Atrocities and Slavery in the North

African-American Men Burned at the Stake in New York
In England, burning had been used to punish rebellious women, peasants and poor people, demonizing the most oppressed people in European society. Carol Karlsen makes the point that characteristics of the witch were projected onto black and poor white women, seen as being “seductive, sexually uncontrolled, and threatening to the social and moral order.” [Karlsen, 257]
North American colonial society carried over the cultural baggage of a worldview equating blackness with evil, and projected it upon enslaved Africans. New Jersey records show that Blacks were not considered christians: a bounty on wolves offered “ten shillings to Negroes and Indians and twice that sum to ‘Christian killers’.” [Matthiessen, Wildlife in America, Viking, 1988]
Anglo-American slaveholders imposed an intense cultural suppression on Africans, far greater than in Caribbean and South American slave states. In the English colonies, whites greatly outnumbered Blacks, who were often separated from each other. Also, Catholicism was relatively tolerant of syncretism of African deities with its saints. Protestant colonials brooked no sacred images, no dancing, and they outlawed the drums.
What many people don’t know is that burning at the stake, a European punishment for witches, heretics, and Jews, persisted amidst the institutional violence used to perpetuate chattel slavery. In 1741, thirteen African-Americans men were burned at the stake in New York City, and another seventeen hanged, on charges of planning a revolt against slavery.
In 1741, New York City burned thirteen African-American men at the stake on charges of planning a slave revolt. Seventeen more were hanged. Slaveholders sold away many others to countries ranging from Canada to Portugal to the Caribbean islands.
Some historians think that this “Great Negro Plot” was a white fiction, a frame-up designed to repress the sizeable black minority, including free people of color, living in New York. But most hold that resistance was part of the picture. African-Americans revolted against slavery in many instances, including in New York in 1712. The largest African uprising ever within British colonies, the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina, had blazed up in 1739, only two years before these burnings.
The whole thing started during a hard winter, hard economic times. White fears of slave rebellions, pumped further by depleted troop levels due to the war with Spain, had already caused officials to place severe limits on Black assembly and movement. Elite whites were nervous about association of poor whites with enslaved and free Africans, at places like John Hughson’s tavern. They arrested him for trafficking in stolen goods, along with the enslaved Caesar and Prince.
In the trial, they pressured an indentured teen, Mary Burton, to testify against them. Suspicious fires began to break out, and now the judges leaned on Burton to explain them. They got her to say that Blacks and poor whites had conspired to burn down the town, and after being threatened with jail, to name Caesar, Prince and Cuffie as the instigators, and to say that Hughson and his wife had agreed to help them. She also named a Newfoundland Irish woman, Peggy Kerry, whose Black lover paid for her housing and fathered her child.
The judge condemned Caesar and Prince to death. A response came the next day, when seven barns burned down. Two Black men charged with the arson were immediately burned at the stake. The Hughsons were convicted, and Peggy and some imprisoned Blacks also “talked,” under conditions that can only be imagined. All were condemned and hanged. The streak of fires continued, and city officials swung into intense repressive action, with more trials and executions. Forced testimony swept more African-Americans into the jails, until they would hold no more, with half the Black male population under arrest.
A contemporary letter of protest from Massachusetts to the city fathers of New York had compared this “making bonfires of the Negroes” to the Salem hunts, in which many people “confessed” to escape torture and gain more time to live. [Africans in America, PBS, 1998] As in witch-hunt trials, the net kept widening, taking in Black Spanish sailors and a white tutor suspected of being Catholic. As in witch trials, Burton’s testimony began to implicate members of the white elite, which at last cast doubts on her veracity. Those who remained in jail were set free.
But there were other casualities of the craze; some of the accused African-Americans were sold off to Madeira, Haiti, Curacao, Portugal, and Newfoundland. [Davis, Th, ix, 114-5, 225, and passim]
Nor was this the only instance where colonial officials burned African insurgents at the stake. The Guinean François Makandal escaped from slavery and started an uprising in Haiti. His band raided the plantations until he was captured in 1758. He was burned at the stake in front of the Cape Haitien cathedral. [Nelly Schmidt, “The Long Road to Abolition,” Unesco Courier, Oct. 1994]
Burning continued to play a role in the repertoire of terror used to subjugate people of African descent. Though most people think of Reconstruction-era lynchings only in terms of hanging, burning and torture were standard fare in the campaign to terrorize African-American people. Susie King Taylor, an African liberation activist in this period, testified to the frequency of these atrocities
The effects of the New England slave trade were momentous. It was one of the foundations of New England’s economic structure; it created a wealthy class of slave-trading merchants, while the profits derived from this commerce stimulated cultural development and philanthropy. –Lorenzo Johnston Greene, “The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776,” p.319.
Whether it was officially encouraged, as in New York and New Jersey, or not, as in Pennsylvania, the slave trade flourished in colonial Northern ports. But New England was by far the leading slave merchant of the American colonies.
The first systematic venture from New England to Africa was undertaken in 1644 by an association of Boston traders, who sent three ships in quest of gold dust and black slaves. One vessel returned the following year with a cargo of wine, salt, sugar, and tobacco, which it had picked up in Barbados in exchange for slaves. But the other two ran into European warships off the African coast and barely escaped in one piece. Their fate was a good example of why Americans stayed out of the slave trade in the 17th century. Slave voyages were profitable, but Puritan merchants lacked the resources, financial and physical, to compete with the vast, armed, quasi-independent European chartered corporations that were battling to monopolize the trade in black slaves on the west coast of Africa. The superpowers in this struggle were the Dutch West India Company and the English Royal African Company. The Boston slavers avoided this by making the longer trip to the east coast of Africa, and by 1676 the Massachusetts ships were going to Madagascar for slaves. Boston merchants were selling these slaves in Virginia by 1678. But on the whole, in the 17th century New Englanders merely dabbled in the slave trade.
Then, around 1700, the picture changed. First the British got the upper hand on the Dutch and drove them from many of their New World colonies, weakening their demand for slaves and their power to control the trade in Africa. Then the Royal African Company’s monopoly on African coastal slave trade was revoked by Parliament in 1696. Finally, the Assiento and the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) gave the British a contract to supply Spanish America with 4,800 slaves a year. This combination of events dangled slave gold in front of the New England slave traders, and they pounced. Within a few years, the famous “Triangle Trade” and its notorious “Middle Passage” were in place.
Rhode Islanders had begun including slaves among their cargo in a small way as far back as 1709. But the trade began in earnest there in the 1730s. Despite a late start, Rhode Island soon surpassed Massachusetts as the chief colonial carrier. After the Revolution, Rhode Island merchants had no serious American competitors. They controlled between 60 and 90 percent of the U.S. trade in African slaves. Rhode Island had excellent harbors, poor soil, and it lacked easy access to the Newfoundland fisheries. In slave trading, it found its natural calling. William Ellery, prominent Newport merchant, wrote in 1791, “An Ethiopian could as soon change his skin as a Newport merchant could be induced to change so lucrative a trade as that in slaves for the slow profits of any manufactory.”[1]
Boston and Newport were the chief slave ports, but nearly all the New England towns — Salem, Providence, Middletown, New London — had a hand in it. In 1740, slaving interests in Newport owned or managed 150 vessels engaged in all manner of trading. In Rhode Island colony, as much as two-thirds of the merchant fleet and a similar fraction of sailors were engaged in slave traffic. The colonial governments of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania all, at various times, derived money from the slave trade by levying duties on black imports. Tariffs on slave import in Rhode Island in 1717 and 1729 were used to repair roads and bridges.
The 1750 revocation of the Assiento dramatically changed the slave trade yet again. The system that had been set up to stock Spanish America with thousands of Africans now needed another market. Slave ships began to steer northward. From 1750 to 1770, African slaves flooded the Northern docks. Merchants from Philadelphia, New York, and Perth Amboy began to ship large lots (100 or more) in a single trip. As a result, wholesale prices of slaves in New York fell 50% in six years.
On the eve of the Revolution, the slave trade “formed the very basis of the economic life of New England.”[2] It wove itself into the entire regional economy of New England. The Massachusetts slave trade gave work to coopers, tanners, sailmakers, and ropemakers. Countless agents, insurers, lawyers, clerks, and scriveners handled the paperwork for slave merchants. Upper New England loggers, Grand Banks fishermen, and livestock farmers provided the raw materials shipped to the West Indies on that leg of the slave trade. Colonial newspapers drew much of their income from advertisements of slaves for sale or hire. New England-made rum, trinkets, and bar iron were exchanged for slaves. When the British in 1763 proposed a tax on sugar and molasses, Massachusetts merchants pointed out that these were staples of the slave trade, and the loss of that would throw 5,000 seamen out of work in the colony and idle almost 700 ships.
The connection between molasses and the slave trade was rum. Millions of gallons of cheap rum, manufactured in New England, went to Africa and bought black people. Tiny Rhode Island had more than 30 distilleries, 22 of them in Newport. In Massachusetts, 63 distilleries produced 2.7 million gallons of rum in 1774. Some was for local use: rum was ubiquitous in lumber camps and on fishing ships. “But primarily rum was linked with the Negro trade, and immense quantities of the raw liquor were sent to Africa and exchanged for slaves. So important was rum on the Guinea Coast that by 1723 it had surpassed French and Holland brandy, English gin, trinkets and dry goods as a medium of barter.”[3] Slaves costing the equivalent of £4 or £5 in rum or bar iron in West Africa were sold in the West Indies in 1746 for £30 to £80. New England thrift made the rum cheaply — production cost was as low as 5½ pence a gallon — and the same spirit of Yankee thrift discovered that the slave ships were most economical with only 3 feet 3 inches of vertical space to a deck and 13 inches of surface area per slave, the human cargo laid in carefully like spoons in a silverware case.
A list of the leading slave merchants is almost identical with a list of the region’s prominent families: the Fanueils, Royalls, and Cabots of Massachusetts; the Wantons, Browns, and Champlins of Rhode Island; the Whipples of New Hampshire; the Eastons of Connecticut; Willing & Morris of Philadelphia. To this day, it’s difficult to find an old North institution of any antiquity that isn’t tainted by slavery. Ezra Stiles imported slaves while president of Yale. Six slave merchants served as mayor of Philadelphia. Even a liberal bastion like Brown University has the shameful blot on its escutcheon. It is named for the Brown brothers, Nicholas, John, Joseph, and Moses, manufacturers and traders who shipped salt, lumber, meat — and slaves. And like many business families of the time, the Browns had indirect connections to slavery via rum distilling. John Brown, who paid half the cost of the college’s first library, became the first Rhode Islander prosecuted under the federal Slave Trade Act of 1794 and had to forfeit his slave ship. Historical evidence also indicates that slaves were used at the family’s candle factory in Providence, its ironworks in Scituate, and to build Brown’s University Hall.[4]
Even after slavery was outlawed in the North, ships out of New England continued to carry thousands of Africans to the American South. Some 156,000 slaves were brought to the United States in the period 1801-08, almost all of them on ships that sailed from New England ports that had recently outlawed slavery. Rhode Island slavers alone imported an average of 6,400 Africans annually into the U.S. in the years 1805 and 1806. The financial base of New England’s antebellum manufacturing boom was money it had made in shipping. And that shipping money was largely acquired directly or indirectly from slavery, whether by importing Africans to the Americas, transporting slave-grown cotton to England, or hauling Pennsylvania wheat and Rhode Island rum to the slave-labor colonies of the Caribbean.
Northerners profited from slavery in many ways, right up to the eve of the Civil War. The decline of slavery in the upper South is well documented, as is the sale of slaves from Virginia and Maryland to the cotton plantations of the Deep South. But someone had to get them there, and the U.S. coastal trade was firmly in Northern hands. William Lloyd Garrison made his first mark as an anti-slavery man by printing attacks on New England merchants who shipped slaves from Baltimore to New Orleans.
Long after the U.S. slave trade officially ended, the more extensive movement of Africans to Brazil and Cuba continued. The U.S. Navy never was assiduous in hunting down slave traders. The much larger British Navy was more aggressive, and it attempted a blockade of the slave coast of Africa, but the U.S. was one of the few nations that did not permit British patrols to search its vessels, so slave traders continuing to bring human cargo to Brazil and Cuba generally did so under the U.S. flag. They also did so in ships built for the purpose by Northern shipyards, in ventures financed by Northern manufacturers.
In a notorious case, the famous schooner-yacht Wanderer, pride of the New York Yacht Club, put in to Port Jefferson Harbor in April 1858 to be fitted out for the slave trade. Everyone looked the other way — which suggests this kind of thing was not unusual — except the surveyor of the port, who reported his suspicions to the federal officials. The ship was seized and towed to New York, but her captain talked (and possibly bought) his way out and was allowed to sail for Charleston, S.C.
Fitting out was completed there, the Wanderer was cleared by Customs, and she sailed to Africa where she took aboard some 600 blacks. On Nov. 28, 1858, she reached Jekyll Island, Georgia, where she illegally unloaded the 465 survivors of what is generally called the last shipment of slaves to arrive in the United States.
1. Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade, N.Y.: Simon & Schuster, 1997, p.519.
2. Lorenzo Johnston Greene, The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1942, p.68-69.
3. ibid., p.26.
4. “Brown University committee examines historical ties to slavery,” Associated Press, The Boston Globe, March 5, 2004
Slaves were mentioned in Hartford from 1639 and in New Haven from 1644. As in the rest of New England, they were few until about 1700. Connecticut citizens did not participate directly in the slave trade in the late 17th century (at least that’s what the colonial governor assured the British Committee for Trade and Foreign Plantations). But the governor’s report in 1680 implied that Massachusetts merchants were bringing in three or four black slaves a year from Barbados. Since the average price of a black slave in Connecticut was £22 that year and the rate in Massachusetts was £10 to £20, this was a worthwhile venture for a Boston slaver.
Even in the early 1700s, however, direct slave imports to Connecticut were considered too few to be worth the trouble of taxing. The governor reported only 110 white and black servants in Connecticut in 1709. In 1730, the colony had a black population of 700, out of a total enumeration of 38,000.
Yet on the eve of the Revolution, Connecticut had the largest number of slaves (6,464) in New England. Jackson Turner Main, surveying Connecticut estate inventories, found that in 1700 one in 10 inventories included slaves, rising to one in 4 on the eve of the Revolution.[1] Between 1756 and 1774, the proportion of slave to free in Connecticut increased by 40 percent. All the principal families of Norwich, Hartford, and New Haven were said to have one or two slaves. By 1774, half of all the ministers, lawyers, and public officials owned slaves, and a third of all the doctors.[2] But Connecticut’s large slave population apparently was based in the middle class. More people had the opportunity to own slaves than in Massachusetts or Rhode Island, so more did so. “The greater prosperity of Connecticut’s inhabitants and their frugal and industrious habits were responsible for this situation. The wealth of the colony was also more equally distributed, with few extremes of riches or poverty.”[3]
The largest increase came in the period 1749-1774. By the latter year, New London County had become the greatest slaveholding section of New England, with almost twice as many slaves as the most populous slave county in Massachusetts. New London was both an industrial center and the site of large slave-worked farms; with 2,036 slaves, it accounted for almost one-third of all the blacks in Connecticut. New London town itself, with 522 blacks and a white population of 5,366, led the state in number of slaves and percentage of black inhabitants.
Discrimination against free blacks was more severe in Connecticut than in other New England colonies. Their lives were strongly proscribed even before they became numerous. In 1690, the colony forbade blacks and Indians to be on the streets after 9 p.m. It also forbid black “servants” to wander beyond the limits of the towns or places where they belonged without a ticket or pass from their masters or the authorities. A law of 1708, citing frequent fights between slaves and whites, imposed a minimum penalty of 30 lashes on any black who disturbed the peace or who attempted to strike a white person. Even speech was subject to control. By a 1730 law, any black, Indian, or mulatto slave “who uttered or published, about any white person, words which would be actionable if uttered by a free white was, upon conviction before any one assistant or justice of the peace, to be whipped with forty lashes.”[4]
As early as 1717, citizens of New London in a town meeting voted their objection to free blacks living in the town or owning land anywhere in the colony. That year, the colonial assembly passed a law in accordance with this sentiment, prohibiting free blacks or mulattoes from residing in any town in the colony. It also forbid them to buy land or go into business without the consent of the town. The provisions were retroactive, so that if any black person had managed to buy land, the deed was rendered void, and a black resident of a town, however long he had been there, was now subject to prosecution at the discretion of the selectmen.
Like the black codes of the South and Midwest in the 19th century, enforcement was uneven, and the real value of the law seemed to be in harassment, discouragement of further settlement, and its service as a constant reminder to free blacks in Connecticut that their existence was precarious and dependent on white toleration.
Connecticut slavery lacked the “paternalism” that characterized Southern slavery, so that even from the early days, the colony had a problem with masters who simply turned out their slaves when the blacks got too old or worn-out to work. Their descendants later would treat factory hands that way, but masters who cast off old slaves made for a burden on the towns, so that by 1702 Connecticut passed a law making masters or their executors or heirs liable for freed blacks, should the ex-slaves become indigent. This evidently was not enough, and in 1711 the law was revised to make it incumbent on masters to support their former slaves.
As in other Northern communities that would later object to the Fugitive Slave Act, authorities in Connecticut had been diligent in prosecuting runaways when slavery was part of their state’s economy. Ferrymen were forbidden to take runaways across rivers under pain of a fine of 5 shillings. The authorities would make an arrest on the slightest pretext, and keep the black person in jail while advertisements were run in the newspapers, seeking an owner. They had the power to arrest suspects without warrants in such cases, and even if the seized blacks could prove they were free, but traveling without a pass, they still had to pay court costs.
“Connecticut’s lawmakers were extremely cautious about moving against slavery. Negroes were more numerous in the state than in the rest of New England combined, and racial anxieties were correspondingly more acute.”[5] This pattern was well-observed from the South: the more blacks lived in a Northern state, the more reluctantly that state approached the topic of emancipation.
Emancipation bills were rejected by the Connecticut Legislature in 1777, 1779, and 1780. Connecticut lawmakers did, however, in 1774 pass a law to halt the importation of slaves (“whereas the increase of slaves in this Colony is injurious to the poor and inconvenient ….”).
In 1784, the abolition forces in the state tried a new tactic and presented a bill for gradual emancipation as part of a general statute codifying, in great detail, race relations. Almost as an afterthought, it provided that black and mulatto children born after March 1 would become free at age 25. The strategy worked, and the bill passed without opposition. An act of 1797 reduced that age to 21, bringing slavery in line with apprenticeship, though obviously slavery was not voluntary and slaves did not receive money, clothes and professional standing at the end of their servitude.
As in other Northern states, gradual emancipation freed no slaves at once. It simply set up slavery for a long-term natural death. Connecticut finally abolished slavery entirely in 1848. The 1800 census counted 951 Connecticut slaves; the number diminished thereafter to 25 in 1830, but then inexplicably rose to 54 in the 1840 census. After that, slaves were no longer counted in censuses for the northern states.
Connecticut disenfranchised blacks in 1818, but that was a mere formality. As in many other places in the North, there is no evidence that blacks ever dared attempt to vote in Connecticut, in colonial times or after the Revolution.
1. Jackson Turner Main, Society and Economy in Colonial Connecticut, Princeton University Press, 1983, p.177.
2. ibid., table 5.1, etc.
3. Lorenzo Johnston Greene, The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776. N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1942, p.74-75.
3. ibid., p.138.
5. Edgar J. McManus, Black Bondage in the North, Syracuse University Press, 1973, pp.169-70