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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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Nantucket Conspiracy “wholly contradicted”

Yesterday I quoted items from the Boston News-Letter of 5 Oct 1738 and the Boston Evening-Post of 9 Oct 1738 about a narrowly averted uprising of Wampanoags on Nantucket Island, and ongoing fears that the Native sailors on whaling ships might have risen up, too.

However, on 16 October the Boston Gazette, which had reprinted the News-Letter’s news the week before, stated:

The News that we had in the publick Prints of October 9th, that 16 Indians of the Island of Nantucket had lately a horrid Scheme contriv’d to set Fire to the Houses of the English inhabitants in the Night, and kill as many as they could, is wholly contradicted by a Vessel that arrived here a few Days ago:

This Report arose by a drunken Indian Woman of that Island being in Liquor reported such Things, and she and another Woman was brought before a Justice of the Peace and examin’d, an could make nothing of it but a drunken Story.
(One curious detail: None of the earlier reports I’ve seen stated that “16 Indians” had conspired. That number might reflect how details, true or false, circulated without initially getting into the newspapers.)

Other Boston newspapers ran the same correction, as did papers in Newport and Philadelphia that had printed the first story. But of course not everyone saw that second item—especially decades later.

As Justin Pope describes in his recent article, “Inventing an Indian Slave Conspiracy on Nantucket, 1738,” later historians found the initial report but not the refutation. Obed Macy’s 1835 The History of Nantucket and Alexander Starbuck’s 1878 History of the American Whale Fishery both used the News-Letter article as their authority for describing an actual Wampanoag uprising.

So, for that matter, did Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s The Many-Headed Hydra, published in 2000. Except that Linebaugh and Rediker looked more favorably on that alleged bid for freedom. That reflects a larger ongoing debate among historians about whether slave uprisings in the New World were actual attempts by people to free themselves or imagined plots by paranoid slaveholders who coerced confessions from innocent people. The answer to that question offers different pictures of enslaved communities—as resistant rebels or as oppressed victims.

Other historians have caught the printers’ corrections and thus the real significance of this particular story as revealing colonists’ fears. In New York Burning Jill Lepore wrote:
If a single drunken Indian woman could come up with a plot and a completely plausible justification so compelling that it terrified an entire island of English colonists and was reported up and down the Atlantic seaboard, even though there were no fires on Nantucket that fall, the degree of panic inspired by actual fires like the ten that blazed in New York in March and April 1741 is hard to imagine.
TOMORROW: A memory of the fear on Nantucket.

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