Slave Island - New York's Hidden History
By Professor T J Davis
T J Davis explores the hidden history of New York and how the discovery of a slave burial ground changed a city.
Disturbing the dead
Slavery in America has traditionally been viewed as a peculiarly Southern phenomenon, brought to an end by the victorious Northern states after the Civil War. In 1991, in downtown Manhattan, an 18th century burial ground containing the remains of hundreds of African slaves was uncovered during excavations for a new office block. The first body turned up in June 1991. Others surfaced in September. The count totaled 13 by early October, as excavation for a 34 storey federal office building in New York's lower Manhattan inadvertently unearthed the remains more than twenty feet below ground level. Forensic examination identified five of the 13 as the remains of men, one as those of a woman, four as those of adults of undetermined gender, two as those of children, and one as those of an infant.
'Indications suggested bodies stacked at least three or four deep.'
The remains all appeared to have been buried in coffins. The hexagonal shape of most of the burial boxes remained clear, imprinted in the soil as the wood rotted. Coffin nails, shroud pins, and fragments of shrouds lay with the skeletons. Cobblestones outlined several graves. Headstones marked some, footstones others. None remained legible. Other artifacts also appeared. Four gilded brass buttons with the Royal British Marines' anchor-and-cable insignia lay with the skeleton of one of the men.
The fenced-off burial site next to two modern buildings
The burial site
By December 1991 the problem facing the federal General Services Administration (GSA) who were supervising the site had grown as further excavation revealed a larger find. Indications suggested bodies stacked at least three or four deep. 93 skeletons had been identified, and at least another seventy bodies were close by.
The Negro Burial Ground
Map showing that early New York covered only the Southern tip of Manhattan island
Map of early New York
Almost all of the skeletons proved to be African-American. Many disclosed hard evidence of a relatively short life expectancy for blacks in early New York. The early group contained a large proportion of infants and children. More than half the group never reached adulthood. There were 27 infants, many younger than six months. They lay in coffins 12 to 18 inches long. Most of the 34 adults - 20 men and 14 women - died in their 30s. Many suffered arthritis, rickets, syphilis or tuberculosis. Their dental profiles matched those of 90 year-olds.
'Historical documents marked the site unmistakably.'
The findings proved to be part of a cemetery operated from about 1710 to 1790 under the name 'Negros Burial Ground'. In the end, construction at the federal building site unearthed over 400 skeletons. Historical documents marked the site unmistakably. An extant 1755 map known as the Maerschalck Plan showed the site clearly. It lay at what during the 1700s was New York City's north western edge. Back then the city occupied little more than the southern tip of Manhattan Island, stretching up to where the present city hall sits.
Photograph showing a skull being cleaned by an archaeologist
Most of the adults died in their 30s
The burial ground itself was identified as extending from the building site on Broadway, southward under New York's City Hall, and reaching almost to the site of the World Trade Centre on Manhattan's southwestern tip, close to the financial centre at Wall Street.
Facing up to the past
Disturbing the dead, understandably offended sensibilities. Anguish and anger appeared particularly in New York City's African-American community, most of whom knew nothing of the city's long African-American heritage that reached back to the early days of European settlement on Manhattan. Sharing a common misunderstanding that black American slavery was always divided North-South, as it appeared at the time of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), most Americans in 1991 had no idea slavery ever existed in Northern areas. Slaves in the North were not merely forgotten, they had been purposefully ignored in keeping with the fiction that the U.S. black-white race problem with slavery and its legacy was sectional, confined to the South, and not pervasive throughout the nation.
'...few Americans had heard anything of colonial New York City's relatively large black population...'
So, few Americans had heard anything of colonial New York City's relatively large black population, which for much of the 1700s ranked second only to Charleston, South Carolina, as an urban centre of slave population. Learning something of New York's black past through notice of the disinterred remains thus provoked particular consternation and concern.
New York City's most prominent black official sounded a melancholy note on hearing of the discovery. 'Two centuries ago,' noted Mayor David N. Dinkins, 'not only could African Americans not hope to govern New York City, they could not even hope to be buried within its boundaries.' The mayor's comment only partially referred to Manhattan's long existence as an island where one in every five persons was an enslaved African American, an island colonized by the Dutch West India Company (WIC) and one of the world's foremost slave-trading enterprises of the 1600s and 1700s.
Historical reconstruction showing a black slave man attacking a white man
Manhattan Island had a population of enslaved Africans almost from the very beginning of settlement in 1624. Indeed, with its base in Angola on Africa's southwest Atlantic shore, a base in Brazil on South America's northeast Atlantic shore, and a base in Curaçao, the largest island in what became the Netherlands Antilles in the Caribbean Sea, the WIC had plans to make Manhattan on North America's northeast Atlantic shore a post in something of a quadrangular trade in which slaves featured prominently. The WIC's Board of Accounts in 1644, for example, promoted a plan for Manhattan that called for 'the introduction from Brazil, there, of as many Negroes as [settlers] would be disposed to pay for at a fair price; which Negroes would accomplish more work for their masters and at less expense than free servants, who must be bribed to go thither by a great deal of money and promises.'
'The slaves slew nine whites on the spot and wounded about a dozen others.'
When the Duke of Albany and York, later to become England's King James II (r. 1685-1688), wrested Manhattan from the Dutch in 1664, the enslaved population also took a turn upward, as England further developed its own slave-trading efforts. The Duke of Albany and York headed the Royal African Company, chartered by his brother King Charles II (r. 1660-1685) in 1662 with the exclusive right to trade in slaves drawn from the African region known as Guinea. While more intent on supplying slaves to such Caribbean islands as Barbados and Jamaica, the Royal African Company also expressed its interest in 'introducing Black Slaves into New York'.
Manhattan's slave population grew apace until 1712 when occurred what New York's Royal Governor Robert Hunter described as a 'bloody conspiracy of some of the Slaves of this place to destroy as many of the inhabitants as they could...to revenge themselves for some hard usage they apprehended to have received from their Masters'. 23 slaves met about midnight on 6 April 1712, set fire to several buildings in the middle of town, and then set upon whites who rushed to quench the blazes. The slaves slew nine whites on the spot and wounded about a dozen others. They fled, but most were soon captured.
The 'Great Negro Plot'
Historical reconstruction, actors recreate the hanging of the slaves involved in the uprising
'the most exemplary punishment'
Retaliation was swift and bloody. Nineteen slaves were executed by burning or hanging and two others in special ways. Governor Hunter explained, 'one [was] broke on the wheele and one hung alive in chains in the town.' The governor said that 'there has been the most exemplary punishment inflicted that could be possibly thought of.'
'Seventeen slaves hanged and thirteen burned at the stake...'
In March 1741 bloody scenes re-emerged as a series of fires threatened New York City with conflagration. Authorities fixed blame on the rapidly rising male slave population. Seventeen slaves hanged and thirteen burned at the stake in an incident that became known as the New York Conspiracy or the 'Great Negro Plot'. Reaction shifted the slave regime in the city from a focus on male slave labour apprenticed in crafts ranging from carpentry to wainwrighting, to an emphasis on female slave labour in domestic service.
The American Revolution (1775-1783) further concentrated slaves in Manhattan. As the island remained in the hands of the King's forces until withdrawal in 1783, loyal slaveholders fled there with as many slaves as they could muster. At the end of the war, they sailed away with their slaves and with those of others who had fled to freedom. Thus slavery in the city appeared to dip at the war's end.
In 1790 when the newly independent United States took its first federal census, it numbered 2,369 slaves in New York City and 21,324 in the state, a number that ranked it fifth among states, and even ahead of Georgia.
Honouring the dead
A flood of white immigrants in the 1790s, determined not to compete with slaves for jobs, pressed for a political end to slavery in New York city and state. Finally, in 1799, the New York legislature enacted a programme of gradual emancipation to release from bondage all born in the state to slave mothers after 4 July 1799. However, freedom was only granted when the person had served the mother's holder till aged 25 if female or 28 if male. In 1817 the state made provision that 'any Negro, mulatto or mustee within this State born before the fourth day of July, 1799, shall from and after the fourth day of July, 1827, be free.'And in 1827 New York finished the task of ending slavery by enacting a provision that 'every person born within this state, whether white or colored, is free.'
'In 1827 New York enacted a provision that 'every person born within this state, whether white or colored, is free.''
It was this long history of slavery in New York City that discovery of the 'Negros Burial Ground' in 1991 brought into view - for most New Yorkers for the first time. And thus it was that many black New Yorkers demanded that the site, renamed the African Burial Ground, be treated with honor and declared a National Historic Landmark and that the disinterred remains be reburied at the site. Since the tragedy of 11th September 2001, the possibility of that event taking place has been postponed indefinitely.
Find out more
A Rumor of Revolt: The 'Great Negro Plot' in Colonial New York by Thomas J Davis (New York Free Press, 1985)
Africans in the Americas: A History of the Black Diaspora by Michael L Conniff and Thomas J Davis (New York, St. Martin's Press, 1994)
Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey 1613-1863 by Graham Russell Hodges (University of North Carolina Press, 1999)
About the author
Image of author Professor TJ Davis
By Professor TJ Davis, Professor of History and Visiting Professor of Law, Arizona State University. His books include The New York Conspiracy (Beacon Press, 1971); A Rumor of Revolt: The `Great Negro Plot' in Colonial New York (New York, Free Press, 1985) and Africans in the Americans: A History of the Black Diaspora, with Michael L. Conniff (St. Martin's Press, 1994). He is also author of Greenwood Press's forthcoming history of Race Relations in the United States.
* Slavery and Economy in Barbados - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/state/empire/barbados_01.shtml
* British Anti-slavery - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/protest_reform/antislavery_01.shtml
* Was the American Revolution Inevitable? - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/state/empire/american_revolution_01.shtml
* Caribbean Family History - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/familyhistory/caribbean_01.shtml
* British Slaves on the Barbary Coast - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/protest_reform/white_slaves_01.shtml
* Georgian Room Panorama - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/society/launch_pan_georgian_room.shtml
* Audio Archive - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/multimedia_zone/audio_video/audio/report_index.shtml
* Phillis Wheatley - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/wheatley_phillis.shtml
* Olaudah Equiano - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/equiano_olaudah.shtml
* William Cuffay - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/cuffay_william.shtml
* British Timeline - Abolition of the Slave Trade - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/timelines/britain/geo_slavetrade.shtml
* BBC News: Race UK - http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/in_depth/uk/2002/race/
* BBC News: Focus on the Slave Trade - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/1523100.stm
External Web Links
* CNN: A Report from the Burial Ground - http://www.cnn.com/TECH/9802/12/t_t/burial.ground/
* Heritage Preservation - http://www.heritagepreservation.org/NEWS/WTC6.htm
* Anti-slavery International - http://www.antislavery.org/
Published on BBC History: 01-03-2002
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