16. New York City 1741: A ‘Motley Crew’ Class Revolt

Workers executed in New York, 1741

In 1741, dozens of free and enslaved men of modest or no means and a few women, all multiracial and multinational, had gathered many times at John Hughson’s New York City tavern. Among other things, they spent much of their time plotting an insurrection against the worst of the rich. They hoped to spread some of their wealth, free some slaves and servants, and make for a better order. It didn’t turn out as expected, and many lost their lives. But that gets us ahead of the story.

As noted earlier, the island where the Hudson River opened to the Atlantic was the home of the Lenni Lenape people, who called it ‘Manhattan.’ The Dutch bought it and took possession of everything, reaching up to Albany. They called it ‘New Netherlands’, and the small but busily growing port at the tip of Manhattan was ‘New Amsterdam.’ Interested in all trade, but especially furs and slaves, with ships of all trading nations coming and going, its population was polyglot, with even the Dutch as simply a large minority.

As such, ‘New Amsterdam’ practiced some tolerance. Even the whipping of slaves required special permission, and slaves had the right to marry and even to be set free. Some captured Native People were also enslaved, but generally, they were pushed away from the Hudson Valley in all directions. The Dutch put the slaves to work building a wall of upright logs from one river to the other river on the upper end of the lower Manhattan settlement. The idea was to keep the slaves inside and Indians and other unwanted intruders out. The boundary was called ‘Wall Street’ and remains to this day, even if its origins in slavery are dimmed memories.

In 1667. across the ocean in Europe, the Treaty of Breda ended the Second Anglo-Dutch War. The Dutch did well, retaining their most prized possessions in the East Indies while trading off a colony seen as second-rate, New Netherlands, to the British. After a few strokes of the pen, the British navy sailed into the Hudson without resistance, and the whole area became New York, and the port was now New York City. Relative to the times, it was a large town of about 6000, a number which doubled by the turn of the century. At all times, the slaves counted as 20 percent of the residents, and over 40 percent of all households had enslaved servants.

But New York was unique in its dense slavery. There were no plantations like those in the South, where slaves, in subdivided groups, toiled in rural isolation growing tobacco or rice and, later, cotton. New York’s slaves were a floating force of unskilled day laborers or skilled craftsmen. They loaded and unloaded ships, built the city’s infrastructure, or ran blacksmith or carpentry shops owned by their masters. They actually built the city, even if they had to turn their wages over to their owners. They lived in the back outhouse of their masters or even in their shops. By the nature of their work, they had to pass freely on the streets, among others, going about their business. A small but reasonable number of Africans were not enslaved but had ‘free’ status and could intermingle with slaves on the street or at work.

The new British overlords were wary and wanted a change, passing several new repressive measures. Beyond a short distance from their master’s home, a pass was required to walk in the streets. Meetings, however causal, of more the three Africans or Native Americans were forbidden. Masters no longer needed to get permission to whip their slaves, nor were slaves allowed to marry among themselves or elsewhere. Most importantly, in 1711, the city established an official slave market for buying, selling, or otherwise making labor exchanges regarding slaves. They wanted a tariff for every transaction–often more than the cash value of the slave concerned–which was difficult to assess and collect if these sales were scattered and unregulated.

The slaves hated the new market and all the further repression. On April 6, 1712, about 20 of them set fire at night to a building on Maiden Lane near Broadway. They drew back in the darkness and waited for a crowd of whites to try putting out the fire. Then they struck with guns, swords, knives, and whatever weapons they could find, and killed nine whites and injured six more before fleeing. The city’s armed militia quickly captured nearly all of them and snatched up many more who had nothing to do with it, 70 in all. Six captives committed suicide, knowing the tortures awaiting them. Twenty-seven were put on trial, and 20 were convicted and burned to death alive at the stake. One was ‘broken’ to death on ‘the wheel.’ A pregnant woman was sentenced, allowed her child to be born, then hung. The authorities inflicted harsher repressions citywide following the executions, extending to all people of color, slave or free. Within four years, all free Blacks who owned land had it sold out from under them.

All this is the horrific and exciting backstory to all the plotting and planning a few decades later in John Hughson’s tavern. Even more intriguing is the immediate context of the pub, its denizens, and others like it, not that this 1712 history wasn’t on everyone’s mind. Hughson’s lower-class joint was on the waterfront, as were two or three others. This meant it also served as a brothel for seamen and locals. It also served as a ‘fence,’ a place that trafficked stolen goods from the ships and elsewhere. The goods were traded for cash, alcohol, or other items of value.

A key point needs to be made here about the seamen. Their story is told in depth in many of Marcus Rediker’s books, such as ‘The Many-Headed Hydra.’ His thesis is that the proletariat of the new far-ranging capitalism is born and takes shape on the seas as well as on land. The ships of the day were both floating factories and prisons, and the ‘motley crews’ were very diverse. Rarely was an English ship operated by all-English seaman, all working voluntarily. Ship captains seized their crews from the poor in jail, from drunks in bars, from captured runaway slaves and natives, and from seamen of other countries caught in battles. Disciplined violently onboard, the seamen formed bonds and overcame language barriers with Pidgin English. They were paid little, and sometimes not at all, having to wait a year. But by that time, they had been impressed on another ship. In these conditions, the men (and a few women) set aside national differences, color distinctions, and whether you were an escaped slave or Indian. They were cast into a common lot with strong solidarity. Sometimes they mutinied and seized their ‘factory,’ turning it into a worker’s coop of sorts, a pirate ship. To them, stealing part of the cargo was hardly theft but an indirect way of regaining a bit of their own stolen wages.

So these were the people hanging out in the waterfront taverns described above. Naturally, they were joined by locals. Women working as prostitutes, local slaves of all colors who had snuck out for the night of drinking and gambling with a piece of their master’s silverware to pay for it, and local ‘free’ laborers looking for a rowdy time apart from the more upscale taverns of their ‘betters.’

So here is one more birthplace of a Turtle Island proletariat—multinational. multiracial and conspiring, poorly or wisely, to wreak havoc on some of the rich, free some slaves, and redistribute some wealth in a Robin Hood fashion. If you want to study the history of the USAmerican working class, this is one more suitable place to begin.

Despite their plans and aims, the ‘revolt’ itself didn’t amount to much. In the Spring of 1741, a series of 10 or so fires were set in buildings of the military and the wealthy, usually spaced about three days to a week apart. There was no mass insurrection. Just the opposite took place, a massive roundup of slaves, workers, and Indians, in one batch after another, over months. Hughson, his wife, children, and his prostitutes were imprisoned and tortured for information, which led to more arrests and tortures. Some 172 were tried.

“In the end,’ states Wikipedia, “thirty-four people were executed. They included seventeen black men, two white men, and two white women who were hanged as well as thirteen black men burnt at the stake. The bodies of two supposed ringleaders, Caesar, a slave, and John Hughson, a white cobbler and tavern keeper, were gibbeted. Their corpses were left to rot in public. Another eighty-four men and women faced transportation to the brutal conditions of Caribbean slavery while seven white men were pardoned on condition of entering permanent exile from New York.”

As time passed, the events were cast in the history books as more of a conspiracy than a revolt, and even much of the conspiracy’s overreach was recast as a cousin of the Salem Witch Trials. Many were unjustly accused and punished. Still, the structures of race and class were herein welded together in New York, both at the top and below. More to Come.

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