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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Friday, February 04, 2011

Slave Conspiracy Scares and the “Powder Alarm”

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.
The colonists typically responded to these scares by mobilizing themselves in their militia units, arresting black people they thought were suspicious, torturing or intimidating those prisoners into confessions, and then executing or selling away the most “guilty.”

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…”
No secret officer lists, but American Whig rhetoric was founded on the notion that the London government was conspiring to force the colonists into political “slavery.”

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.


George Lovely said...

2nd Paragraph says:
"...from all the British American colonies in those eleven decades..."

Which 'eleven decades' are you referring to?

J. L. Bell said...

Whoops! For wordiness I edited out the first reference to the scope of Sharples’s larger work: 1670-1780. This paper looks at events at the end of that period, when the meme appears to have been well established in British colonists’s minds.