New York City Slavery and Race

In the early eighteenth century, under the British, the slave trade boomed. Male slaves composed 15 percent of the manual labor force and 20 percent of New York City’s population in 1703. Free blacks tended to live on farms north of the city’s center, and black slaves typically served as domestic servants in white households.

Significantly, the slave trade expanded even after slave revolts in 1712 and 1741. The 1712 revolt in which some twenty slaves killed nine white people led to the creation of stricter slave laws, severely curtailing slaves’ rights. In 1741, white New Yorkers blamed black slaves for a number of fires and robberies and came to believe that slaves were planning a huge conspiracy. As a result, almost 100 slaves were tortured, hung, burned, or resold into slavery in the West Indies.

In contrast to the fewer rights given black slaves under English rule, members of minority religions were given more rights. The English allowed Lutherans, Quakers, and Jews to hold services, a right not granted them under the Dutch. By 1695, all of these groups were worshiping in their own churches.

Under the rule of Lord Cornbury in the early years of the eighteenth century, the British worked toward assimilating the Dutch and French to the English language and the Anglican religion. Besides schools, Cornbury turned to the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts to promote his assimilationist policy. Since, from 1702 to 1726, the Dutch Reformed Church was not allowed to offer classes to Dutch children, the Dutch heritage lost much of its influence. By the middle of the eighteenth century, most Dutch people spoke English as their first language. This 1767 map of New York City, by British Army surveyor Bernard Ratzen, is believed to be the most accurate of the pre-Revolutionary War period. Open land was still plentiful in lower Manhattan. (Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania)

As for the French Huguenots, by 1720 they had suffered a severe rift within their church, and, by 1730, many had left the church. This contributed to their assimilation into English culture, as did their tendency to marry outside their group. As for the British population, the early eighteenth century saw the rise of the Presbyterian and Baptist Churches. The Anglican Church grew, too, taking in many of the French Huguenot population and some of the Dutch. Political rule in New York City became more fractious in the 1730s. During this period, a common form of political protest was the publishing of political pamphlets. In 1735, the rights of the publishers of these pamphlets came into question when printer John Peter Zenger was arrested for libel; he was later acquitted in a landmark case for freedom of the press. Political leaders during this period also began appealing to the large group of artisans in the city. In the elections of 1733 and 1734, artisans were able to elect many of their own to city office. This era, then, demonstrated a greater level of political participation among the white male population and established the idea of a government’s power being vested in the people.

In 1765, New York City was in a precarious state. Not only had British imports decreased, but grain prices had skyrocketed and land prices had taken a dip. Thus, when the British government passed the Stamp Act that same year, the first tax ever on the American colonies, New York’s residents reacted by opposing this act and subsequent English measures. This opposition served to unify many of the American colonists, as the English suddenly began imposing what the colonists viewed as unfair and restrictive policies.

Whether under Dutch or English rule, New York City was important to the Dutch and English empires in the North American mainland. For many Europeans who came to settle there, it represented the most tolerant community in the seventeenth century and a place to seek economic opportunities in the eighteenth century. For the Africans who lived in New York City, both slave and free, opportunities decreased with time; they had enjoyed greater liberties in the seventeenth century under Dutch rule than they did in the eighteenth century under the British.

Lisa Y. Ramos See also: New Amsterdam; New Netherland; New York; New York and New Netherland (Chronology). Bibliography Archdeacon, Thomas J. New York City, 1664 1710: Conquest and Change. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976. Goodfriend, Joyce D. Before the Melting Pot: Society and Culture in Colonial New York City, 1664 1730. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991. Harris, Leslie M. In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626 1863. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Kammen, Michael. Colonial New York: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975. Nash, Gary B. The Urban Crucible: The Northern Seaports and the Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986. Rothschild, Nan A. New York City Neighborhoods: The 18th Century. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1990. Tiedemann, Joseph S. Reluctant Revolutionaries: New York City and the Road to Independence, 1763 1776. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

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New York City Slavery and Race


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