On the morning of February n, 1731, Mayor Robert Lurting and two dozen other municipal officials gathered at City Hall to prepare for a ritual that none had ever taken part in before. At precisely ten o’clock, no doubt after some last-minute fussing with wigs and robes, they proceeded “in their formalities” down to Fort George and were escorted into the presence of Governor John Montgomerie. Montgomerie greeted them with a little speech, then handed Lurting “his Majestys Royal and most Gracious Charter to the Mayor Aldermen and Commonality of this City.” The New Yorkers, who had already paid Montgomerie an £840 cash bribe to get them the charter, praised the governor for his “Just Good and wise Administration.” After a round of drinks and toasts, they returned to City Hall.
Twice before, from Governor Nicolls in 1665 and from Governor Dongan in 1686, New York City had received municipal charters. Neither grant bore the royal seal, though, and doubts had arisen over the years as to their validity. In 1729, after repeated appeals to have its status clarified, the Common Council petitioned the crown for a new charter ratifying the city’s “ancient Rights and Priviledges.” The delivery of the “Montgomerie Charter” a year later was a happy occasion—all the more so because in the charter His Majesty praised New York for having “become a considerable seaport and exceedingly necessary and useful to our kingdom of Great Britain in supplying our governments in the West Indies with bread, flour, and other provisions.”
“A FREE CITY OF ITSELF”
The Montgomerie Charter established, or confirmed the existence of, a corporation—“one body corporate and politic”—bearing the name of “the Mayor, Alderman, and Commonality of the City of New York.” The charter also gave the corporation an “estate” consisting of the City Hall as well as all municipal market buildings, docks, wharves, cranes, and bridges; the “waste and common land” of Manhattan; the land surrounding Manhattan out to the low-water mark, plus an additional four hundred feet around the southern end of the island; the waterfront of “Nassaw Island” (Long Island) “from the east side of the place called Wallabout to the west side of Red Hook”; and the exclusive right to operate ferries between Manhattan and Long Island. Like other individual property owners, the corporation could increase, improve, sell, lease, or otherwise dispose of this estate as it saw fit. It could sue and be sued.
The Lyne-Bradford Plan of 1730/1731, drawn by surveyor James Lyne and printed by William Bradford. The first map of New York to be printed in the city itself, and probably intended to accompany the Montgomerie Charter, it shows that the built-up area of town now extended almost up to what is now Fulton Street. Wall Street remains the municipal axis, running east from the “English Church” (Trinity), past the new City Hall and the Meal Market, to the Coffee House on the corner of Water Street. The East Ward, lying east of William Street between Hanover Square and John Street, has begun to replace the Dock Ward as the city’s commercial center of gravity. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)
Like other property owners, too, the corporation was accorded powers of selfdetermination commensurate with the size and nature of its estate. In the words of the charter, it was a “free city of itself.” It could lay streets, regulate markets, license trades, and charge fees. It could make laws and promulgate ordinances not only for “the good rule and government of the body corporate” but for the “common profit, trade, and better government” of all the city’s inhabitants. To enforce such laws and ordinances it could set up courts, erect jails, collect fines, confiscate goods and chattels, and administer punishments “not extending to the loss of life or limb.”
The “free city of itself” was not perfectly autonomous. It had to abide by English and provincial law. It could not tax its inhabitants (that was a power reserved for the provincial legislature and perhaps, depending on one’s point of view, Parliament). What was more, the corporation’s top officials—the mayor, sheriff, coroner, and recorder—continued to be appointed by the colonial governor. When petitioning for a new charter the Common Council had pleaded for an elective mayor; the crown’s refusal was a clear signal that the corporation must answer to interests over and above those of its members.
Likewise the charter’s distinction between “freemen” and “freeholders.” “Freemen” were residents enrolled as voting members of the corporation after swearing an oath of loyalty and paying a modest fee—initially £3 12s. for a “Merchant, Trader or Shopkeeper,” £i 4s. for a “Handy-craft Tradesman,” and mere pennies for native-born residents of the city or those who had completed an apprenticeship there (the exact amounts varied over time). Counting white women and slaves of both sexes over the age of twenty-one, about one-third of the city’s adult population qualified for the freemanship. “Freeholders” (a term not used in either the Nicolls or Dongan grant) were defined by existing provincial statute as persons owning real property worth forty pounds in the ward where they voted. They needn’t be residents of the ward, or even residents of the city, and were permitted to vote in every ward where they met the property qualification. Here too the charter gave outsiders a voice in the corporation’s governance; to wealthy outsiders it offered the prospect of more than one.
Freemanship conferred genuine benefits. As under the old burgher-right, only freemen could practice an “art, trade, mystery, or occupation” or sell “any manner of goods, wares, merchandises, or commodities by retail.. . within the said city.” Every Michaelmas (September 29), they assembled ward by ward to elect their aldermen, assessors, collectors, and constables for the year to follow. Though bona fide headcounts are very rare, throughout the first half of the eighteenth century, probably three or four of every five adult white males in the city had the right, as freemen of the corporation, to determine by whom they would be governed. This made the freemen of New York one of the most inclusive political communities in British America.
Some freemen were affluent merchants, lawyers, landowners, and “gentlemen.” The majority consisted of carpenters, bakers, bricklayers, butchers, cordwainers, cartmen, mariners, tavern keepers, weavers, tanners, laborers, and other working people of moderate means, or less. (Between 1700 and 1745 better than two thousand individuals representing ninety-one trades would be admitted to freemanship; after mid-century half the new admissions were laborers.) Rich or poor, all freemen were created equal under the charter, and the charter held them all equally responsible for the management of the corporation’s business. “Ye Shall be Contributing to all Manner of Charges within this City,” ran the oath to which they were required to swear, “as summons, Watches, Contributions, Taxes, Tallages, Lot and Scot, and all other Charges, bearing your Part as a Freeman Ought to do.”
Freemen did not, however, enjoy access to the corporation’s real estate. In many villages of England and New England, the “commons” were available to all members of the community for hunting, cutting hay and firewood, pasturing livestock, and the like. Not so in New York, where the Montgomerie Charter gave the corporation absolute ownership of its estate, unencumbered by old-fashioned “use-rights.” The Common Council would in fact spend considerable time prosecuting trespassers, encroachers, poachers, and others who allegedly threatened the value of its holdings.
Suffusing the charter was the idea of a collective civic good that transcended the private interests of individual freemen. The most direct and tangible expression of this belief was a welter of regulations (some dating back to the Dutch era) that protected all freemen from the destructive effects of economic competition, dishonest practices, and shoddy workmanship. Periodic “assizes” fixed the weight, quality, composition, and price of every essential commodity offered for public sale in the city. Other regulations prevented “forestalling,” the practice by which sellers bought up and withheld goods from the market in the hope of boosting prices. Wages too were typically set by statute, and there was close supervision of trades deemed vital to the public interest—carters, butchers, bakers, tavern keepers, gravediggers, porters, chimney sweeps, river pilots, midwives, and assorted municipal functionaries (gaugers, packers, watchmen, weighmasters, and so on).
Yet the welfare of the corporation as a whole was an ideal that could mean different things to different people. Building and repairing docks, for instance, were improvements to the municipal infrastructure that arguably benefited everybody. But how should the work be done? Municipal authorities favored a policy of selling the “water lots” that lay between high- and low-water marks along the East River. Purchasers were required to fill in the lots and construct buildings, wharves, bulkheads, and streets—which looked like a reasonable way to raise revenue while developing the port. It was also, however, a device for moving some prime urban real estate into the hands of wealthy speculators and developers. So, too, when municipal authorities refused to let the cartmen raise their rates, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that the livelihoods of working people were secondary to the interests of merchants.
DEFERENCE OR INDIFFERENCE?
Merchants and the propertied classes usually got their way, moreover, for freemen of modest means—the “middling” classes who comprised perhaps 60 percent of the city’s white population—generally failed to sustain an organized presence in either municipal or provincial politics. From time to time, small merchants, shopkeepers, and master craftsmen occupied as many as half the seats on the Common Council, while others served regularly as constables, assessors, market inspectors, and the like. Yet for several decades, elections grew duller by the year, polling was generally slow, and incumbents were almost always returned to office without opposition.
For rich and influential New Yorkers, the kind who dominated the Assembly and Common Council, this was exactly as it should be. To their way of thinking, a politically engaged “commonality” meant instability and upheaval because men of little or no property, even freemen of the corporation, lacked the judgment and self-discipline needed for participation in public affairs. And because they depended on others for trade, patronage, and employment, such men (like women and children) could never be trusted to think or act independently: when they entered the political arena it was certain to be as mere tools of someone else. A stable, effective system of government was thus one in which the mass of citizens deferred to the leadership of their social superiors—just as they now appeared to be doing in New York.
But there were other reasons for the torpor of public life in the city. For one, except for the annual Common Council elections, the freemen had few venues for sustained political activity. All the important citywide offices were appointive, besides which Assembly elections occurred only at the discretion of the governor or on the death of the monarch (not until 1743 was legislation adopted that mandated elections at least once every seven years). All told, in the eighty-four years between 1691 and 1775 New Yorkers voted for assemblyman on only thirty-one occasions.
For another, the law required viva voce or “voice” voting in both charter and provincial elections, meaning that every voter declared his preference, openly, before election officials, candidates, and neighbors. While the chilling effect of this procedure cannot be discounted, freemen were not altogether vulnerable to the blandishments of powerful men. Master craftsmen owned their own shops and tools, determined for themselves how often and how hard they would work, and took a fierce pride in the “mysteries” and traditions of their trades; journeymen weren’t employees but prospective equals sharing similar assumptions and expectations.
New York’s political quiescence in the early eighteenth century thus had less to do with deference, as such, than with a combination of institutional constraints and popular indifference to the issues that tended to dominate public affairs. Governors fought with the Assembly for control over the public purse. Landed and mercantile interests jockeyed for advantage. But what did any of that matter to ordinary freemen of the municipal corporation? When they needed to sit up and take notice, they would—and did.
THE MASTER’S VOICE
And what of all those residents, roughly two out of every three adults, excluded from the corporate community by reason of gender, race, or poverty? How did the freemen expect to secure their compliance with municipal rules and regulations?
The maintenance of law and order depended—by day—on the constables of each ward (one of whom seems to have been designated high constable). From nine o’clock at night to daybreak the following morning the night watch took over—“four good And honest Inhabitants householders,” as the Common Council described them in 1698, who were paid to “go round the Citty Each Hour in the Night with a Bell and there to proclaime the season of the weather and the Hour of the Night and if they Meet in their Rounds Any people disturbing the peace or lurking about Any persons house or committing any theft they take the most prudent way they Can to Secure the said persons.” Attempts were made from time to time to improve on the system, now by adding more men, now by paying the men for their efforts. The thinness of municipal police power was unmistakable, however, and it was never regarded as the city’s main line of defense against the multitudes who lived beyond the pale of membership in the corporation. (The county sheriff and city marshal, as agents of the county and mayor’s courts respectively, had no responsibility for routine police work in the city.)
It was no accident that the Common Council wanted “Inhabitants householders” for the night watch. The typical workplace in eighteenth-century New York was part of a private house, or something in close proximity to a private house. Merchants, lawyers, and physicians saw clients and patients in their parlors. Importers and exporters kept their “stores” in attics and back cellars. Retailers displayed their wares, and tavern keepers served their customers, in small ground-floor front rooms. Master craftsmen set up workshops in their own homes—on the first floor, in the basement, in backhouses, or in yards—while their apprentices, slaves, and indentured servants, if any, slept in garrets or nearby outbuildings. Even sugar refineries, shipyards, ropewalks, and tanneries—trades that required heavy, bulky equipment as well as ample space—were located as close as possible to the residences of their owners.
In this domestic mode of production, the heads of households were managers of labor as well as parents. More exactly, their “families” included one or more dependents to whom they weren’t biologically related but over whom they exercised, by law as well as custom, paternal authority (“paternal” more than “parental” because after 1700 only one New York household in six was headed by a woman, typically a widow).
Other than the small handful of constables and the night watch, the freeman-pater-familias, master of his household, was the primary bulwark of public order, because throughout the eighteenth century the freemen’s apprentices ranked among the most troublesome elements of the city’s population. Mostly they were young men between the ages of ten and twenty-one (though William Reade was apprenticed to a tailor in 1701 at the age of five) or girls bound out to learn housewifery, cooking, and sewing. Most were British in origin (because the Dutch rarely made use of formal apprenticeship agreements). Their rights and responsibilities derived from the Elizabethan Statute of Artificers (1562), which was the explicit basis of regulations relating to apprenticeship in New York after 1695. Apprentices swore to serve their masters well and faithfully for a specified period of time (a 1711 ordinance required a minimum of seven years). In return, their masters promised to teach them a trade, to give them adequate room and board, and, at the end of their terms, to release them with whatever clothing, tools, or “freedom money” was required by their written deed, or indenture. Nearly all indentures, moreover, offered to provide some education. In 1693 Frances Champion was apprenticed as a house servant to Elizabeth Farmer, who agreed to “Instruct the said Frances to Reade and to teach and Instruct her in Spining, Sewing, Knitting or any other manner of housewifery.” Night schools for apprentices became popular after 1700, and indentures often included arrangements for them to attend after work.
As surrogate parents, masters also had full authority to discipline their apprentices by any means not causing death or permanent physical injury. In theory, the good behavior of apprentices was ensured by the promise of admission to a trade and automatic membership in the corporation when their terms were over. But apprentices were frequently too young, too homesick, too restless, or (as a printer’s apprentice named Benjamin Franklin said of himself) “too saucy and provoking” to heed their masters. Often they refused to work or worked indifferently. Some returned to their parents or signed up with other masters, actions that could embroil everyone in long and acrimonious litigation. So many simply took to their heels, never to be seen or heard from again, that the runaway apprentice would become a stock figure of the eighteenth-century urban scene. Nor did masters invariably live up to their part of the bargain. Abusive or negligent masters weren’t hard to find, and ill-clad, ill-fed, and ill-treated apprentices were an all too common sight on city streets.
Repeatedly, the Common Council tried to bolster the authority of masters with ordinances that prohibited apprentices from loitering, gambling, bartering or selling goods, fighting, swearing, drinking in taverns after eight or nine o’clock at night, and other offenses against the peace of the city (especially on the traditional popular holidays: in 1719 the Court of General Sessions complained of the “Disorders and Other Mischiefs that Commonly happen within this City on Shrove Tuesday by Great Numbers of Youths Apprentices and Slaves that Assemble together in throwing at Cocks”). Apprentices who broke the law could be fined, whipped by the public whipper, or sentenced to longer terms of service, at the discretion of the magistrates.
Masters who failed to abide by their contractual obligations, especially those guilty of cruelty, were increasingly likely to be fined or to have their apprentices released. James Jamison’s indenture to Henry Brughman was voided in 1718 when the magistrates learned that Brughman had so disfigured Jamison’s face that he stood “in Danger of loosing his Eyes.” In 1728 eleven-year-old Margaret Anderson won a discharge from her apprenticeship to Benjamin Blake, a cordwainer, who was found guilty of “very often Immoderately Correcting her & not allowing her reasonable time to rest several times in the Night.”
Indentured servants presented the corporation with a somewhat different kind of dilemma. Although servants too were subject to the in locoparentis authority of masters, they were probably older than apprentices, on the whole, and doubtless included a higher percentage of women. Some already knew a trade, having gone into service for the sole purpose of obtaining passage to the colonies. They also appear to have been rather less tractable than apprentices. Masters griped constantly about disobedient servants, larcenous servants, and idle servants. Ann Sewall savagely beat Ann Parsons and kept her “in Chains and Irons for several Weeks upon bread and water only,” explaining “she didn’t know itt was the breach of any Law her said Servant having highly offended her.” Small wonder that hardly a day seemed to go by when the sheriff and constables didn’t have to contend with servants who, like apprentices and slaves, struck back or ran off. (In 1734 maidservants formed an organization and declared that “we think it reasonable we should not be beat by our Mistrisses Husband[s], they being too strong, and perhaps may do tender women Mischief.”)
Maintaining order was complicated by the town’s so-called bawdy or disorderly houses—unlicensed groggeries and gin mills catering to boisterous crowds of apprentices, servants, free women, and even slaves. The better part of them also sheltered a brisk underground traffic in stolen goods as well as aiding and abetting prostitution; many were located in the homes of widows or unmarried women unable to support themselves by other means. In 1710 Elizabeth Green spent a week in jail because she regularly permitted “sundry Negro slaves to assemble and meet together to feast and Revell in the Night time” at her house. Such an establishment, besides endangering public safety, was an ominous inversion of the social order—a world turned upside down, an underworld beyond the authority of masters, where the conventional boundaries between races and sexes were flagrantly ignored.
THE CITY AND THE POOR
Further complicating the management of servants and apprentices was the sharply unequal distribution of wealth in the city. According to the 1730 census, New York’s population stood at 8,622: 7,045 whites and 1,577 blacks. That same year, a comprehensive property assessment revealed that the richest 10 percent of the city’s taxable population, some 140 merchants and landowners, held almost half its taxable wealth. By contrast, 49 percent of white taxables held property worth ten pounds or less—a pathetically meager sum, indicating that around one-third of all whites were more or less destitute. On the assumption that virtually all blacks were no better off, nearly three-fifths of the city’s inhabitants thus lived at or near the subsistence level. (Poverty wasn’t just an urban problem. In rural Newtown, just across the East River, the pressure of population on the community’s supply of land had begun as early as the 1720s to diminish the size of holdings and multiply the numbers of those without any land at all.)
In New Amsterdam, the care of the indigent had been left to the city’s religious bodies. In New York, this approach seemed less and less satisfactory as the seventeenth century drew to a close. Not only were the numbers of poor people rising, but on both sides of the Atlantic poverty as such was increasingly regarded as an aspect of the general problem of labor discipline. In the comprehensive Settlement Act of 1662, Parliament prohibited the indigent from seeking relief outside their native parishes and drew up precise classifications of poverty to prevent the able-bodied from evading work. The New York Assembly followed Parliament’s lead in 1683 with the first colony-wide measure “for Maintaining the Poor and Preventing Vagabonds.” The law combined relief for needy residents of every community with provisions for the prompt eviction of newcomers who lacked visible means of support (to which end it also required ship captains to give the magistrates a list of all their passengers). Because each town and county had to maintain its own poor, governor Dongan remarked, “no vagrants, beggars, nor idle person” would be allowed in the colony.
The poor didn’t go away, though. In 1685, at Dongan’s urging, the Common Council ordered the aldermen of each ward to identify their “deserving poor”—established residents who had fallen on hard times through no fault of their own—and for the first time accepted the responsibility to provide “for their Reliefe out of the publique Treasury.” This decision was affirmed in the Ministry Act of 1693, which created a special tax known as the “poor rate” and made the proceeds available to five “overseers of the poor” or “churchwardens” (secular officials, despite the name). So-called outdoor relief, or outrelief, the most common form of aid, involved grants of fuel, clothing, food, and even cash. Persons unable to care for themselves could be boarded with families. In New York City, the very sick and infirm were placed in an almshouse on Broad Street, the first of a succession of private residences that the corporation rented for this purpose after 1700. Denied assistance of any kind were nonresidents and all able-bodied persons judged fit to work for a living. In 1707, moreover, the Common Council told the churchwardens to “put a Badge upon the Clths of such persons as are clothed by this city with the Mark N:Y in blew or Red Cloathh.” (Only ten years earlier Parliament had passed a similar law requiring pensioned paupers to wear the letter P.)
During Queen Anne’s War, warnings about the inadequacy of the poor rate became a standard feature of the annual churchwardens’ report. In 1713 the wardens said their resources had been exhausted by the many people in the city “who are in great want and a miserable condition and must inevitably perish unless some speedy method be taken for their support.” Next year the tax was raised to £438, three times the amount collected in 1697.
Relatively few New Yorkers received municipal assistance (one reason being that local congregations continued to give food, clothing, shelter, pensions, and medical care to their “own” poor, who therefore weren’t counted as public charges). Between 1721 and 1725 the names of only two-hundred-odd residents appear on the relief rolls—ninety-nine women, fifty-five men, fifty children—170 of them on outrelief, twenty in the almshouse, and fourteen as boarders. Nearly all the boarders and residents of the almshouse were men too old or sick to work; the bulk of those on outrelief, by contrast, were indigent widows with children.
Vagrants and beggars—the undeserving poor, men and women deemed unwilling to work by the authorities—got no pity. In 1699 Governor Bellomont proposed the construction of a workhouse to “employ the poor and also vagabonds,” but the Assembly rejected the idea. “They smiled at it because indeed there is no such thing as a beggar in this town or country,” Bellomont wrote. Just one year later, the Common Council nevertheless adopted legislation for removing the “Vagabonds & Idle Persons that are a Nuisance & Common Grievance of the Inhabitants.” (Perhaps two dozen individuals and their families were actually expelled from Manhattan in the first half of the century.) For those worthy of sterner treatment, “a Cage, Whipping post, pillory and Stocks” were erected in front of the new City Hall on Broad Street. Subsequent legislation authorized thirty-five lashes for anyone returning to town after deportation and required all citizens to report the presence of strangers to the authorities.
“A TERROR TO OTHERS”
When the Montgomerie Charter went into effect, some sixteen hundred of the city’s residents, roughly 18 percent of the total population, were black slaves. Prominent officials were beginning to wonder if the presence of so many slaves didn’t discourage white immigration, and working people had already complained on numerous occasions that the increasing employment of blacks in the trades was costing them jobs. None doubted, though, that preserving order among this large servile labor force had become one of the corporation’s most pressing challenges.
Legally, there was no longer any doubt as to the subordinate and dependent status of blacks. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the comparatively broad rights enjoyed by slaves under Dutch rule—to hold property, to carry a weapon, to serve in the militia, to sue in court, to obtain half-freedom—had all been whittled down or stripped away. New York’s first comprehensive slave code, adopted in 1702, underscored the association of slavery with black skin by banning the enslavement of Indians and defining indentured servitude as a condition for whites only. It granted masters nearly unlimited powers of correction, set up special tribunals to try slaves accused of crimes, and authorized a Common Whipper for the city. Subsequent enactments by either the legislature or Common Council confirmed that slavery was heritable through the female line, prohibited more than three slaves gathering together at a time (twelve for funerals), restricted the movement of slaves after nightfall, banned slaves from selling food or other goods in the streets (a practice known as “huckstering”), and eliminated conversion to Christianity as grounds for manumission. Innkeepers couldn’t sell liquor to slaves, and severe penalties were decreed for whites who helped slaves break the law or failed to take appropriate action when they did. In 1738 Elizabeth Martin was “Reputed a Common Whore as with Negro Slaves as to others and a great Disturber of the Peace.” Declared a “very Low Notorious Wicked Woman,” she was ordered out of city. When she refused to go, she received thirty-one lashes and was chased out.
It proved next to impossible to enforce such laws. Slaves moved about the city almost at will in the course of their work and were often unsupervised by their masters for extended periods of time, even at night. Despite the profusion of statutes, therefore, municipal authorities were inundated year after year with demands to stop slaves from illegally congregating, brawling, breaking curfew, playing in the streets on Sundays, and drinking at “bawdy houses” whose white proprietors were suspected of keeping prostitutes and fencing stolen goods. Their brazen defiance of whites was notorious. In 1696 Mayor William Merritt ordered a group of noisy slaves to disperse and got punched in the face; half a dozen years later Governor Cornbury expressed alarm at the “great insolency” of slaves in the city. Everybody complained about runaways, especially as it became known that fugitives could find refuge with the Seneca, Onondaga, and other Indian tribes to the north, or the Montauks, Shinnecocks, Massapequas, and others of eastern Long Island.
New-York Gazette; or, the Weekly Post-Boy, October 27, 1768. Notices such as this, common in colonial newspapers, typically provided as much detail as possible about the fugitives and their destinations. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)
A mere hint of restiveness among black New Yorkers could throw whites into a near panic. And not without justification. New York slaveowners knew full well that the price of slavery in the West Indies had been a long ordeal of racial violence and bloodshed. Between the 1670s and the 1730s half a dozen major slave insurrections and numerous small revolts took place on Barbados and Antigua alone; on Jamaica, armed bands of escaped slaves known as Maroons kept the authorities at bay for decades. New Yorkers knew, too, that slaves convicted of serious crimes in the West Indies—even arson and murder—were frequently sold to unsuspecting buyers on the mainland. Beginning in 1702 the Assembly tried to deter nonresident merchants from dumping these “refuse Negroes” on the colony by permitting local merchants to pay much lower tariffs on slaves imported directly from Africa. How many veteran insurrectionaries had ended up in New York? No one knew for sure. Everyone feared, however, that a mere handful could do terrible damage to the city and neighboring communities.
Could it happen in New York? A gang of runaway slaves allegedly robbed and terrorized Dutch farmers in Harlem in 1690. In 1706 Governor Cornbury learned that “several N’s in Kings County (Brooklyn) have assembled themselves in a riotous manner, which if not prevented may prove of ill consequence.” To make certain the turmoil didn’t spread, he ordered the arrest of “all such Negroes as shall be found to be assembled—& if any of them refuse to submit, then fire upon them, kill or destroy them, if they cannot otherwise be taken.”
Two years later, Queens County was thrown into an uproar by the slaying of William Hallett Jr., a prominent landowner and self-styled “gentleman” whose plantation bordered Hallett’s Cove in present-day Astoria. Hallett, it seems, had tried to stop his slaves “from going abroad on the Sabbath days.” In retaliation, an Indian slave named Sam and his African wife murdered Hallett, Hallett’s wife, and their five children. The culprits were quickly seized, convicted, and executed on the plains east of Jamaica. Sam was impaled and hung in chains. His wife was burned alive. Two other black men were executed as accessories. A witness reported the four “were put to all the torment possible for a terror to others.”
The city got its first taste of servile rebellion in 1712—less than a year after the municipal slave market opened for business. One night in early April, two dozen slaves who, Governor Hunter reported, “had resolved to revenge themselves, for some hard usage, they apprehended to have received from their masters,” gathered in an orchard of Mr. Crook, “in the middle of the town.” According to John Sharpe, the Anglican chaplain, the majority were unchristianized Kormantines and Pawpaws from the Akan-Asante society of the Gold Coast—probably imported within the previous year or two (so much for the assumption that newcomers from Africa were more docile). They had pledged themselves to secrecy “by Sucking ye blood of each Others hands” and attempted to make themselves invulnerable by rubbing their clothes with a powder supplied by one Peter the Doctor, “a free negroe who pretends Sorcery.” Arming themselves from a secret cache of stolen muskets, swords, knives, and hatchets, the conspirators set fire to a nearby building and ambushed residents who rushed to put out the flames. Nine whites were shot or slashed to death before Governor Hunter raised the garrison and marched against them, but the rebels “made their retreat into the woods, by the favour of the night.” The next day, Hunter sealed off “the most proper places on the Island to prevent their escape,” then dispatched militia to “drive the island.” Hunted down, six of the conspirators cut their own throats (one man killing his wife and himself) rather than be captured. Seventy others were arrested and brought back for trial before a special court convened by the governor. Twenty-three were convicted of murder, two others of attempted murder. Twenty were hanged outright. Three were burned to death—among them Tom, a bondsman of Nicholas Roosevelt, who was condemned to roast over a slow fire “in Torment for Eight or ten hours & Continue burning in the said fire untill he be dead and Consumed to Ashes.” Another, named Robin, was sentenced “to be hung up in chains alive and so to continue without any sustainance untill he be dead.” Still another, named Clause, was “broke alive upon a wheel.” Spread-eagled and fastened face upward on a wheel, he was laid flat on the ground in front of City Hall. A Dutch sailor (who said he’d seen the thing done in Rotterdam and knew how to go about it) then took a crowbar and over a period of many hours smashed the bones in Clause’s body, one by one, stopping now and again for refreshment at Jan Peterson’s Broad Street tavern. Clause finally expired at two o’clock the next morning, having suffered, as had the others, what Hunter assured the Lords of Trade were “the most exemplary punishments that could be possibly thought of.”
In the wake of the trials the Common Council ordered that no slave could travel about the city after dark without a lantern. (Elias Neau, the SPG catechist, was widely blamed for sowing discontent among the city’s slaves; the new lantern law was in part an attempt to cut attendance at his school, which held classes only at night.) The Assembly drafted a tough new slave code. Among other things, the law made manumission almost prohibitively expensive for masters and stipulated that no freed slave could henceforth own a house or land in the colony. But this merely codified the status quo. By the early eighteenth century very few free blacks remained on Manhattan; most of them lived on the fringes of the city on land granted them or their forebears by the Dutch West India Company.
The real legacy of the 1712 uprising was a new era of routinized brutality and official cynicism toward slaves. Crowds of townsfolk often gathered now to watch slaves hanged or burned to death for one offense or another. A slave girl named Rose was arrested “foar Damning the White Peoples Throats and Yours too (Speaking to a White Woman) and divers other Vile Expressions against the White People”; the magistrates gave her nine lashes at the whipping post, had her tied to a cart and dragged around town, gave her thirty-nine more lashes for good measure “on the Naked Back,” and then transported her to another colony. And when John van Zandt horsewhipped his slave to death in 1735 for being on the streets at night, an all-white coroner’s jury found that the “Correction given by the Master was not the Cause of his Death, but that it was by the Visitation of God.”