THE CRISIS OF 1739-1741

On the mainland, slaves seized the opportunity for rebellion offered by the War of Jenkins’ Ear, which pitted England against Spain. In September 1739, a group of South Carolina slaves, most of them recently arrived from Kongo where some, it appears, had been soldiers, seized a store containing numerous weapons at the town of Stono. Beating drums to attract followers, the armed band marched southward toward Florida, burning houses and bams, killing whites they encountered, and shouting “Liberty.” (Florida’s Spanish rulers offered “Liberty and Protection” to fugitives from the British colonies.) The group eventually swelled to some 100 slaves. After a pitched battle with the colony’s militia, the rebels were dispersed. The rebellion took the lives of more than two dozen whites and as many as 200 slaves. Some slaves managed to reach Florida, where in 1740 they were armed by the Spanish to help repel an attack on St. Augustine by a force from Georgia. The Stono Rebellion led to a severe tightening of the South Carolina slave code and the temporary imposition of a prohibitive tax on imported slaves.

In 1741, a panic (which some observers compared to the fear of witches in Salem in the 1690s) swept New York City. After a series of fires broke out, rumors spread that slaves, with some white allies, planned to burn part of the city, seize weapons, and either turn New York over to Spain or murder the white population. More than 150 blacks and 20 whites were arrested, and 34 alleged conspirators, including 4 white persons, were executed. Historians still disagree as to how extensive the plot was or whether it existed at all. But dramatic events like revolts, along with the constant stream of runaways, disproved the idea, voiced by the governor of South Carolina, that slaves had “no notion of liberty.” In eighteenth-century America, dreams of freedom knew no racial boundary.

When white colonists rose in rebellion against British rule, tens of thousands of slaves would seize the opportunity to strike for their own liberty.

An advertisement seeking the return of a runaway slave from Port Royal, in the Sea Islands of South Carolina. “Mustee” was a term for a person of mixed European and African ancestry. From the South Carolina Gazette, June 11, 1747.

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