Capitalism and Slavery in New York: Uncovering
the brutal truth
By Martin P.
NEW YORK — Wall Street and
much of this city’s renowned financial district were built on
the burial ground of African slaves, and New York’s prosperity
stems in large part from the grotesque profits of the African
slave trade and African enslavement.
This is the inescapable conclusion one draws from the
evidence presented in a major exhibition on "Slavery in New
York," which opened here Oct. 7 and runs through March 26.
Hosted by the New-York Historical Society, the exhibition is the
most impressive display ever mounted on slavery in the Empire
State and in New York City in particular.
The exhibition features public programs, walking tours,
educational materials and programs for school, college and adult
learners. It explores the vital role that slave trading, the
labor of enslaved people, and slavery’s integration with
everyday commerce played from 1600 to 1827 in making New York
the wealthiest city in the world.
For a phenomenon that should be common knowledge, the role of
New York in the Atlantic slave trade is buried deep in the
underground of U.S. history and outside of the consciousness of
many New Yorkers. Each year thousands of students in the
nation’s largest school system study the history of New York
with hardly a mention of this city’s experience with slavery.
Granted, slavery in America has traditionally been identified
primarily as southern experience. Yet there were more enslaved
Africans in New York before the American Revolution than any
other city except Charleston, S.C.
During this period, 1 out of every 5 New Yorkers was
enslaved. At one point, 40 percent of colonial New York’s
households owned slaves.
To the millions of multi-generational Caribbean immigrants
residing in the greater New York area, the exhibition displays
should also reflect a slavery Diaspora that is not often
recognized as incorporating the Caribbean and New York in very
Many of New York's enslaved had originated from the
Caribbean. Banishment from the American colonies (the US after
independence) to the harsher conditions of the sugar cane
plantations of the West Indies was a constant threat to
rambunctious Africans. And New York corporate interests financed
much of the slave trade in the Caribbean. There are several
portraits at the exhibition that make this connection by
depicting conditions of Caribbean slavery.
In his book "The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census", Philip D.
Curtin reminds us that between 1715 - 67 New York and New Jersey
imported the vast majority of its 4,551 slaves directly from the
West Indies [Curtin 1969: 143].
And a colonial musical chair ultimately resulting in the
treaty of Versailles (1783) - in which Britain gains Dominica,
Grenada, St Vincent and Tobago - was duly noted as a significant
juncture in the New York slavery timeline.
Dr Eric Williams
It is with these interconnections in mind, as well as a sense
of the intrinsic value of history to future generations, that
Trinidad and Tobago's founder, Dr. Eric Eustace Williams
(1911-1981), dedicated his 1963 "Documents of West Indian
History" to "the young people of the West Indies as an aid in
their struggle against the legacy, the mentality and the
fragmentation of colonialism" [Williams 1963].
William’s most well known work "Capitalism and Slavery"
remains one of the seminal research projects on slavery and the
inter-relationship of these phenomena. Focusing on the
English-speaking Caribbean, Williams argued that Britain's
'triangular trade' provided a critical foundation for the
Though not negating the significant role played by slave
abolitionists, Williams posited that chattel slavery was
abolished principally because that mode of production was no
longer necessary for the further development of capitalism. By
tracing the development of capitalist industrialization up the
red rivers of African slavery, Williams' thesis was critical not
only for an understanding on the dialectics of capitalism and
slavery, but to the function of institutional racism as a
by-product of slavery, an ideology that sought to justify
slavery. "Slavery was not born of racism; rather, racism was the
consequence of slavery." [Williams 1944: 129]
A jolting discovery
But it was the discovery of the African Burial Ground in the
heart of New York’s financial district in 1991 that put the
spotlight on the seemingly forgotten dark underbelly of U.S. and
global capitalism – the literal
African slavery skeletons in its closets. The huge, 18th-century
burial ground uncovered during painstaking excavations
— following the abortive
construction of a skyscraper on the site
— eventually revealed the
remains of some 419 Africans, a large proportion of them women
At that time the city consisted of the southern tip of
Manhattan, stretching up to where today’s City Hall exists. The
burial ground extends from Broadway, southward under City Hall,
and touches almost to the site of the former World Trade Center,
in close proximity to Wall Street’s financial center.
The African cemeteries in the Wall Street area were buried
long ago when surrounding hills were flattened and deposited
there as foundation for buildings that now serve as a major
nerve center of the world economy. It is believed that there are
as many as 20,000 slavery-era Africans in graves under the
constellation of buildings in lower Manhattan.
Manhattan Island had a population of enslaved Africans almost
from the very beginning of settlement in 1624. The findings of
scientists examining the graves show that enslaved Africans
lived agonizing lives. They were overworked and underfed. Many
died young. The average life expectancy of Africans of that era
was 37 years.
Slavery’s global reach
The largest forced migration in world history, the Atlantic
slave trade involved an estimated 40,000 ships, carrying an
average of 80 persons a day for more than 400 years. The
astounding profits from this trade fueled the industrial
revolution in England and later in Europe and the United States.
New York’s strategic, geographical position, its proximity to
other American colonial settlements, as well as its network of
inland waterways, made it a prime center for the slave trade and
the accumulation of capital from very early on. The Empire City
was an important nexus in a far-flung web commanded by the Dutch
East India Company. That web involved a base in Angola on
Africa’s Atlantic shore, a base in Brazil South America, and one
in Curaçao in the Dutch Caribbean.
The first slaves arrived in what was then known as New
Amsterdam around 1627. These enslaved Africans worked for the
Dutch West India Company rather than for individuals. In
addition to building the wall that gives Wall Street its name
— a wall of timber and earthwork
along the northern boundary of New Amsterdam
— slaves cleared Manhattan’s
forests, turned up the soil for farming, built roads and
constructed buildings. Without slave labor New Amsterdam might
not have survived.
As a rule, unlike the slaves of the South, New York slaves
did not live in quarters with large numbers of other Black
people, but in kitchens or back rooms of their owners’ houses.
Many white New Yorkers owned one or two slaves.
But Northern slavery was no less cruel than its Southern
Coercive measures were harsh. A litany of repressive and
restrictive laws was passed from time to time by New York City
Common Council, including laws that forbade Africans from owning
significant property or bequeathing what they did own to their
offspring, or laws banning gatherings of more than three people
of African descent. Restrictions of movement included requiring
them to carry lanterns after dark and to remain south of what is
now Worth Street.
Sentences of what were characterized as "horrible" public
executions for alleged theft, arson, murdering a slave master,
or conspiracy to revolt were made known and carried out from
time to time.
Yet enslaved Africans resisted at every point of the slave
trade and on the plantation. There was a tight clandestine
network of the Underground Railroad operating in New York, with
Brooklyn being an important hub.
One of the high points of resistance came in 1712 when, in
what New York’s Royal Gov. Robert Hunter described as a "bloody
conspiracy" of some of the slaves of the city "to destroy as
many of the inhabitants as they could ...
to revenge themselves for some hard usage they apprehended to
have received from their Masters," 23 slaves met about midnight
on April 6, 1712, and set fire to several buildings in the
middle of town. When the whites came to attend to the fires they
were ambushed. Nine whites were slain on the spot, about a dozen
others were wounded. The rebels fled, but most were soon
The rebellion led to further repression. Nineteen slaves were
executed by burning at the stake or hanging. Two were targeted
for special treatment.
"One [was] broke on the wheele and one hung alive in chains
in the town,"
explained Gov. Hunter, pointing out that these measures were
"the most exemplary punishment inflicted that could be possibly
And in 1741, following a series rumors in what was referred
to as the "Great Negro Plot" to burn down the city, the
authorities fixed blame on the growing slave male population.
Seventeen slaves were hanged and 13 burned at the stake.
The profits of slavery
The exhibition takes one through the various stages of New
York’s evolution — from a Dutch
colony under the management of the Dutch West India Company, to
a British colony, to the American Revolution to the early
settlements of free Blacks in New York City.
From the beginning, virtually every New York business was
involved with slavery in one way or another. The enslavement
enterprise involved a myriad of activities, including direct
trading in slaves; the harvesting, processing, packing
foodstuffs for the transatlantic slave trade; and using slave
labor in craft workshops. It included supplying slave
plantations in the West Indies and North America with grains,
tools and manufactured foods.
The New York City’s slave trade involved building and
maintaining ships that carried the trade between New York,
Europe, Caribbean and Africa, and borrowing, lending and
insuring the vessels. It included advertising for the sale of
slaves and the recapture of runaways. Advertisements of slaves
for purchase were a major source of revenue for 18th-century
newspapers in New York.
Almost everything was grown or produced with enslaved labor
— cheese, tobacco, rum, sugar,
cloth, butter, clothes. These goods were carried here on ships
owned by slave traders. With a system of enormous unpaid labor
force that kept stores well stocked and prices fairly low, the
entire economy of the city was built on slavery. On display are
ledger books of slave voyages, ads for runaway slaves,
implements and household objects produced by the enslaved.
In a quite appropriate multimedia section of the display, a
market ticker scrolls across the bottom of a video screen, as
you might see on CNN or MSNBC newscast, reflecting the trade of
enslaved humans from the coast of Africa to South America, the
Caribbean, North America and specifically to colonial Wall
The slave trade was enormously profitable for the traders,
shipbuilders, bankers, and insurers who made it possible. At its
peak the margin of profit soared just above 369 percent. At its
ebb the profit margin was still a whopping 94 percent. For
example, in 1675, a slave could be purchased in Africa for
today’s equivalent of $355 and later sold in New York for
Abolitionism and justice
Slavery also bred a humanitarian response. The existence of
slavery in New York gave rise to a vibrant abolitionist
movement, which is also depicted in the exhibition. But it was
the combination of a number of factors that led to the ultimate
demise of slavery:
a) the unceasing struggles of the Africans to be free (which
was not given enough attention at the exhibit) and;
b) as Dr Williams argued, a mode of production that had
already outlived its usefulness for the now burgeoning
By the time slavery was abolished by the British in 1807, the
world’s leading economy had traded in an estimated 2.5 million
human lives. While Britain was the non-Hispanic Caribbean’s and
North America’s largest slave trader, they were my no means the
only one. For example Portugal was responsible for transporting
over 4.5 million African. France, Spain, Dutch, Danish and other
European nations were responsible for several million more
The end of slavery in New York did not come easily or
Well-positioned New Yorkers who thrived on the slave economy
fought to maintain the system to the very end. The New York
Legislature reluctantly passed two pieces of legislation
delaying its end until July 4, 1827. This action pointed the
way, in turn, for other Northern states to adopt a system of
gradual emancipation as well. Slavery lingered even longer in
the Anglo-phone Caribbean (1834), in the American south (1865),
Cuba (1886), Brazil (1888), Puerto Rico (1873).
No doubt "Slavery in New York" will give further impetus and
focus to the reparations movement. In speaking of the
significance of the African Burial Ground, Congressman John
Conyers (D-Mich.) has suggested that the shipping and insurance
companies, who profited so handsomely from the transport of
slaves, have a moral and legal obligation to compensate the
The exhibition has been characterized as "phase one" of a
two-year initiative of the New-York Historical Society, located
at 170 Central Park West at 77th Street, on slavery and New
BigDrumNation welcomes the first
installment of this initiative and look forward eagerly to the
next. We encourage you to make an obligation to attend these
exhibits, particularly with your love ones and family.