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Positioning and imaging Caesar: from margin to center in the historiography of colonial New York City.


In an earlier article I used the metaphor of my grandmother's cedar chest and its contents as a way to talk about the manipulation of history. To view the undisturbed contents was, for the viewer with some attachment to them, a renewal, a reconnecting with a historical past--in essence, a positioning of one in the midst of the stream of humanity. I went on to say in that article that the writing of history, in terms of all that it entails--the rigors of research, analysis, interpretation--should, in the end represent a true historical reflection of a people. As one reads the history, what should become evident is that, like the contents of my grandmother's cedar chest, it is a reconnecting, a renewal with historical roots, and it is a history that positions the reader in the midst of the stream of humanity. (2)

In a reaction to a number of fairly recent publications on the history of New York City in the nineteenth century, I put forth, in that same article, some criticism of the books' historical content. I wrote that the books, as reflections of a collective family history, is altered history. What this means is that the positioning of Euro-Americans in that stream is there. For African Americans positioning is almost nonexistent. Unlike my grandmother's cedar chest, the contents of New York City history have been tampered with altered to appear historically what they were not, and even with some items removed to paint a picture of the City and its peoples in "altered states."

What I propose in this paper is to address, in a succinct fashion, this problem of "altered states." I will do this through an examination of the contents of my grandmother's cedar chest (really a metaphor for the historiography of colonial New York City) so as to move Caesar (collective term for the enslaved) from the margins of the city's history to the center--positioning him in the midst of the stream of humanity.

Much of what I propose to share with you on this point of "altered states" and the positioning of Caesar, is mirrored in a 1984 article by Gary Nash. In Nash's opinion, the lack of a black social history was as a result of historians' overemphasis on the institution of slavery. He wrote that the consequence of such is that we continue to depict "some one million Africans brought to or born in America before the revolution as mindless drones without culture, without realizing that the slaves themselves [were] active participants in a social process." (3) To paraphrase another writer, Douglas Greenberg, slaves were in the history of the colonies without being of that history. (4) "Altered states," though, can be challenged and rectified by creating, what I have argued for earlier in chapter two of my book Long Hammering, a new corpus of scholarship on African American social history. Once this is achieved, then it is incorporated "into an overall analysis of colonial social development." (5)

An incipient new corpus of scholarship on the social history of Blacks in colonial New York is already available to challenge "altered states." This scholarship heralds the start of Caesar's trek from the margin to the center of New York City history. Presently the scholarship comprises the work of such writers as Thomas J. Davis, Vivienne Kruger, Sherrill Wilson, Joyce Goodfriend, Thelma Foote, Nan Rothschild, Robert J. Swan, Shane White, and many young hearts at the dissertation level whose research will really begin to anchor Caesar in his rightful place. (6) The work of these scholars can be characterized as on the cutting edge of African American social history because it acknowledges the significant participatory and social role of Caesar in the development of New York City history.

Much of what I argue in this paper with respect to the positioning and imaging of Caesar will pull on the research of some of the above scholars. I will also complement my argument with reference to my own work on the topic for African Americans in the Hudson River Valley during the colonial period.


Unlike white immigrants of both Dutch and British colonial New York, most black immigrants--Africans--did not arrive of their own volition, but as enslaved labor, and consequently left no written records that could speak to their imagery. What imagery there is of them is culled from the writings of their enslavers which has been "transmitted to us as vague, dimly comprehended shadows." (7) The African is stripped of historical significance, and stands mired in the backwaters of history. But as a result of the incipient new corpus of scholarship on African American culture in colonial New York, that image of Caesar as "... vague, dimly comprehended shadows" is now challenged in its "altered states" by the rigors of scientific inquiry applied to methodologically strong historical research. As Thelma Foote stated in her doctoral thesis, "Black Life in Colonial Manhattan, 1664-1786," this scientific approach to research "allows us to chart the [B]lacks' shifting position as they negotiate their way through the labyrinth of limitations which confined them." (8)

Africans as an enslaved population, undoubtedly faced a labyrinth of limitations, which, during the time of colonial New York's "peculiar institution" (1626-1783), they negotiated quite successfully. So much so that between 1640 and 1790 a well defined image of Caesar had been forged on the land, and pointed up the inherent interdependence and interrelationship of black and white.

By 1790 New York had a black population that was the "sixth largest in the United States in both number of blacks and number of slaves." It was exceeded in these figures by Virginia, Maryland, the two Carolinas (North and South), and Georgia. (9) The total enslaved population in New York at the time of the first federal census was approximately 21,329, and with an ever increasing free black population that then stood at 4,654. The total population of the state was 340,000. For New York City alone in 1790 the totals were 2,056 enslaved and 1,036 free Blacks out of a total city population of 31,225. (10)

Anchoring that well forged image of black New Yorkers to the land was a well defined culture as evident in family, community, religion, work and folklore. In forging his image on the land Caesar had conclusively demonstrated that the true position of the African had always been in the midst of the stream of humanity. There, and in spite of a slave status, he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with white immigrants in the social and economic development of colonial New York. Yet such an imaging of Caesar, shrouded by an unscientific, manipulative view of history, conveniently referred to as "altered states," is one revealed to us through research that is methodologically sound and anchored in the rigors of scientific inquiry--thus the value of this incipient new corpus of scholarship on African American culture. But let me stop here. I am ahead of myself. Let me for a moment further image Caesar through a cursory look at population growth under colonial Dutch and English rule in the city.

In the imaging of Caesar in terms of population figures, the research of both Thelma Foote, mentioned above, and that of Vivienne L. Kruger from her doctoral thesis, "Born to Run: The Slave Family in Early New York, 1626 to 1827," lend support to Caesar's well-forged image on the land. Between 1626 and 1771 colonial New Amsterdam/New York relied on a supplementary labor force of enslaved Blacks shipped to the area from the West Indies and Africa through the auspices of the Dutch West India Company. By the 1650s individual entrepreneurs were involved in ventures to Madagascar in the Indian Ocean from which a small number of Africans were bartered for and carried back to New Netherland/New York. Between the 1670s and 1690s both Frederick Philipse and his son Adolph were two of the most well known New York merchants sending their ships to Madagascar. (11)

During the colonial period New Amsterdam under the Dutch and New York under the British was a city of foreigners, where the languages of different nationals could be heard spoken from day to day. The diversity of African ethnic groups added to that foreign character of the city. Although Foote's work point out that between 1664 and 1737 slave imports to the city were small, with 70 percent imported from the West Indies, and that between 1737 and 1771 slave imports had increased but that approximately 60 percent still came from the West Indies, (12) it is the research of Kruger that fleshes out the ethnic origins of Caesar's image.

Under Dutch rule, and in addition to seasoned African imports from Curacao in the West Indies, imports into New Amsterdam between 1639 and 1664 derived from an array of ports along the West African coast below the Bight of Benin near present-day Nigeria. The ports were those like Angola, Cape Verde, Loango and Longo, but the majority was from Angola. (13) During British rule the majority of colonial New York imports were from ports along the West African coast in the vicinity of the Bight of Benin and further north along the lower and upper Guinea Coast. Between 1700 and 1774 approximately 41.2 percent of all imports were from Africa. (14) In terms of ethnicity an African flavor--more West than East--permeated all aspects of colonial life in the city: Yoruba, Aja, Akan (Coramanti), Bacongo, Fon, Ibo, and even some Wolof. (15) West Indian islands like Jamaica and Barbados, along with some mainland colonies like South Carolina, replaced Curacao as points for imported, seasoned slaves. (16) With respect to the significance of this African flavor in colonial New York Kruger wrote:
 The African segment of the slave population helped to disseminate
 and preserve the use of African languages, religious beliefs,
 names, and marital and familial values in New York's black
 community. The heavy importation of Africans in the decades
 before the American Revolution helped to sustain African customs
 and cultural patterns in New York's black population into the
 early 19th century. (17)

In a further fleshing out of Caesar's image, the work of Nan Rothschild, Shane White, Sherrill Wilson, Robert J. Swan and Isaac Newton Stokes pose a formidable challenge to "altered states." (18) From the writings of these scholars Caesar's residential patterns among his enslavers become much clearer. As bond laborers, under the initial proprietorship of the Dutch West India Company, Caesar's residence was a forced aggregation of workers quartered in "Negro houses." In a recent publication Robert J. Swan, commenting on these "Negro houses," wrote that "as settlement [in New Amsterdam] expanded, 'Negro houses' were pushed further into the country. Having no name peculiar to the Dutch language, they were simply called 'het quartier,' distinguishing them by a geographic location or a personal name, eventually the Quarter or Negro Quarter. In New Amsterdam this environs was distinguished as 'the Fresh Water.'" (19) Stokes, in his Iconography of Manhattan Island, locates such "quarter" in 1639 further north "on the East River shore, apparently just north of the Sawkill, at about the present 75th Street." (20)

Although Swan views this so-called distant positioning of the African as "duplicating racial segregation in Curacao," (21) and was about social control, other writers skirt the segregation idea or give it little attention. For example, Sherrill Wilson, though she corroborates the distant positioning of Caesar, views it as economically advantageous to Blacks. In her contribution to that new corpus of scholarship on African American social history, Dr. Wilson reminds us that as early as 1664, bouries (farms) belonging to Blacks were strung out along what is today the Bowery as far north as Twelfth Street, beginning south near the Fresh Water Pond, also referred to as The Collect. (22) In reality, though, those African land holdings, as Dr. Wilson further argues, actually extended above Twelfth Street to as far as Thirty-Fourth Street and Seventh Avenue. This would be the present site of Macy's department store. According to Dr. Wilson "the bulk of the land given the enslaved was concentrated in Greenwich Village, then an undesirable marsh-land." (23) For Blacks not obligated to the Dutch West India Company (a point addressed below), "they had land that spread from Astor Place to Prince Street, and on the earliest Dutch maps that land is referred to as 'Free Negro Lots'." (24)

Perhaps the reason other writers avoided Swan's segregated/social control idea is that such distancing of Africans to the north of the colonial city did not prevent other working class whites from joining them there along the Bowery and in the vicinity of the Fresh Water Pond. Jasper Dankers and Peter Sluyter, two Dutch travelers to Manhattan in 1679, observed the diversity of community in the region and wrote that "... upon both sides of the way [Bowery Lane] were many habitations of Negroes, mulattos and whites ..." (25) Alvin F. Harlow in his book Old Bowery Days The Chronicles of a Famous Street, corroborate-rated this early intermingling of white and Black. In that publication he wrote that the two lived together in "huts around the foot of the Collect, close to the industries which gave them employment ... [and where on the spot in the nineteenth century Five Points] some of [the descendents of Blacks] were mingled with low whites." (26)

Shane White's book, Somewhat More Independent, is an excellent case study for use in fleshing out Caesar's image for colonial New York. With respect to residence and segregation, White is quite clear when he shares with his readers that black and white lived, figuratively speaking, "in one another's pockets." For White "the colonial city was a 'walking city' of mixed neighborhoods and relatively little spatial segregation of classes, and the distribution of free black households reflected these characteristics ... neither in employment nor in residence were [free] blacks and the dwindling number of slaves [in the late eighteenth century segregated." (27)

Nan Rothschild's book, New York City Neighborhoods adds tremendously to the molding of Caesar's image on the ground in terms of residential patterns across Manhattan's wards under the Dongan and Montgomery charters of 1686 and 1730, respectively. Similar to White's book, it is an excellent challenge to history in "altered states." As Dr. Rothschild indicated in her book, until 1730 wards were defined on a north-to-south axis by the Dongan Charter. There were five, relatively equal in size, wards and an Out Ward which meandered into the hill and dell countryside. In 1730 the Montgomery Charter created six wards simply by "moving the northern limits of all wards uptown." (28) The black presence in these wards was quite revealing.

In addition to residency in the Out Ward (which included the Bowery), by 1703 Blacks lived among whites (as enslaved and free persons) in the Dock, East, North, South, and Westwards. At times this was in identifiable enclaves and at times not. By 1789, and with the sixth additional Montgomery Ward added to the previous five, the residential patterns of blacks were similar to those of 1703, except that the number of free persons had increased and were identifiable in racial and interracial clusters.

As she focuses in on these residential patterns, Dr. Rothschild allows her reader to actually peer into the streets on which Caesar lived. For example, in 1789 Rothschild found that there were "presumably many slaves" scattered throughout the seven wards, but that as well there were definitely clusters of free blacks scattered in those wards. Rothschild identifies the Montgomery Ward (from the Bowery south to John Street and northeast along the East River to Corlear's Hook or Crown Point) as containing the largest number of free blacks. (29) With respect to this black presence, the author was able to pinpoint the fact that "more than one-third of the black population in the ward lived on Fair Street, with small clusters close by on Beekman and Gold streets. There was also a small group on the continuation of Fair Street in the North Ward. The measure of black diffusion was 100% in the Montgomery Ward and 86% in the North Ward." (30) What is also revealed about this black residential pattern on Fair Street was that whites of Scottish ancestry lived on the street as well. Undoubtedly, there didn't appear to be much evidence of segregation at this early date.


Having fleshed out Caesar's image on the ground, what of his role as enslaved--and free--labor in colonial New York? First of all, using Vivienne L Kruger as a source, it is observed that in addition to company slaves, individual households contained enslaved Africans. For example, in 1703 there were 818 white households in the city with 339 slaveholders, or 41.4 percent of all slaveholders. (31) Average slave holdings were small and ranged from 2-3 slaves but a few owners had larger numbers, especially when their city slaves were combined with those they held on estates outside of the city. The Morris and Philipse families were two good examples, each holding over twenty-five slaves. (32)

Bond African laborers were owned by a wide variety of city residents such as merchants, grocers, physicians, shipwrights, attorneys, coach-makers, etc., or any "gentleman or gentlewoman of property and standing": clergy, foreign diplomats ... (33) The West India Company's slave holdings were as an essential clog in a wheel of economic development and capital accumulation in colonial New Amsterdam. They "were essential to deforestation, cutting roads and erecting buildings." (34) It was enslaved African labor that built the fort at the Battery and maintained the wall that separated white from red and differentiated slave from free. In the maintenance of the wall and work on the fort Stokes wrote that in the summer of 1659, along with white masons at work on the fort, were "negroes of the Company busily employed in quarrying and hauling stone, lime, and other materials for its walls." (35) We know that Caesar was involved in this kind of work because his presence is corroborated from colonial court records. In one such case a white settler, Robert Hodgson, was sentenced "to work at the wheelbarrow for two years with the negroes." (36) African labor built and maintained the roads fanning out from lower New Amsterdam north to Harlem and north along the Bowery to Westchester. As New Amsterdam and New York grew from the wilderness as metropolis, it was supplementary enslaved African labor that built the homes, municipal buildings, churches, business houses, and schools. They worked the shipyards as caulkers, carpenters, long-shore men and mariners. When one of Frederick Philipes' vessels, the Margaret, set sail for Madagascar in June of 1698, it had among its crew at least two known Africans: "Frank, Mr. Cortland's Negro, [a] cooper [and] Maramitta ... cook." (37) African females, when they were not caring for their own off-springs and suckling little white babies, were domestics, dairywomen, and field hands on bouries. With respect to Caesar's involvement in the local trade on Manhattan, White wrote that "free blacks and slaves were heavily involved in the selling of goods in the streets and markets ... [and their presence] was most noticeable in the oyster trade, which they dominated.... [In the early nineteenth century, 1810 to be exact], the City Directory listed 27 oystermen, of whom at least sixteen, or about 60%, were free blacks." (38)

In pacification campaigns against Native Americans, Africans were used as auxiliaries both as warriors and carriers. In the 1663 campaign against the Esopus Indians in and around Wiltwyck (Kingston, New York), the then Dutch Governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant wrote to officials in Curacao requesting "clever and strong" African slaves to "pursue the Indians," adding that it is "evident that in order to possess this country in peace and revenge affronts and murders we shall be forced into a lawful offensive war against [the Indians]." (39) With the advent of the American Revolution, the African as combatant and non-combatant would fight under both the British and Patriots. (40)


Shane White's "... in one another's pockets ...," apropos for Caesar's imaging on the ground in terms of residency, is suitable as well for describing the relationship between masters and slaves. As human property, the African's day-to-day existence was linked to that of his/her owner. In between the master's residence and the work place, Caesar found it quite difficult to "carve social space" for himself, let alone for that of a family. Such a "social space" if it existed overlapped and intertwined with that of the owner. (41) But this overlap and intertwine of space under the Dutch would deviate with the advent of British rule in the city.

Dutch slavery has been depicted as having had elements of "humanitarian benevolence" because of the presence of a growing community of free Blacks, whose beginnings were connected with the release from company control of the original eleven Blacks who entered the colony in 1626. (42) The Manumission Act of 1644, which carried with it lifetime obligations (work and agricultural produce) the Africans owed to the company, "resulted," according to Swan, "in 'half freedom' for [those eleven Africans and] their children and unborn offspring remain[ed] in bondage. (43) This idea of "humanitarian benevolence" is further argued for with the distribution of those "free Negro Lots" mentioned above which took place in 1656, and the legalizing of full freedom once obligatory services had been discontinued by 1664.

But was Dutch slavery an institution that practiced "humanitarian benevolence," a phrase coined by Edgar McManus to describe the Manumission Act? Leon A. Higginbotham, Jr. in his book, In the Matter of Color--Race and the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period, tackles this very issue over the half freedom status of Dutch slaves. (44) It can be said that both he and Kruger acknowledge the legality of black freedom under the Dutch. The enslaved could own property, intermarry with whites, become Christians, and even own white indenture servants. Yet if we compare Dutch colonial holdings in other parts of the world where slavery existed, are we really being fair, especially since the time factor for the flourishing of slavery in New Amsterdam was short, approximately thirty-eight years?

By 1664 when England captured New Amsterdam Dutch slavery was really "an informal, still-immature slave system:" one that resembled lifetime indentured servitude more than chattel slavery." (45) For Thelma Foot it was racial slavery but one characterized more as "a matter of custom rather than law." (46) As an "immature slave system," the Dutch version of the peculiar institution would changed drastically under British rule in the newly named city of New York.

Under the British slavery was no longer "a matter of custom" but was by law over "a matter of color." The African status of "half free" and/or freedman appeared threatened by the increasing legality of a more mature, entrenched slave system. Some of the earliest proscriptions on Africans appeared in what came to be known as the Duke's Laws published in March 1664. An amendment to the laws in 1674 to protect indentured servants from bond-slavery, also stated that this law "shall not set at liberty any Negro or Indian slave, who shall have turned Christian after they had been bought by any person." (47) This provision was enacted to allay the fears of slave owners on the question of freedom for slave after conversion. Subsequent to the 1708 murder of William Hallet, Jr. and his family by an Indian slave and black female accomplice in Newtown (Queens County), and the "Negro Plot" of 1712, a law was passed titled "An Act for Preventing, Suppressing and Punishing the Conspiracy and Insurrection of Negroes and other slaves." (48) This law was later strengthened in 1717 with a provision to discourage the manumission of slaves by their owners. Any owner who intended to free slaves had to put up two hundred pounds sterling security and twenty pounds yearly as maintenance for those they freed. In a further attempt to entrench slavery and thereby protect its human property, free Blacks were discouraged from entertaining slaves and servants, and if such persisted they could forfeit their freedom. (49) This threat to one's freedom was part of a series of laws passed to prohibit the movement of Africans and Native Americans from their owners' property and from congregating in groups.

Although the advent of British rule herald the end of "an informal, still-immature slave system," Kruger reminds us that much of what went into the Duke's Laws was not really enforced until after the Dutch's short return to New York between August 1673 and November 1674. (50) From that point on the increasing entrenchment of colonial Manhattan's peculiar institution was characterized by harsh and stringent regulatory laws, with evidence of attempts at segregation. This attempt at segregation was driven in part by the ease at which the white, black and red working class coalesced. The Dutch attitude toward miscegenation was a factor in this move and was expressed in an early 1638 ordinance. It read that "each and everyone must refrain from fighting, adulterous intercourse with heathens, blacks, or other persons ..." (51)

Under the British slavery mirrored that of a closed system that was potentially volatile as a result of laws that eroded the humanity of both enslaved and free African, and legal moves to create a social wedge between white and black workers. And the British were not the only culprits in creating a highly volatile atmosphere in colonial New York. As the largest slaveholders in the colony, the Dutch must share the blame as well. In the words of Kruger, "Much as the Dutch-descended Afrikaners in South Africa became diehard proponents of racial oppression and apartheid, so the Dutch in New York became vehement supporters of slavery to the very end." (52)

One feature of slave society in New York that perhaps mitigated, to an extent, the volatility of the institution was the Dutch custom of giving a child his or her own personal slave who remained with his/her owner through adulthood. James Fennimore Cooper described this custom in his book Satanstoe. He wrote in the voice of the protagonist:
 When a child of the family reached the age of six, or eight,
 a young slave of the same age and sex, was given to him, or her,
 with some formality, and from that moment the fortunes of the two
 were considered to be, within the limits of their respective
 pursuits and positions, as those of man and wife. It is true,
 divorces [separations] do occur, but it is only in the cases of
 gross misconduct ... but this particular negro remains with him
 [her] as long as any thing remains ... The day I was six, a boy
 was given to me, in the manner I have mentioned; and he remained
 not only my property, but my factotum to this moment. (53)

A good example of such a relationship was the African slave Caesar, property of the Rensselaer-Nicoll family of the Bethlehem estate below Albany. Before his death in 1852 at the age of 115, Caesar had belonged to three masters in the Rensselaer-Nicoll family: the first to whom he was originally given, the second with whom he grew to adulthood, and the third, the son of the second, to whom he was a constant companion. (54)

As the personal property of a colonial family, a slave's labor was used to help sustain the family. The custom of giving little Dutch children their own personal slave carried with it psychological and companionship values for members of the white family. But what of such values for the African? And, were African families possible during colonial slavery? Vivienne L. Kruger, through her doctoral thesis, is our authority on this. Among free Africans traditional family roles were possible. For the enslaved, because of the small numbers of slaves held by individual owners, and the evident imbalance in gender in the early years of the colonial period, "the slave family faced many difficulties--most slave families were unable to live together in the small slave holdings of New York. Slaves were randomly distributed rather than grouped by families into white households." (55) In essence, according to Kruger, "traditional family roles and legal privileges between spouses and between parents and children were undermined by the slave's primary status as property. Property relations were protected in law at the expense of black family relations. [Yet] in spite of all these obstacles, the ideals of family love and obligation often survived within the black community." (56)


Those original eleven Africans who arrived in New Amsterdam in 1626 had Latin names like Paul d'Angola and John Francisco, and were apparently Catholic Christians. Matter of fact, it "was a common practice of Jesuit missionaries to baptize Africans just before departure [from Africa] to the New World." (57) In colonial Dutch New Amsterdam Christianized blacks, in theory, were acknowledged as equals before God. They were welcomed into the Dutch Church, married there, and even buried from the church. By 1636 African and white youths together were receiving religious instruction in the church. (58) Prior to the capture of New Netherland, a Dutch reformed minister wrote of his work among Blacks: he had "taken much trouble in private and public catechizing [Blacks]. This had born little fruit among the elder people who have no faculty of comprehension; but there is some hope for the youth who have improved reasonably well." (59)

Under British rule Christian conversion of the African (enslaved and free) was carried out by the missionary wing of the Anglican Church, the SPG or Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts beginning in 1704. (60) Elias Neau was appointed catechist to blacks at Trinity Church in 1705; and at that time legislation (mentioned above) was passed to reassure owners that baptizing their slaves did not carry with it freedom. Earlier, in 1697, when the colony of New York received its Royal Charter, and in line with a growing attempt at racial segregation, blacks were no longer buried in Trinity's cemetery. A new "Negro Burial ground" was opened in 1712 near the Kalchhook (Fresh Water) Pond and remained in use until 1794.

The Christianization of Africans was built into an overall program of acculturation. Missionaries and slave owners were content with the argument "that Christianizing the slaves would not injure the slave masters [but] in fact would teach the slaves to serve their masters more loyally." (61) As a result of such a program of acculturation, many of the socio-religious values that Africans brought with them to colonial New Amsterdam/New York were lost or were relegated to the annual celebration of Pinkster. Originally a Dutch festival celebrated to acknowledge the return of spring, Pinkster, by the mid-eighteenth century, had become an African festival but one in which whites continued to participate with great anticipation and excitement. As to how Pinkster became African, John Blassingame, in his book The Slave Community, reminds us that "in the process of acculturation the slaves made European forms serve African functions." (62) Over time, therefore, elements from African socio-religious traditions were incorporated into the Pinkster festival. And it was probably in this fashion that, in New Netherlands, the festival developed, at least initially, into a syncretism of the two. In support of Pinkster's African look, Cooper wrote through his protagonist in Satanstoe:
 The feature that distinguish a Pinkster frolic from the usual
 scenes at fairs, and other merry-makings, however, were of
 African origin ... The traditions and usage of their [Africans]
 original country were so far preserved as to produce a marked
 difference between this festival and one of European origin. (63)

Pinkster was a happening; a gathering; an exciting time of the year. It was a carnival, and colonial New York City, like most cities and towns along the Hudson River, evoked the electricity of the carnival spirit that gripped the participants. Cooper captured the excitement of the occasion as African peddlers roamed the streets to earn enough money to be used throughout the week-long celebration. Through his protagonist in Satanstoe he voiced:
 Just as I got into Hanover Square, I saw a gray headed Negro,
 who was for turning a penny before he engaged in the amusement of
 the day [Pinkster], carrying two pails that were scoured to the
 neatness of Dutch fastidiousness, and which were suspended from
 the yoke he had across his neck and shoulders. He cried "white
 wine!" in a clear sonorous voice; and I was at his side in a
 moment. White wine was, and is still my delight of a morning; and
 I bought a delicious drought of the purest and best of a
 communipaw vintage, eating a cake at the same time. (64)

On Manhattan Island Pinkster was celebrated on the "commons," where City Hall now stands, and, at times, at the Old Brooklyn "Fly Market" or Catherine Market where city Africans and others from Long Island and Jersey usually congregated for entertainment in drumming, dancing, and racing the horses of their owners. But without a King Charles to preside over the festival, Manhattan's Pinkster was "never ... the perfect Saturnalia that was for a long period exhibited in its observance at Albany." (65) As I have argued in "Pinkster Carnival: Africanisms in the Hudson River Valley," chapter five of Long Hammering, Pinkster may have originated in Europe with the Dutch, but, shortly after it reach the New World, it was taken over by enslaved Africans who incorporated into it their African traditions. As a result, for almost two hundred years, some forms of Africanisms were able to survive within the institution of slavery in New York encapsulated in the Pinkster carnival. These were passed on from generation to generation, from Old World African to New World African, so that by the beginning of the nineteenth century Pinkster carnival had become an African celebration.


Resistance to enslavement was a constant--from the time of capture in Africa, during the crossing from Africa to the Americas (the dreaded Middle Passage), and throughout the time of bondage. Herbert Aptheker expressed it well when he wrote in his seminal book, American Negro Slave Revolts, that "discontent and rebelliousness were not only exceedingly common, but, indeed, characteristic of American Negro slaves." (66) In 1976 he heightened our awareness of this resistance to slavery by emphatically pointing out that "resistance, not acquiescence, is the core of history." (67) In colonial New York, resistance was a response to an intolerable, inhumane relationship to which the enslaved was subjected. It can be said, therefore, that such a relationship grew even more intolerable and inhumane when the Dutch's "informal, still-immature slave system" came under English rule. Given the severity and frequency of laws enacted to define British slavery as well as encroach on the tenuous status of free Africans, and create a social wedge between the white and black working class, it was simply a matter of time before a highly volatile situation erupted into blood-shed. Of all the cases where blood was shed, two in particular remain more prominent than others: the 1712 slave rebellion and the 1741 "Negro Plot." (68)

Conditions for the 1712 rebellion were ideal. There was resentment toward Manhattan's slave system held by most of the enslaved. The concentration of Africans in the vicinity of the Maiden Lane uprising was high. Colonial New York City "held one of the densest concentrations of blacks in British North America." Out of a total population of 6,307, Africans, of which most were slaves, were no less than 945 or 16%. (69) As Thelma Foot has argued: "many of the black rebels lived in city neighborhoods of dense concentration of the black population, in the south, dock, and east wards. Amidst these relatively crowded conditions, en-slaved dissidents had the opportunity to spread 'the contagion of rebellion' to other slaves." (70) The rebels had mobility due to the fact that enslaved labor was a mobile force in accomplishing tasks given them by their owners. And it was a labor force that contained newly arrived recruits from overseas who had not been acculturated to New York's western style of slavery. Many of the rebel leaders were Kormantines and/or Akan-Ashanti and Pawpaw from the Gold Coast of West Africa. (71)

Nine whites were killed in the rebellion and several buildings destroyed by fire. But the swift defeat of the rebels by the local military force prevented further deaths and destruction. Twenty of the Twenty-six convicted of the rebellion were either hanged or burned at the stake on or near the Fresh Water Pond--present-day Foley Square.

A few points about the rebellion; and it is, again, the research of Dr. Foote that enhances our imagery of Caesar in his response to oppression in 1712. For one, the rebellion was the "first collective act of resistance undertaken by more than three or four slaves." (72) Solidarity was widespread among participants--the English were completely caught by surprise. In Foote's word it was "an air-tight conspiracy." (73) Yet it was one without a mass uprising of the slave population given the absence of certain variables more peculiar to a southern or Caribbean environment: an absence of large work gangs and the lack of segregated slave quarters. (74) And finally, "in spite of the dense concentration of the black population within eighteenth-century New York City and the mobility of the slave labor force in that port city, a successful Negro uprising was tactically improbable." (75) Subsequent to the revolt, the 1712 law mentioned above to prevent such conspiracies was enacted as well as between 1712 and 1809 free blacks were barred from owning property, land or houses.

The second prominent slave disturbance has been defined as a "Negro Plot," and if it had not been detected might have reached the level of Nathaniel Bacon's Virginia uprising of integrated rebels in 1676. The "Negro Plot" of 1741 has been characterized as a virtual "witch hunt" or a "by-product of "white fear" after a series of fires that occurred in the city. With the events of 1712 still vivid in their memory, white New Yorkers hurried to get at the core of a presumed "conspiracy against English rule of reputed Spanish origin which was supposed to have involved at least 85 Negro slaves and eight white outsiders of unorthodox religious beliefs and marginal social status. (76)

A motive little discussed behind this "alleged conspiracy" was the commingling of white and black in taverns and/or tippling houses in spite of efforts to create a social wedge between them. Given the imbalance in gender ratios for both black and white, there was much crossing of racial lines in search of companionship. In New York City in the 1740s for every 100 white women there were 77.5 white men, and 127 black men for every 100 black women. (77) In the words of Thomas J. Davis in his book A Rumor of Revolt, "a world of prejudice and injustice ensnared the New Yorkers of 1741 ...," (78) and/or as argued by Foote, they became obsessed with "a conspiratorial world view in regard to the behavior" (79) of their slaves.

As a result of convictions based on presumption and not proof, seventeen blacks and four whites were hanged and thirteen blacks were burned at the stake. (80)


In conclusion, what has been evident is that a resort to "altered states" to write history is an unscientific, unprofessional use of a weak methodology to change the course of an unalterable flow of history. Confronted by a formidable challenge posed by the application of a rigorous scientific inquiry to historical methodology, history in "altered states" soon collapses like sand castles on a beach over-whelmed by the sea. The end result, therefore, of a sound methodological approach to research is the revelation of an image of Caesar that had been forged on the land. Caesar stands not mired in the backwaters of history but in the midst of the stream of humanity clothed in his rightful historical regalia.


As a postscript, and as a way to further enhance the imaging of Caesar, let me just say that we anxiously await the preliminary findings of the team of Howard University scientists examining the skeletal remains of the enslaved unearthed from the African Burial Ground near Foley square.


(2) Cf. A. J. Williams-Myers, "New York city, African Americans and Selective Memory: An Historiographical Assessment of a Black Presence Before 1877," Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, Vol. 21, No. 2 (July 1997): 65-85.

(3) Gary Nash, "Social Development," in Jack P. Greene and J. R. Pole, eds., Colonial British America: Essays on Colonial and Revolutionary America (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984): 254-256.

(4) Douglas Greenberg, "The Middle Colonies in Recent American Historiography," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 36 (1979): 414.

(5) Nash, "Social Development," 254.

(6) Thomas J. Davis, "Slavery in Colonial New York City," (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1974); Jessica Kross, The Evolution of an American Town: Newtown, New York, 1642-1775 (Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press, 1983); Joyce D. Goodfriend, "Burghers and Blacks: The Evolution of a Slave Society at New Amsterdam," New York History 59 (April 1978): 124-43; Morton Wagman, "Corporate Slavery in New Netherland," Journal of Negro History 65 (Winter 1980): 34-42; Vivienne L. Kruger, "Born to Run: The Slave Family in Early New York, 1626 to 1827, (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1985).

(7) Thelma Foote, "Black Life in Colonial Manhattan, 1664-1786," (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1991): xi.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Kruger, "Born to Run," Vol. I, 12.

(10) Cf. Kyle Hughes, "Anti-Slavery Law Turns 20 in N.Y.," Poughkeepsie Journal (September 9, 1999): 8A; Shane White, Somewhat More Independent: The End of Slavery in New York City, 1770-1810 (Athens, Ga.: The University of Georgia Press, 1991).

(11) Kruger, "Born to Run," Vol. I, 78.

(12) Foote, "Black Life in Colonial Manhattan," 30, 58 (Table 3).

(13) Kruger, "Born to Run," Vol. I., 37-38.

(14) Ibid., Vol. I, 79, 85.

(15) Ibid., Vol. I, 81.

(16) Ibid., Vol. I, 78.

(17) Ibid., Vol. I, 86.

(18) Nan A. Rothschild, New York City Neighborhoods: The Eighteenth Century (New York: Academic Press, Inc., 1985); White, Somewhat More Independent; Sherrill Wilson, New York City's Black Slave-owners A Social and Material Culture History (New York: Garland Publishing, 1994); Robert J. Swan, "The Other Fort Amsterdam: New Light on Aspects of Slavery in New Netherlands," Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, Vol. 22, No 2 (July 1998):19-42; Isaac Newton Stokes, The Iconography of Manhattan Island 1498-1909 (New York: Arno Press, Inc., 1967), Vol. I.

(19) Swan, "The Other Fort Amsterdam," 31.

(20) Stokes, The Iconography of Manhattan, Vol. I, 31.

(21) Swan, "The Other Fort Amsterdam," 35-36.

(22) Wilson as quoted in L. Strickland-Abuwi, "African Burial Remains Head for Howard," The City Sun (August 25-August 31, 1993): 6.

(23) Ibid.

(24) Ibid.

(25) Jasper Dankers and Peter Sluyter, Journal of a Voyage to New York, 1679-80 (Brooklyn, 1867). Quoted in Alvin F. Harlow, Old Bowery Days The Chronicles of a Famous Street (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1931): 45.

(26) Harlow, Old Bowery Days, 9, 44.

(27) White, Somewhat More Independent, 186.

(28) Rothschild, New York City Neighborhoods, 11-12.

(29) Ibid., 100.

(30) Ibid., 100.

(31) Kruger, "Born to Run," Vol. I, 90.

(32) Ibid., Vol. I, 104-05.

(33) Ibid., Vol. I, 93.

(34) Swan, "The Other Fort Amsterdam," 31.

(35) Stokes, The Iconography of Manhattan, Vol. I, 77.

(36) Cf. Henri & Barbara van DeZee, A Sweet and Alien Land (New York, Viking Press, 1978): 294.

(37) Jacob Judd, "Frederick Philipse and the Madagascar Trade," New York Historical Quarterly (October 1971): 364.

(38) White, Somewhat More Independent, 161. Cf. John H. Hewitt, "Mr. Downing and his Oyster House: The Life and Good Works of an African-American Entrepreneur," New York History (July 1993): 228-252.

(39) Roi Ottley and William J. Weatherby, eds., The Negro in New York: An Informal Social History (Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana Publications, 1967): 12.

(40) Cf. A. J. Williams-Myers, "The American Revolution, the Struggle for Control of the Hudson River Valley, and the Road to Victory: The African American Factor," in my Long Hammering Essays on the Forging of an African American Presence in the Hudson River Valley to the Early Twentieth Century (Lawrenceville, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1994): 99-114.

(41) Cf. Foote, "Black Life in Colonial Manhattan," 197.

(42) Edgar J. McManus, History of Negro Slavery in New York (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1966): 12-13.

(43) Swan, "The Other Fort Amsterdam," 35.

(44) Leon Higginbotham, In the Matter of Color (New York, 1978).

(45) Kruger, "Born to Run." Vol. I, 69-70.

(46) Foote, "Black Life in Colonial Manhattan," 180.

(47) Edwin Vernon Morgan, "Slavery in New York: The Status of the Slave Under the English Colonial Government," Howard Historical Review 5 (January 1925): 338.

(48) Edmond O'Callaghan, The Colonial Laws of New York from the Year 1664 to the Revolution (Albany, N.Y.: James B. Lydon, 1894): Vol. I, 598.

(49) Cf. Kruger, "Born to Run," Vol. I, 69.

(50) Ibid., Vol. I, 70.

(51) Ibid., Vol. I, 42.

(52) Ibid

(53) James Fennimore Cooper, Satanstoe (New York: W.A. Townsend and Company, 1890): 80-81.

(54) Dunkin H. Gill, "Biography of a Slave, 1732-1852, Caesar," on deposit, New-York Historical Society. New York, New York.

(55) Kruger, "Born to Run," Vol. I, 145.

(56) Ibid., Vol I, 24.

(57) Swan, "The Other Fort Amsterdam," 28.

(58) Carleton Mabee, Black Education in New York From Colonial to Modern Times (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1979): 1.

(59) Hugh Hastings, Ecclesiastical Records, State of New York, quoted in Mabee, Black Education, 1-2.

(60) Cf. Mabee, Black Education, 3.

(61) Franklin L. Klingberg, Anglican Humanitarianism in Colonial New York (1940; reprint, Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1971): 170.

(62) Ibid. Cf. John Blassingame, The Slave Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 197): 17-18.

(63) Cooper, Satanstoe, 74-75.

(64) Ibid., 70.

(65) Gabriel Furman, Antiquities of Long Island (New York: J.W. Bouton, 1875), 70.

(66) Herbert Apthaker, (1938; reprint, New York: International Publishers, 1987): 374.

(67) Quoted in Michael Craton, Testing the Chains (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982): 11.

(68) Cf. Thomas J. Davis, A Rumor of Revolt The Great Negro Plot in Colonial New York (New York: The Free Press, 1985).

(69) Foot, "Black Life in Colonial Manhattan," 218.

(70) Ibid., 218.

(71) Ibid., 207-217.

(72) Ibid., 220.

(73) Ibid., 220.

(74) Ibid., 221.

(75) Ibid., 221.

(76) Ibid., 275. Cf. Davis, A Rumor of Revolt, 259-262.

(77) Davis, A Rumor of Revolt, 259-262.

(78) Ibid., 263.

(79) Foote, "Black Life in colonial Manhattan," 305, 322.

(80) Davis, A Rumor of Revolt, 6.

A. J. Williams-Myers (1)

(1) A.J. Williams-Myers is a faculty of the Department of Black Studies, SUNY at New Paltz. This paper was first presented at a colloquium at the Museum of the City of New York 15 October 1998, and a version of it at the Bush-Holly Historic Site in Cos Cob, Connecticut, 11 June 2002.
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Author:Williams-Myers, A.J.
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Date:Jul 1, 2004
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