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74 Chapter One stands as a testament to a shaky judiciary and to a culture where racism trumped any sense of justice.37 The third plausible explanation argues that the executed were involved in a rebellion. For example, The New-York Weekly Journal warned on 15 June 1741 that the “Plot and Conspiracy” was “calculated not only to ruin & destroy this City, but the whole Province.” This would be accomplished by “burn[ing] the whole Town, and kill[ing] and Murder[ing] all the Male inhabitants.” The local rebels were rumored to have “Encouragement or Assurances . . . from abroad”; some of them were “perswaded that an attempt on this Province would be made by the Spaniards and French.” Despite such fears (or hopes, depending on your side in the controversy), most historians who have written about the incident have discounted this theory—even Richard Slotkin, one of the great historians of the production of race and racism, has called this theory “preposterous.” Yet Linebaugh and Rediker have argued persuasively that “a revolutionary conspiracy, Atlantic in scope, did develop in New York.” Situating New York City’s laboring classes within what they call the “hidden history of the Revolutionary Atlantic,” Linebaugh and Rediker portray early modernity’s seaports and the ships connecting them as both the “engines of capitalism” and “settings of resistance.” For while enslaved Africans, indentured European servants, travelers and adventurers , and all the other ruffians and disturbers of transatlantic capitalism were mercilessly oppressed in this new global economy in the name of law, order, and profit, this repression in turn prodded them to fight for their freedom. In short, Linebaugh and Rediker argue that everywhere the British Empire went in search of profits, the victims of colonialism fought back. As one of the New World’s great ports, complete with a black population of mostly slaves that constituted approximately 30 percent of the city’s labor force, New York City was a central relay and hotspot in this transatlantic dance of profit and protest, repression and rebellion, colonization and contestation. Furthermore, the New World was a theater of constant jockeying between the Old World’s powers, as France, Britain, and Spain warred over and negotiated for possession of prime agricultural lands and shipping ports. Slaves were well aware of these geopolitical tensions and astutely realized that under the right circumstances—such as those afforded by the War of Jenkins’ Ear—their oppressor’s enemies’ transatlantic ambitions could dovetail with their own local struggles for freedom. Colonial masters were also well aware of how global politics Debauchery, Punishment, and (Dis)Order 75 influenced local politics; they thus worried throughout the eighteenth century about the ability of scheming Old World enemies to trigger New World slave revolts. Given this context, it makes sense that some New Yorkers suspected that the fires of 1741 were but the first locally inflicted blows in an imminent foreign attack.38 On this reading, New York City’s elite, a group Horsmanden’s Journal calls the “People in Ruffles,” launched 1741’s cascade of executions for explicitly military reasons: to eliminate what they thought were the shock troops in a forthcoming invasion. Indeed, throughout Horsmanden ’s record of the summer’s events, we learn that the city’s plotting underclass “expected that War would be proclaimed in a little Time against the French; and that the French and Spaniards would come here.” Whether or not such hopes were delusional, Horsmanden nonetheless records them as being shared broadly by the accused. Whether he thought the fires earlier that summer were a prelude to an internationally driven invasion or an internally driven revolution is not clear, but Horsmanden wrote in a letter of 7 August 1741 to Lord Cadwallader Colden that “so bloody & Destructive a Conspiracy was this, that had not the merciful hand of providence interposed & Confounded their Divices, in one & the Same night the Inhabitants would have been butcher’d in their houses, by their own Slaves, & the City laid in ashes.” While Horsmanden’s letter foregrounds the destructive efforts of “Slaves,” his discourse is not racializing , instead arguing that “popery was at the Bottom,” and referring to the conspirators as meeting in “a Conclave of Devils” and “the Cabinet of Hell.” These religious terms are significant, for they demonstrate that even while the mid-eighteenth century’s move towards modern, systematized racism was picking up speed, narratives of both community formation and Othering would continue to rely on older...


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