Enslaved blacks may have plotted to burn down the City of New York in the early 18th century.
Imagine the following scene: The date is March 18, 1741. The place is New York City, which has a population of approximately ten thousand people, the third largest city in the British colonies. The governor’s complex, located within Fort George, is burning. Within the next few weeks, nine more serious fires will break out, leading many to speculate that they are being deliberately set.
White New Yorkers begin to suspect the enslaved African-American within their midst. Enslaved black people have lived in the city since the Dutch imported enslaved Africans to the colony in the 1620s. At the start of the eighteenth century, a slave market was established at the present day intersection of Wall Street and Water Street. By 1741, a significant number of New York households hold people in bondage. These enslaved blacks work as domestics, artisans, tradespeople, or farm laborers.
Like many enslaved people, the enslaved blacks who live in the city resent their current circumstances. About thirty years ago, they revolted by setting fire to a building on Maiden Lane then attacking the whites who showed up to extinguish the fire. After the revolt was put down (seventy enslaved people were arrested and twenty-one ended up being put to death), the rest of the enslaved people in New York were subjected to harsh slave codes which robbed them of the few rights and privileges they had.
And things in New York have been tough for months. The previous winter had been unusually harsh and the cost of food and fuel has risen. This only exacerbates the preexisting economic tensions between the enslaved labor force and the free (but poor) workers in the city. A war between Britain and Spain has reduced the number of British troops in the city. Everyone is on edge.
A justice of the New York Supreme Court conducts an inquiry and turns up an indentured servant of a man who runs a tavern frequented by enslaved blacks. The indentured servant, a teenager by the name of Mary Burton, implicates three enslaved Black men in the robbery of a store in February.
Under further threat, Burton then testifies to a plot by slaves to burn the city to the ground. When two of the slaves implicated by Burton in the February robbery are sentenced to death, two barns are burned.
The city is now gripped with panic. Large scale arrests commence. Those arrested due to Burton’s testimony implicate others. Hefty rewards for information leading up to a conviction of those involved in the plot increased the number of arrests. Some two hundred people — black and white, slave and free — are arrested. Thirty people receive death sentences. When Mary Burton begins to accuse wealthy elites of participation, the hysteria begins to die down.
Was Burton telling the truth? Burton’s story changed multiple times. No independent evidence of a plot has ever emerged and exculpatory evidence (the masters of two of the enslaved men provided alibis) was ignored. None of the accused received legal counsel. The task of firefighting fell to thirty five volunteers, hardly ideal for a city with such a high number of wood buildings and dwellings; their inability to quickly extinguish the flames and save all the burning buildings may have created the appearance that the fires were more widespread than they were.
The New York Conspiracy may have been nothing more than the fevered imaginings of paranoid people, who knowing that they were directly benefitting from the brutal exploitation of those amongst them, had reason to fear reprisal. On the other hand, it could have been the poorly executed plan of society’s most despised members to win their freedom, a freedom cruelly denied. Either way, the New York Conspiracy is an object lesson on how quickly those with power are to punish and scapegoat those with less power when bad things happen without reason.