New York Burning : Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan
Over a frigid few weeks in the winter of 1741, ten fires blazed across Manhattan. With each new fire, panicked whites saw more evidence of a slave uprising. In the end, thirteen black men were burned at the stake, seventeen were hanged and more than one hundred black men and women were thrown into a dungeon beneath City Hall.
In New York Burning, Bancroft Prize-winning historian Jill Lepore recounts these dramatic events, re-creating, with path-breaking research, the nascent New York of the seventeenth century. Even then, the city was a rich mosaic of cultures, communities and colors, with slaves making up a full one-fifth of the population. Exploring the political and social climate of the times, Lepore dramatically shows how, in a city rife with state intrigue and terror, the threat of black rebellion united the white political pluralities in a frenzy of racial fear and violence.
- Pulitzer Prize
Starred Review. With riveting prose and a richly imagined re-creation of a horrible but little-studied event, Bancroft Prize-winning historian Lepore (The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity) deftly recounts the circumstances surrounding a conspiracy in pre-Revolutionary Manhattan. In 1741, its teeming streets erupted into fire in at least 10 locations. At first, rival political parties blamed each other for the conflagrations, but they joined forces against black slaves when a young white woman named Mary Burton testified that she had witnessed several slaves conspiring to kill whites and gain their liberty. The colony's leaders arrested and tried at least 100 black men and women. Eventually, the colonial Supreme Court sentenced 30 men to death; 17 were hanged (along with the four supposed white ringleaders) and 13 burned at the stake, based solely on Burton's testimony. Out of fear, several slaves testified against others, and the bulk were sent into brutal slavery in the Caribbean. Drawing primarily on New York Supreme Court justice Daniel Horsmanden's Journal of the Proceedings in The Detection of the Conspiracy formed by Some White People, in Conjunction with Negro and Other Slaves, Lepore demonstrates that whites' fear of black rebellion led them to blame any threat to the colony on the activity of slaves. In this first-rate social history, Lepore not only adroitly examines the case's travesty, questioning whether such a conspiracy ever existed, but also draws a splendid portrait of the struggles, prejudices and triumphs of a very young New York City in which fully "one in five inhabitants was enslaved." 17 illus., 1 map. (Aug. 29)
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August 07, 2006
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Excerpt from New York Burning by Jill Lepore
After ten feet of snow over Christmas, the skies cleared in January. In the brightening sun, poor widows and orphaned children hobbled through the snow to a house on Smith Street, across from the Black Horse Tavern, where a charity promised "To Feed the hungry & Cloath the naked," or at least those "in Real Need of Relief." But in February, the fierce weather returned. "We have now here a second Winter more Severe than it was some Weeks past," Zenger's Weekly Journal reported on February 2, the feast of Candlemas. "The Navigation of our River is again stopp'd by the Ice, and the poor in great want of Wood." At Peter DeLancey's farm outside the city, his "Spanish Negro" Antonio de St. Bendito, whose "Feet were frozen after the first great Snow," was still unable to walk. In the city, coals were passed out to the poor to help heat their humble homes. At John Hughson's tavern, his Irish servant girl, Mary Burton, dressed herself "in Man's Cloaths, put on Boots, and went with him in his Sleigh in the deep Snows of the Commons, to help him fetch Firewood for his Family." At David Machado's house, in the East Ward, his black slave Diana, driven to desperation by the ferocity of the cold and by the hopelessness of bondage, "took her own young Child from her Breast, and laid it in the Cold, that it froze to Death."
The first week of February, New Yorkers stared helplessly from piers along the East River as a boat was "taken by a large Cake of Ice in our Harbour, and carried by it through the Narrows, and out of sight." Watchers wondered, but could not discover, what happened to the people on board. Six more ships lay frozen in Long Island Sound, and another, sails set, crashed against the ice, abandoned. Meanwhile, from Charleston, South Carolina, came the shocking news that slaves had nearly destroyed that city, burning three hundred houses to the ground. But this turned out to have been only a rumor. On February 9, Zenger printed a quiet retraction: "The report of the Negroes rising was groundless."
Even while the weather worsened, there were still city pleasures to be had. "on Thursday, Feb. the 12th at the new Theatre in the Broad Way will be presented a Comedy call'd the Beaux Stratagem," announced a back-page ad in the New-York Weekly Journal, in the hard winter of 1741. Tickets for a box: 5 shillings; for the pit: 2 shillings and 6 pence.
For those who ventured out by the light of lanterns to attend the New York debut of George Farquhar's late Restoration comedy, it was a cold walk down "the Broad Way," a wide, straight street, paved with cobbles, slick with snow, and thickly canopied with the overburdened, icy branches of the beech and locust trees that lined it. The theatre lay just across from the Bowling Green, a triangle of land at the wide base of Broadway fenced in in 1734 "for the Beauty & Ornament of the Said Street as well as for the Recreation & delight of the Inhabitants."
An evening at the theatre must have been delightful distraction for those who could scare up the shillings, and whose boots were warm enough to keep frostbite at bay. The Beaux' Stratagem, first staged in London in 1707, was not only George Farquhar's best play but also the most successful comedy of the age. From its debut to the close of the eighteenth century, it was performed in London during every season but one; and in the 1730s alone, it was staged over a hundred times.
The appeal of The Beaux' Stratagem to eighteenth-century audiences lay chiefly in its dizzying reversal of roles and fortunes. The play tells the tale of "two gentlemen of broken fortunes," Aimwell and Archer, on a trip to the town of Lichfield. Having spent their small inheritances on the pleasures of London, the two friends travel from town to town, each taking a turn at pretending to be his companion's servant in order to help his "master" impress and seduce gullible country women. In Lichfield, the ruse works well until Aimwell falls in love with Dorinda, the wealthy daughter of Lady Bountiful, and Archer is taken with Dorinda's married sister-in-law, Mrs. Sullen. Intrigues abound, as Aimwell decides to pass himself off as his elder brother, a viscount, in hopes of securing Dorinda's hand, while a host of still sillier characters-a dishonest innkeeper, Bonniface, and his clever daughter, Cherry; Lady Bountiful's dim-witted son, Squire Sullen; Sullen's dunderheaded servant, Scrub; an amorous French count; a nefarious French priest; and a gang of particularly feckless robbers-pursue their own schemes, stage their own impostures, and plot their own plots, their beaux' stratagem, leading Archer to conclude at the end of Act II, "We're like to have as many adventures in our inn as Don Quixote had in his."