Last night’s seminar at the Massachusetts Historical Society was even more interesting than I expected. Jason T. Sharples shared a portion of his larger research project about slave conspiracy scares in British North America. His paper focused on three such scares in Virginia and the Carolinas in 1775, positing that they helped galvanize white opposition to the royal government.
Note that Sharples was writing about “conspiracy scares,” not actual slave revolts. Examining accounts from all the British American colonies in those eleven decades, he’s found over eighty scares sharing many details. Three are listed on Sharples’s M.C.E.A.S. fellow profile:
- “ambushes at decoy fires,” which threatened to burn down towns.
- “incitement by non-slave instigators (often Catholic agents),” though they could also be Indians or free blacks.
- “secret officer lists written in the style of an English militia.” That seems to have fed into a larger goal of inverting the social order so that the former slaves become masters.
A lot of the seminar discussion was about how Sharples’s paper should discuss if enslaved Africans had really made plans for revolt. That’s probably impossible to answer from the sources, which are all created by white accusers.
I thought Sharples made a good point in noting that documented revolts and attacks on slaveholders rarely took the form that the conspiracy theories suggested. In “revolts,” enslaved people tended to attack their own masters and then escape. None of those “secret officer lists” or other hard evidence ever surfaced. Overall, Sharples found three times as many “conspiracies” as “revolts” in colonial newspapers and government records. So they seem to be related but different phenomena.
For my own narrow purposes, what I found most provocative about Sharples’s work is how the “slave conspiracy” meme sheds new light on “Powder Alarm” of September 1774. Thousands of New England farmers mustered in their militia companies based on rumors that the king’s troops had seized provincial gunpowder (which they had) and set Boston on fire (which they hadn’t).
As part of that event or around the same time, there were other false rumors:
- Ambush! The army supposedly attacked the first responders. Israel Putnam, September 1774: “The first [alarm] was occasioned by the country being robbed of their powder from Boston as far as Framingham; and when found out, the persons who went to take them were immediately fired upon.”
- Outside agitators! The Rev. Ezra Stiles, 23 December: “It is certain that Application has been made to the French Canadians & to the Six Nations of Indians, to joyn the Kings Troops against the Colonies…”
- Slave revolt! Even in a society with far fewer enslaved blacks than the southern or Caribbean colonies, people spread rumors. Abigail Adams, 22 September: “There has been in Town a conspiracy of the Negroes…”
Sharples is adapting his dissertation on this topic into a book, which could take a while. Especially if he takes the advice of crowds at seminars like this one to widen his lens and cover other questions and other periods. But now I’m looking forward to the result.