years ago on April 6, 1712, African and Native American slaves set fire to an outhouse at the home of Peter Van Tilburgh at what was then the northern boundary of Manhattan.
During the 18th century, New York City was a major hub for the North American slave trade, with thousands of men, women and children passing through the slave market that operated in the heart of what is now the financial district. Life was wretched for the slaves brought to New York. Many of the city’s early landmarks, from City Hall to the eponymous wall of Wall Street were built using slave labor. The city even constructed an official slave market in 1711. It was a city-run slave market because they wanted to collect tax revenue on every person who was bought and sold there, and the city hired slaves to do work including building roads. By 1712, as a result of its involvement in trade with the Caribbean, New York City had a large population of enslaved Africans.
Conditions in the city were vastly different than those for enslaved Africans on large plantations or in insulated rural areas. Unlike the sprawling slave plantations of the south where slaves were often kept separate from free people, New Yorkers lived nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, even in the city’s early days. Many Africans had some freedom of movement and could meet with each other. They also lived and worked in close proximity to free and indentured Whites. Not only did that breed resentment among the city’s slaves, but it was much easier for them to communicate with each other, as slave owners often sent their slaves out into the streets to find work.
In 1712 the population of New York City was about 10,000 people, but at least 10% of the population was slaves. The uprising of 1712 was initiated by African-born slaves, who used the tenets of African-based religion to encourage other slaves to revolt, calling for a war on Christians. Three hundred and five years ago, on the night of April 6, 1712, a group of twenty-three African and four Native American slaves set fire to an outhouse at the home of Peter Van Tilburgh on Maiden Lane at what was then the northern boundary of Manhattan. When White colonists tried to extinguish the blaze the Africans attacked them. At least nine Whites were shot, stabbed, or beaten to death, and another six were wounded.
The next day the governor of New York ordered the New York and Westchester militias to “drive the island.” Twenty-one of the insurgents were captured and punished with ferocity ranging from being burned alive, to being broken by a wheel. Six of the insurgents committed suicide before they were captured.
Within months, the New York Assembly passed “an act for preventing, suppressing, and punishing the conspiracy and insurrection of Negroes and other slaves.” Masters were permitted to punish their slaves at their full discretion, “not extending to life or member.” Even the manumission of slaves in New York was deterred by this bill; masters were required to pay two hundred pounds security to the government and a twenty-pound annuity to the freed slave. Despite these stringent laws, New York would escape slave rebellion for only 29 years.
William “Doc” Halliday, historian and political commentator, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org