How did urban slavery conditions help foster rebellion?

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Answered by: Thomas P., An Expert in the Slavery Category
The normal picture of slaves toiling away in fields, as white overseers carefully watch their progress, is up ended by the experience of urban slaves in early America. Indeed, slavery developed apace with our early urban growth and presented unique opportunities for the enslaved, and serious challenges for the enslavers. Urban slavery conditions were vastly different form their rural counterparts.



Unlike servitude on a remote plantation, bondsmen living in urban areas had a number of advantages that their rural counterparts didn't share. It is estimated that 15.7% of all urban male slaves were skilled workers. Their labor was clustered in the construction, artisan, and retail fields. Additionally, a percentage of those were employed in white-collar positions as managers and foremen. Although it should not be inferred that they were directing the labor of free white workers, they were tasked with ensuring that production lines were working efficiently.

This economic activity demanded a literacy rate that was not accorded plantation workers. The ability to read and write was deemed necessary for the completion of daily tasks and efforts to limit that knowledge, to a select few, were hamstrung by the urban milieu.



Information could be disseminated at a much faster pace among urban slaves than between plantation workers. To send messages in the latter, slaves needed to travel many miles to the next plantation and, even then, their efforts would be marginalized by the remoteness of that next location. By comparison, messages could be sent and meetings arranged with the ease of two bondsmen simply passing each other, in a back alley, as they went about their daily chores. The white population’s effort to control the movement of slaves was a difficult proposition in the atmosphere of a fast paced city.

When one’s life and fortune is predicated on the forced, involuntary labor of a third person, that person doesn’t tend to sleep very well at night. Numerous city ordinances were passed with the sole purpose of controlling the slave population contained within their borders. Fears among the white population would rise when the currents of discontent were also running high. Passes, night patrols, curfews, and lock-downs would immediately be imposed at any hint of disturbance or rebellion.

Their concerns were warranted. As early as 1712, New York City experienced a slave rebellion that was ignited by harsh conditions and the easy communication of rebellious slaves. Also, the city contained a number of free blacks and the comparison could not have been favorable to those who were enslaved. On the night of April 6, 1712, the plotters set fire to a building and lay in wait. When the white settlers arrived to extinguish it, the slaves attacked the fire-party. Unfortunately for them, their plan had not been developed much beyond that and the rebellion was quickly crushed.

Seventy people were arrested in the, resultant, crackdown and harsh restrictions were levied on the black community. Twenty-seven people were put tried and resulted in twenty-one convictions. Each was sentenced to death. Urban slavery conditions put a great deal of stress on the social fabric of the community. To underscore the fear of rebellion, the deaths were horrendous. Twenty were burned to death while the final victim expired on a breaking wheel.

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