J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Antigua Conspiracy of 1736—Who Was Really Conspiring?

Mike Dash at the Smithsonian Magazine blog examines the evidence about a revolt of people enslaved on Antigua in 1736:
According to David Barry Gaspar, who has written in more detail on the subject than anybody else, Klaas was one of the masterminds behind an elaborate plot, hatched late in 1735, to overthrow white rule on Antigua. The conspiracy allegedly involved slaves on a number of large plantations, and was built around an audacious effort to destroy the island’s planters in a single spectacular explosion. . . .

In the eyes of the Antiguan government, Prince Klaas’s planned rebellion was well evidenced. A stream of witnesses testified that the plot existed; Klaas himself, together with his chief lieutenant—a creole (that is, a slave born on the island) known as Tomboy, whose job it would have been to plant the powder—eventually confessed to it. . . .

Yet—confessions aside—little physical evidence of a conspiracy was ever produced. The “10-gallon barrel of powder” that Tomboy was to have used to blow up the ball was not recovered; nor, despite extensive searches, were any weapons caches found.

All this has led researchers such as Jason Sharples and Kwasi Konadu to direct renewed attention to the slaves’ own testimonies. And here, it must be acknowledged, there is good reason to doubt that the confessions obtained by Arbuthnot were wholly reliable. Konadu persuasively argues that Klaas’s “dance” was probably a familiar Ashanti ceremony acclaiming a newly chosen leader, and not a declaration of war.

Sharples demonstrates that Arbuthnot’s prisoners would have found it easy to exchange information and discuss what the captors wished to hear, and adds that they must have known that a confession—and the betrayal of as many of their fellow Africans as possible—was their one hope of saving themselves. He also supplies an especially revealing detail: that one slave, known as “Langford’s Billy,” who “escaped with his life by furnishing evidence against at least fourteen suspects” and was merely banished in consequence, turned up in New York four years later, heavily implicated in another suspected slave plot that many researchers now concede was merely a product of hysteria.
This debate over the Antiguan revolt mirrors similar debates over other slave revolts throughout North America. Were there actual conspiracies nipped in the bud, or did paranoid white authorities torture and threaten false confessions out of people they had enslaved? Complicating the question is how slave rebellions can be appealing, if tragic, stories of people seeking liberty that we don’t want to give up. And we would be left with stories of hundreds of innocent victims—88 in this one Antiguan episode alone—being tortured and executed over their enslavers’ groundless fear.

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