It may be that, in some ultimate sense, we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Then again, fear is a pretty all-encompassing foe. It is also, and always has been, a political tool. If Islamic terrorism is today’s unseen source of collective fear, at once justified and manipulated, in the first half of the eighteenth century it was the slave revolt. Anyone familiar with New York’s colonial history has likely come across an event that is typically referred to as “the so-called slave rebellion of 1741.” The qualifier says two things: The facticity of the facts is in question, and the real story is either too complicated to go into in detail or its features have been swallowed up by time. Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard, has taken it upon herself to excavate the ground beneath the “so-called,” and she has unearthed two varieties of grimly fascinating stuff. The first is slavery itself: Hers is the sort of photo-realistic portrait of a time and place that shows the shoulder-rubbing closeness of blacks and whites coexisting in the most naked form of inequality; the detailing is fine enough that you can see the RN, for “runaway,” branded into the black shoulder.
The other–Lepore’s main subject, and the reason this book ought to be read even by those with no particular taste for colonial history–is the complex dance of power and fear. 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 prosecutors wove all of this into a horrific tale of topsy-turvy, but they didn’t stop there. The decorative wrapping on the conspiracy theory was that the whole black-on-white uprising was really orchestrated from Rome. It was a papist plot on white Protestant civilization, with blacks acting as the pope’s minions and a disguised Catholic priest (“To be a Roman Catholic priest was illegal in New York in 1741,” Lepore notes, “a crime punishable by death”) as their field captain.
The ungainly plot began to unravel even before the first bodies swung. The comic absurdity–the fact that such a tortured piling-on of invention could be believed long enough to convict–points to the special nature of the threat and to the fear that those in power manipulated. But the credulity of New York’s elite also betrayed an implicit understanding that their heavy exertion of power over the relatively powerless would result not in an equal and opposite reaction but in an asymmetrical one. One person’s terrorism is another’s struggle to be free, and during slavery’s heyday the lurking, grinding fear in every white colonial mind was of smoke, flame and the flashing blade: the slave uprising.