New York City Slave Revolt of 1712
On April 6, 1712, twenty-seven African slaves set fire to an outbuilding located along Maiden Lane. The fire quickly spread throughout downtown Manhattan and when locals arrived to put out the fire, the slaves attacked them with muskets, hatchets, and swords. At least nine white citizens were shot, stabbed, or beaten to death and six were wounded. Local militia units from lower New York and Westchester, accompanied by soldiers from a nearby fort, set out in search of the culprits.
Backstory and Context
A variety of conditions combined in Manhattan to set the stage for the revolt. Years of trade with the West Indies resulted in a large population of African slaves who resided within the city. Almost one out of five people in New York were slaves. Unlike southern slaves who worked on plantations and farms, the slaves in New York City were skilled workers, carpenters, stone masons, fishermen, and boat builders. Most of the city's enslaved and free individuals were concentrated in the southern tip of Manhattan. This close proximity provided a simple way for the slaves to communicate and plan their revolt. Unfortunately, there are no names attached to the armed rebellion, and no one knows what caused this act of violence to erupt on the night of April 6, 1712.
Twenty-seven slaves were captured and jailed. Forty-three participants were tried. Eighteen slaves were acquitted, and twenty five slaves were convicted. Six of those individuals committed suicide. Twenty were hanged, and three were burned alive at the stake. This armed rebellion led to the institution of a tougher slave code and stricter laws to limit what free blacks and slaves were permitted to do.
After the New York City Slave Revolt of 1712, a series of laws were enacted over the next thirty years which restricted the activity of slaves in the city. The New York State Assembly passed an "Act for the suppression and punishment for the conspiracy and insurrection of Negroes and other Slaves." This law allowed masters to freely punish their slaves in any manner they chose, with or without reason. They were, however, restricted from amputating limbs or murdering a slave. One law prohibited slaves from gathering in groups of three or more to prevent another slave revolt. Another called for twenty lashes to any slave caught possessing a firearm. Slaves, who were convicted of rape or conspiracy to kill, were executed, and those found gambling were publicly whipped. Free blacks were no longer allowed to own land.
The laws also discouraged people from granting their slaves freedom. When the masters wanted to set their slaves free, they had to pay the government two hundred dollars to the government and twenty dollars annually to the slave. This price was much higher than the purchase of a slave. Despite the passage and enforcement of such restrictive laws, rumors of conspiracy and intrigue engulfed the city again twenty-nine years later. In 1741, a group of slaves and poor whites would again be accused of setting the city ablaze.
For additional information see "New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan" by Jill Lepore.
"New York Slave Laws of the Colonial Period." New York Slave Laws of the Colonial Period. Accessed March 09, 2017. http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/negroplot/slavelaws.html.