Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A Hot Time In The Old Town

The definitive book on the 1741 slave rebellion in NYC is by Jill Lepore and it's called "New York Burning" (a great primary document is contained in the image attached-double click to enlarge) It's interesting how she told the story using the backdrop of the post 9/11 hysteria. From the Nation:"The basic facts are these: In March and April of 1741, a series of ten fires erupted in Lower Manhattan, the most significant one within the walls of the fort at the southern tip of the island, the center of power in the British colony of New York. A plot was uncovered: Slaves, together with some downtrodden whites, were found to have conspired to burn down the whole city and murder the white population. Arrests were made: 152 blacks and twenty whites. A trial was held; people were convicted and sentenced. Thirty black men were hanged or burned at the stake; two white men and two white women were hanged. The bodies of two supposed ringleaders, one black and one white, were gibbeted, the corpses left to rot for weeks on public display. One resident called the episode the "Bonfires of the Negros.".....The word "unfair" can hardly do justice to the treatment visited upon New York's slave population in the aftermath of the fires. The episode might be dismissed as an outcome of a cruder age were it not reminiscent of more recent terrorist detainments. Literally every lawyer in New York was engaged on the side of the prosecution, while the defendants--the city's official nonpeople--had no representation at all. Confessions were extracted at the stake. And as the confessions piled up, they lent themselves to a conspiracy theory of fantastical proportions. The richest white New Yorkers were to have been murdered; the slaves would become the masters. The royal governor of New York was to be replaced by a slave--named Caesar, no less.......The chain connecting the Salem witch trials and the "Bonfires of the Negros" (not to mention the 2001 Patriot Act) is mass hysteria: the conviction that a dark enemy lurks among us and extraordinary measures must be taken to defeat it. Some in 1741 saw the connection to what was then a shameful occurrence in the not-so-distant past, and regretted it. The events surrounding the Zenger trial, meanwhile, bear directly on 1741, in Lepore's reckoning, and amplify what has long seemed a grim but small event in American colonial history." Attached here is the full review along with a piece on another 1741 story (historical fiction) called "Forever," by a guy I used to admire, Pete Hamill. Some day I'll tell the details of that.

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