The slave trade started flourishing in the Atlantic with the evolution of the largest forced migration involving 40,000 ships carrying 80 persons a day for more than 800 years. This was responsible for the beginning of the industrial revolution brought about in America, UK and Europe. This period in American history left an unforgettable mark on the lives of the American-Africans. “The history of Slavery in New York would be a shocking story for many viewers unaware of the extent to which slavery permeated life in New York during the city’s first two centuries. Masters may punish their slaves however they choose so long as they do not cut off their limbs or kill them.” (http://www.opinionjournal.com/la/?id=110007707)
The use of slave labor was so much within the daily life style of the people that it didn’t seem wrong to them. For the Africans on American soil, the reason for this horrible period was that America was a newly born country at that time and they wanted labor that can build up their industry and economy. “Slavery on American soil grew at such a fast rate that, by 1750, over 200,000 African slaves were there. Fifty years later, that number grew to 700,000.” (http://www.liu.edu/cwis/CWP/library/aaslavry.htm)
This invoked the system of slavery within the American soil so much that later on it had to be dealt as a national issue. Most of the New Yorkers are unaware of the fact that the city which is the world’s largest economy was built on unpaid slave labor and generations of wealth were founded upon it. The slave trade became a cornerstone of New York economy. Free blacks lived in New York at the risk of enslavement. The New York historical society claims that in 1703, 42 percent of New York’s households had slaves.
New York’s History of Slavery
New York’s location on the world map is of vital importance with trade possible both through sea, land and air ways. This is the reason that the slave trade flourished here more than in any other city of America.
“In 1991, shovels for a new federal office building in Manhattan unearthed the remains of more than 400 Africans stacked in wooden boxes sixteen to twenty-eight feet below street level. The cemetery dated back to the seventeenth and eighteenth century”. (http://www.thenation.com/doc/20051107/slavery_in_new_york)
New York, the centre of all American activity, the freest city of the nation with its diverse citizens from all genres of life living in harmony, nobody would have imagine such a paradox situation existed. At one point we see that New York has everything to offer to an individual yet some 300 years ago it had almost taken the lives of all the poor blacks that used to live here. “To be sure, each slaveholding New Yorker usually owned only one or two persons”. (http://www.slaveryinnewyork.org/about_exhibit.htm)
There existed the concept of “half free.” Now most of us would ask ourselves what does being half free mean? Either one is free or is enslaved. Half-free, we learn from Berlin and Harris’s introduction reflects the evolving nature of slavery in the urban North. The slaves used to get paid for their work. In 1635, when wages were stopped all of a sudden, a small group of slaves petitioned the company for their rights and that’s “when they became half-free. As a condition of their half-freedom, families who maintained themselves as farmers agreed to labor for the company when it called on them and pay an annual tribute in furs, produce or wampum. This arrangement proved to be very helpful for the company as it provide the company not only with a loyal reserve force but also without the headache of having to take the responsibility of its workers. It was less beneficial for the half-free men and women. Their status was not automatically passed down to their children, who instead remained the property of the company”. (http://www.thenation.com/doc/20051107/slavery_in_new_york)
Their living conditions were extremely inhuman. They were given accommodation in kitchen and back rooms of their owners’ houses. The council of the city passed laws against them one after the other. The first one to be passed was, during that time no blacks could own a property, forbidding them to congregate at night or in groups larger than three; they were supposed to carry lanterns in the dark. The punishments for breaking the law in those times was very severe, even death, for theft, arson, or conspiracy to revolt. These punishments were put into effect in the most cruel and brutal way so as to frighten maximum slaves and make them believe that this is the only ‘kind’ of life that they can have. In 1702, an act for regulating slaves was first time appeared in public – it was deemed the major slave law.
Slaves were not allowed to do any sideline business other than serving their masters or if their masters allowed them to do so. They were not allowed to carry guns under any circumstances except when their masters told them to. There were special people appointed to penalize slaves and they were paid to do so. Female slaves were posed with outdoor work but mostly they were preferred to be used as household servants. The cruelest of all the problems faced by the slaves was that the married slaves were not allowed to live together. They were not allowed to acquire proper education. A lot of them adopted Christianity and the only reward given to them was that they were allowed to visit church on Sundays
Free blacks lived in New York at the risk of enslavement. They would be declared as “slaves” by the court if an orderly white claimed so. “A black man was arrested in New York City in 1773 simply because he had curious marks on his back.” (http://www.slavenorth.com/newyork.htm)
In such cases the suspects were held in jails while advertisements were published asking the owners to claim. If a claimant arrived and he gave the sheriff a compensation for the cost of detention and the ads the suspect was sent with the claimant. And if no claimant arrived then the suspect would be sold to anybody who is able to afford the cost of the imprisonment and the advertisements.”
Road towards Freedom
Enslaved Africans displayed resistance for a long time and they kept on struggling for the right of self-determination. The highest point of resistance came in 1712 when some slaves of the city started a “bloody conspiracy to destroy as many of the inhabitants as they could”. (http://www.pww.org/article/view/8186/1/296/)
They wanted to take revenge from their masters. They wanted to make their masters realize the pain that they had to go through. “Twenty-three slaves met about midnight on April 6, 1712, and set fire to several buildings in the middle of town. When whites came to put out the fires, they were ambushed. Nine whites were slain on the spot, and about a dozen others were wounded. The rebels fled, but most were soon captured. The rebellion led to further repression. Nineteen slaves were executed by burning at the stake or hanging.” (http://www.pww.org/article/view/8186/1/296/)
But all lawlessness has to come to an end. Finally, slavery after lasting 200 longs years ended in New York. It was abolished in 1827. There was extreme political disfranchisement against the abolishment. Only the 15th amendment ensured that the black new Yorkers would finally get their right to self-determination. They were finally acknowledged as human beings and given the right to vote.
Conclusion: Abolitionism and Justice
Slavery was also responsible for bringing out some positive aspects of some individuals who out shone others by their extreme love for humanity. They proved to the world that no matter how bad the conditions become there is light at the end of every tunnel. “In 1788, a ban was imposed on courts that held power of life and death of the slaves. The loosening of restrictions filtered down to the municipal level, and Albany abolished the custom of flogging slaves for curfew violations”. (http://www.slavenorth.com/nyemancip.htm)
But reaching to this happy ending wasn’t easy. Influential New Yorkers who were benefiting to a great extent from this slave trade made it very difficult for the slave trade to end. Slavery in New York will provide further focus to the reparations movement. Now if we look at New York, with all its vibrant highly energetic life, its sky scrappers and with its diverse cultures; giving the hope of better prospects to all and sundry; no one could have imagined that this city had such a horrible past. But it makes it evident that: “Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.” (http://quotations.about.com/cs/inspirationquotes/a/bls_Inspiration.htm)