GUEST POST: Class Warfare in the Conspiracy of 1741

A series of suspicious fires in the spring of 1741 sent New York's Protestant white elite into a paranoid hysteria. The result was the Conspiracy of 1741, an insurrection that never really existed.

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In the mid-eighteenth-century, New York City was a lonely colonial outpost of some 10,000 souls. Squatting on the southern tip of the marshy island of Manhattan, its inhabitants enjoyed New World staples like bitter winters, stifling summers, violent native resistance, disease… and little else. In 1741, a particularly frigid winter froze over the Hudson river and subjected the city’s poor and enslaved residents to untold privation and misery. A series of suspicious fires the following spring and the presence of some Catholic strangers of unknown allegiance was more than enough to send the Protestant white elite into a paranoid hysteria. What ensued is known to history as the Conspiracy, the Negro Plot, or the Slave Insurrection of 1741, though it’s not at all clear that anything that could be described as such ever existed.

All we can say for certain about the alleged 1741 plot is that more than a hundred slaves and a smaller number of poor whites were hanged, exiled or burned at the stake in the ensuing panic and trial. Fears of a multi-racial conspiracy to burn the town and slaughter the slave-owning upper crust were soon augmented as the extracted confessions and dubious testimony of accused conspirators grew more fantastic and bizarre. Eventually, colonial authorities laid much of the blame at the feet of a group of Spanish sailors-turned-slaves and an itinerant priest, cast as a Papal catspaw in a far-fetched scheme to invade British North America.

New York, like many cities of the period, was a jumble of wood, thatch and pitch lit and heated exclusively by open flames. As you can imagine, fire was a frequent cause for concern. In March and April of 1741, a series of fires culminating in the near destruction of the governor’s residence (and all of the city’s paper records) sparked fears of a coordinated campaign of arson. When a slave was seen running from the scene of one of these conflagrations, that was all the evidence needed to depict the blazes as entrées to an impending uprising. Just a few decades earlier, in 1712, a similar thing had happened. The conspirators set a fire in a multi-story Lower Manhattan residence and laid in wait for the citizen fire brigade. As the latter group struggled with hand pumps and buckets to quell the flames, pistol- and axe-wielding slaves set upon them with predictable results. The revolt was quickly stamped out, however, and the participants dealt with to the tune of dozens of executions—including one breaking-on-the-wheel, a brutal punishment even by early eighteenth-century-standards. Laws restricting the movements and agency of enslaved and free blacks alike were put into effect. Even so, the 1712 uprising still loomed large in the imagination of New York’s elite.

Police arrested the fleeing man and threatened him with burning at the stake unless he named his alleged co-conspirators. Authorities then followed this same playbook until they had a nicely fleshed-out conspiracy on the record and over a hundred slaves, free blacks, and even a handful of poor whites crowded into the city’s lone jail. Principal among this latter group was an indentured servant named Mary Burton. Burton was already swept up in an ongoing theft case involving her master, the poor tavern owner John Hughson, who was accused of acting as the fence for a ring of slaves who moonlighted as burglars. Induced by a 100-pound reward and freedom from servitude, Burton spun a lascivious yarn of exotic rituals and blood oaths sworn by Hughson and his black accomplices to raze the town and crown the erstwhile bartender king. Goaded on by lead judge and prosecutor Daniel Horsmanden (who, as it happens, was also writing a book on the trial that he hoped might straighten out his sorry financial situation), Burton would eventually expand the narrative to include Anglican preacher John Ury as an agent of the Vatican. The concurrent presence of the Spanish sailors, whose dark skin qualified them for sale as slaves, as well as Ury’s side-gig as a Latin teacher, was cold proof that New York was in the grip of a dastardly, Roman Catholic conspiracy.

In all fairness, the concurrent War of Jenkin’s Ear did see the British and stridently Catholic Spanish Empires duking it out in the region to secure control over lucrative trans-Atlantic trade. So a papist plot to crush the British colonies from within probably would have sounded pretty good to the Spanish, if one had been forthcoming. The British experience of the war, too, was decidedly mixed. Despite some successful engagements, Redcoats dying en masse of Yellow Fever and breaking against fortified Spanish holdings in Central America were the major features. At the rate things were going, it’s hard to blame British subjects in a lightly-defended port city for fretting that an armada on the horizon and slave rebellion in the streets might end up being their lot. It’s important to note as well that the Spaniards were seen by many slaves as potential saviors, having offered freedom to any escaped slave who would join in with them against the British.

Things were not exactly stable in New York, either. Though still a colonial backwater in many respects, the city was already recognizable as the bustling commercial center that it is today. Then as now, NYC was a diverse and chaotic place; Portuguese Jews rubbed shoulders with French Huguenots and the harbor teemed with English, Welsh and Scots-Irish traders and settlers. The status of New York as a nexus of international trade made social cohesion, even among the tiny upper crust, difficult. Political infighting was nothing new in the West. But as New York grew into its role as the heart of a burgeoning network of global trade for immense profit, the attendant exploitation of poor whites and slaves alike heightened tensions both within and across classes. While the poor struggled for subsistence, the leisure class jockeyed for political favor back in England and lucrative posts in the colonial government. In 1734, for instance, a British Army colonel by the name of William Cosby was tapped to replace the late John Montogomorie as Governor of New York. In his first act as governor, he ingratiated himself with colleagues and subjects by immediately taking the interim governor to court for half of his year’s salary. When the New York Supreme Court threw his case out on legal grounds, Cosby sacked the chief justice and replaced with him a political ally. He then refused to call elections for the general assembly until his salary demands were met. 

Cosby’s unabashed strongarming served to crystallize the political divide between his, the Court party, and the opposition Country party to which the erstwhile chief justice and interim governor belonged. Similar squabbles continued throughout the thirties, as the opposition press pilloried Cosby as a capricious tyrant working to wring as much personal profit and political advantage as he could from his office. Eventually, the thin-skinned and litigious governor dragged a hostile New York publisher to court over such claims in what would become the famous trial of John Peter Zenger. After a false start in which a grand jury refused to indict Zenger, the lawsuit finally concluded in an embarrassing defeat for Cosby and a landmark ruling for a colonial free press. Zenger’s lawyers, William Smith and Andrew Hamilton, successfully made the novel legal argument that one could not be guilty of libel if the claims in question were true. Country party loyalists cheered the decision and Cosby, incensed, was left no option but to back down.

Things got so acrimonious the next year that Court party partisan and successor to Cosby, George Clarke, barricaded he and his allies in the city’s principal fort and awaited an assault by Country partisans. It never came, though everyday residents were left fully under the impression that a civil war was underway. The year of the purported slave revolt, City Recorder and chief impresario of the coming hearings Daniel Horsmanden described the city as “in the midst of Party flames.”

Meanwhile, a form of proto-class consciousness was developing among those very same poor whites. As the conspiracy trials began in April 1741, so did a strike by city bakers. A contemporaneous report by the New-York Weekly Journal reported in succinct eighteenth-century style that “last Week there was a general Combination of the Bakers not to Bake, because Wheat is at a high price, which occasioned some Disturbance, and reduced some, notwithstanding their Riches, to a sudden want of Bread.” As capitalism came to the fore as the dominant mode of economic organization, it brought with it the labor unrest and social fragmentation that would attend its rise over the coming centuries.

All of this contributed to the sense that New York was a house of cards ready to fall. Part of the problem from a labor perspective was the enormous number of slaves, which didn’t cohere with a traditional market economy. One-in-five New Yorkers during this period were slaves, a huge proportion that made the small city home to the second-largest enslaved population anywhere in the British colonies. To make matters worse from an elite perspective, many of these slaves were born in Africa and retained cultural and linguistic ties to their mother nations, as well as memories of freedom. It was generally the case that African-born slaves were more prone to resist their lot, in ways both subtle and overt, than those born into slavery.

In New York, the character of slave resistance differed from that of the plantation south, owing to a general freedom of movement and agency necessitated by the mercantile preoccupations of slaveowners. For instance, many black slaves worked on subcontracted jobs for wages that often undercut those of poor whites. Slaves moved throughout the city with a relative degree of freedom, starting families, buying and selling goods and mingling in damp, dockside public houses with soldiers and others from society’s dregs. Despite the best efforts of the slave-owning elite, there was really no way to curtail this freedom without seriously limiting profits.

Thus the harsh de jure restrictions on slave freedom imposed after the 1712 Revolt slackened in practice as they came increasingly into conflict with the vicissitudes of urban slaveholding and commercial dealing. This is not to say that slaves weren't treated with abominable cruelty by their owners. They were in many cases. Even before the specter of an uprising triggered a large-scale bloodletting, slaves were regularly subjected to all manner of physical and psychological abuse. Enslaved women were particularly hard-pressed, given their exclusion from the market to which their male counterparts had at least limited access.

The War of Jenkin’s Ear, even as it occasioned general anxiety about a Spanish invasion, provided a unique opportunity to make fast money in the form of legalized piracy. The high-risk, high-reward enterprise of privateering saw many New York merchants assembling crews in the hopes of snagging a Spanish galleon or merchant ship. Given the dangerous nature of the work, many captains were more than willing to accept black crewmembers and slave-owners were often willing to roll the dice and send slaves on extended voyages for plunder and Spanish prizes. Successful expeditions often entitled enslaved mariners to significant payouts, creating a system in which master and slave alike could earn their nut. In one such case, a slave aptly named Fortune was sent to sea by his owner, a merchant named Conelius Wykoop, and afterward compensated to the tune of 100 pounds, or roughly twice the annual income of a skilled worker at the time.

Taken in sum, the dynamic form of commercial enterprise that sustained New York in 1741 was creating incentives to entrust slaves with an increasing amount of individual freedom. Unsurprisingly, this engendered an equal or greater amount of white anxiety at the prospect of revolt. When four more suspicious fires struck New York on April 6, the keyed-up city gentry were spurred into nervous, retributive action. One of the blazes in question partially consumed the house of Captain Jacob Sarly, a privateer commander and owner of one of the captive Spanish sailors sold into slavery, Juan de la Silva. Evidence, such as it was, pointed to arson. De la Silva was apprehended and a mob quickly rounded up the rest of the imprisoned Afro-Spanish sailors.

It was now out in the ether that all the fires may well have been set by the captive Spaniards, who had been brought to the city in shackles the previous fall by a captain named Lush. They had bitterly protested their sale into slavery, at first citing their Spanish citizenship, which may well have been counter-productive given attitudes towards Spain at that moment in time. Once the auction gavel fell and their fate was effectively sealed, the five men reportedly vowed revenge on their captor. Historian Jill Lepore, in her 2005 book on the events New York Burning, quotes Mary Burton quoting the sailors in turn as hoping “to tie Lush to a Beam, and roast him like a Piece of Beef.” Though from the evidence available it seems the Spanish slaves were most likely innocent, this was certainly an unfortunate flourish. All five men were added to the ballooning rolls of the city jail and left to await their fate.

While the Spanish sailors and American slaves had mingled over the past months and surely had cause for solidarity, the latter were quick to testify against the former as the trial unfolded and more and more defendants went to their deaths. Despite not speaking or understanding Spanish, black slaves testified again and again to the machinations of the begrudged Spanish sailors. Among other details, the various testimonies of enslaved blacks purported that the captive sailors intended to burn the city in advance of a Spanish invasion that would liberate them. A slave named Jack testified that at Hughson’s tavern, he had heard the Spanish slaves agree to wait a month, until a Spanish or French invasion was imminent, before launching the revolt. In reality, the Spaniards were sick, depressed and frost-bitten from the preceding winter. Only one of the core group of five made out as masterminds of this trans-Atlantic plot was well enough to leave his bed and travel by foot. Nonetheless, the “Spanish Connection” theory was too good to let go.

The tavern’s owner, John Hughson, was arrested along with his entire family. Hughson, whose tavern was considered suspect because he sold liquor to slaves, free blacks, and poor whites alike, and because of allegations that he traded in stolen goods, filled the role of a “white ringleader” for the supposed plot, and prosecutors charged that his home served as the main headquarters for the plotters.

The first Spaniard to be tried, a man named Francis, was, with the aid of an interpreter and a handful of Anglophone witnesses, convicted and burned at the stake. Next came a batch of five to be tried together, as was common practice in the trial. Juan de la Silva, Pablo Ventura Angel, Antonio de la Cruz, Antonio de St. Bendito, and Augustine Gutierrez pled not guilty and raised the issue of their legal status. Citing their surnames and status as Spanish citizens, they insisted they were free men and as such, slave testimony could not be admissible against them. It was a canny strategy that almost worked. The judges acquiesced to separate trials for the men, one as slaves and another as free men. In the latter, only the evidence of the white indentured servant Mary Burton was accepted. Despite not speaking or understanding Spanish, she corroborated the testimony of the slaves. She swore to the veracity of the schemes and oaths sworn at Hughson’s tavern and the formation of a sleeper-cell among the enslaved Spaniards.

The accused mustered a sustained and credible defense, calling no fewer than 12 witnesses of their own. Juan de la Silva even got his own master on the stand and secured testimony from him that “he had heard that his Negro was free.” Despite their able defense and the scant evidence against them, the jury found them guilty after just 30 minutes of deliberation. All five “Spanish negroes” were sentenced to hang. Ultimately, all but one, Juan de la Silva, would be pardoned and exiled for reasons that are not clear. Perhaps their legalistic protestations of innocence somehow stuck with the judges, who were obsessed with process and decorum even as they oversaw the liquidation of over a hundred flimsily accused people.

Two defendants in the 1741 prosecutions receive their sentence (New York Public Library)

By the height of summer 1741, enthusiasm for the proceedings as well as the general hysteria that had gripped the city in early spring had started to wane. Dozens had been condemned to death or exile and any fears of revolt or foreign invasion had been quieted. The trial had also attracted scrutiny in the colonial press, drawing comparisons to the Salem Witch Trials and general condemnation as a bloody farce. The circuitous and contradictory narrative teased out via unsavory witnesses like Burton had curdled the proceedings into a civic embarrassment. The last person to be brought before the court as part of the Conspiracy was the visiting priest John Ury. Given his Latin-speaking and outsider status, he was cast as a Catholic agitator who encouraged the uprising in the name of the Spanish Crown. The principal witness against him was John Hughson’s daughter, who had already been condemned to death along with her entire family for supposedly falling in with the enslaved conspirators. She was granted a last-minute pardon though in order to testify against Ury, and testify she did. Hughson swore that Ury had baptized slaves and promised them salvation should they take up arms against their masters.

The prosecution then submitted a letter received earlier that summer from General James Oglethorpe of South Carolina. In it, the general warned of “a villainous Design of a very extraordinary Nature… that the Spaniards had imployed Emisarries to burn all the Magazines and considerable Towns in the English North America” in order to cripple the war effort in the West Indies. Oglethorpe goes on, in the prose equivalent of holding a flashlight under his chin, to say that these “Emissaries” would be disguised as “Physicians, Dancing-Masters” and, you guessed it, priests. This proved fatal for Ury. Although he mounted a capable and eloquent defense and despite the dearth of evidence against him, it took the jury just half the time to return a guilty verdict for him as it had for the Spanish sailors. One of the members of the court “summ’d up the Evidence for the King” into a hybrid of the various schemes detailed at trial but ultimately “a Foreign Influence” and “a Spanish and Popish Plot.”

Just as the Court needed Hughson to be the plot’s white mastermind, Ury was necessary to concretize the Spanish angle. The deeply ingrained racism of the time made conceiving of slave uprisings difficult. The prevailing understanding of slaves as docile and essentially subservient had to somehow be reconciled with their cunning and desperate attempts to gain freedom. An obvious way out of this conundrum for contemporary racists was to introduce the eighteenth-century version of ‘outside agitators.’ In New York in 1741, uncovering a geopolitical coup with schismatic religious overtones was more than a colonial tribunal could dare hope. Profound anxieties were playing out across the colonial world at this time, as competition both within and between states for expanding new markets increased and frequently spilled over into open conflict.

The case of the 1741 Conspiracy is, at its core, one of a slave society protecting itself via the dependable means of gratuitous violence and state repression. But it was also an instance of mass projection as an insecure elite located anxieties over shifting social and economic order onto the subjugated but inherently threatening enslaved population. While England and Spain waged war for trade superiority in the Atlantic world, colonial America was experiencing—without understanding—the shudders of a new capitalist society being born. Labor unrest and shifting relationships between free and enslaved, rich and poor, may have contributed to a sense among the privileged few that disruptive, unseen forces were at work. New York would never see another significant slave uprising nor would it ever awake to Spanish galleons in its harbor. Though the 1741 Conspiracy soon faded into a bitter and uneasy memory, a long future of class conflict and dislocation lay in store for that narrow strip of schist and its environs.