New York City may have a reputation for being a socially progressive place to live, but during the 18th century, it was a major hub for the North American slave trade, with thousands of men, women and children passing through the slave market that operated in the heart of what is now the financial district. On the night of April 6, 1712, this came to head when a group of New York slaves took up arms and revolted against their captors.
Life was wretched for the slaves brought to New York. Many of the city’s early landmarks, from City Hall to the eponymous wall of Wall Street were built using slave labor. The city even constructed an official slave market in 1711, Jim O’Grady reported for WNYC News in 2015.
"It was a city-run slave market because they wanted to collect tax revenue on every person who was bought and sold there," historian Chris Cobb told O’Grady. "And the city hired slaves to do work like building roads."
Unlike the sprawling slave plantations of the south where slaves were often kept separate from free people, New Yorkers lived nearly neck-and-neck, even in the city’s early days. That meant in the densely populated New York, slaves and free people often worked and lived side-by-side. Not only did that breed resentment among the city’s slaves, but it was much easier for them to communicate with each other, as slave owners often sent their slaves out into the streets to find work, according to PBS’ Africans in America.
On the evening of April 6, the spark caught fire. That night, a group of approximately 23 slaves gathered in an orchard on Maiden Lane in the center of town. Armed with swords, knives, hatchets and guns, the group sought to inspire the city’s slaves to rise up against their masters by staging a dramatic revolt, writes Gabe Pressman for NBC New York.
As Robert Hunter, the colonial governor of New York, later wrote of the revolt in a report:
One...slave to one Vantilburgh set fire to [a shed] of his masters, and then repairing to his place where the rest were, they all sallyed out together with their arms and marched to the fire. By this time, the noise of the fire spreading through the town, the people began to flock to it. Upon the approach of several, the slaves fired and killed them.
During the skirmish, at least nine white slave holders were killed and another six wounded. Though the rebels fled to the north, local militias and soldiers from a nearby fort were quickly raised to hunt them down. In the end, 27 people were captured hiding in a swamp near modern-day Canal Street, though Hunter reported that six men committed suicide rather than facing trial. Though a handful of the captured slaves were spared, the majority were sentenced to brutal, public executions, including being burned alive and being hung by chains in the center of town.
In the years after the slave revolt, life got harsher for enslaved New Yorkers. The city enacted strict laws preventing slaves from gathering in large groups or even holding a firearm. Slave owners could beat a slave for no reason at all, so long as they weren’t killed or maimed. Masters were even discouraged from freeing their slaves, having to post a £200 bond first, as PBS' Africans in America reports. Though New York eventually outlawed slavery in 1799, it remained an intrinsic part of city life until after the Civil War, as businessmen continued to profit off of the products of the slave trade like sugar and molasses imported from the Caribbean.