Long Island had the largest slave population of any rural or urban area in the North for most of the colonial era. For almost two centuries, New York was a slave colony and Long Island was a slave island. Beginning with the introduction of 11 black slaves into New Netherlands in 1626, the number of slaves in New York grew to almost 20,000 on the eve of the Revolutionary War a century and a half later.
“Throughout the slave era in the North, New Yorkers held more enslaved Africans than the residents in the combined New England colonies or those in New Jersey or Pennsylvania,” writes Richard S. Moss in his 1993 book, “Slavery on Long Island.”
In 1698 there were 2,130 blacks in New York, almost all of them slaves, more than in any colony north of Maryland. Almost half of them were on Long Island. And one out of five Suffolk County residents was black, virtually all of them slaves.
Slavery in the New York colony was unlike that on the plantations of the Deep South, where close to a half-million slaves lived in servitude by the time of the Revolution, and would continue to be enslaved until the Civil War. New York State would not ban slavery within its borders until 1827, though two minor exceptions continued until 1841.
On Long Island, slaves were widely scattered about the thinly populated countryside, and although a wealthy 18th century landowner like William Floyd in Mastic might have a dozen or so slaves, one, two or three was more common. So the daily family life of a Long Island slave was markedly different from his or her counterpart in the South, where large groups of blacks in separate slave quarters could at least share their religion, culture and social life, often with their own family members.
Long Island slavery may have been different, but it was slavery, nonetheless. Black men, and occasionally American Indians, were owned by white men, just as they owned cattle, sheep and farm implements.
Their daily life was regulated, both by the needs of their owners and by laws of the colony. The first major slave law came in 1702, titled “An Act for Regulating Slaves.” No person could trade with a slave without permission of the slave’s master or mistress. Owners could punish their slaves at their own discretion, though they were not allowed to take a slave’s life or sever a body part. Slaves could not carry guns. Except when working for their owners, slaves could not congregate in groups larger than three, with whipping the penalty, up to 40 lashes. Towns could appoint a public whipper, who would be paid up to three shillings for each slave whipped.
Slaves worked in the fields alongside their owners, and many of them worked their way into more skilled jobs as craftsmen, such as shoemakers, blacksmiths and woodworkers. Female slaves also did outside work, but more often were used as household servants.
But because an owner usually had few slaves, married slaves were often forced to live apart, seeing each other only occasionally. They received little education. Many slaves converted to Christianity, and one of their few rewards was being allowed to go to church on Sunday.
Slavery got started in New Netherlands and in the South because there was an acute labor shortage in America. Even imported white indentured servants, who were contracted to serve for a certain period of time, often seven years, were hard to obtain. The alternative for the farmer or the large householder was to purchase slaves. In 1626, seven years after slaves had been introduced at Jamestown, Va., a ship carrying 11 male slaves sailed into the harbor at New Amsterdam. Only four of the names of the first slaves in New York are known for certain: Paul d’Angola, Simon Congo, Anthony Portugese and John Francisco, the names indicating that they were probably taken from Spanish or Portuguese slave ships captured at sea by privateers. They were immediately put to work by the Dutch West India Co. building roads, cutting timber, clearing land and helping construct a major fort at the southern tip of Manhattan.
For the next 38 years, until the British took over New Netherlands and renamed it New York, the Dutch slowly increased the numbers of slaves in the colony, including settlements on western Long Island in Kings and Queens Counties. Some slaves were imported directly from Africa, but the Dutch officials preferred to buy slaves who had been “seasoned” by a few years of living in the West Indies. By then they had gotten used to working as slaves, had picked up some of the new language, and in many cases had contracted and survived a bout with the killer disease smallpox, thus becoming immunized.
Nothing illustrates the difference between Dutch and English attitudes toward slavery better than an incident that occurred in New Amsterdam in 1644. Eleven male slaves, presumably the same 11 who first arrived in 1626, petitioned Director-General Willem Kieft to be freed along with their wives. They cited their long service to the Dutch West India Co. and their obligations to their families. Their request was granted, though it was on a “half-freedom” plan. That meant that they were given land grants for farming — out on the swampy edge of town that is now known as Greenwich Village — but required to give back annually part of their produce, and work for the company for wages whenever their services were required. And freedom was not given to their children.
Long Island beckoned some of the freed slaves. “Some of the early freed Negroes moved to Long Island and other neighboring areas where they joined whites in the founding of new towns,’’ writes Vivienne L. Kruger in her 1985 doctoral dissertation. “... Francisco the Negro [John Francisco], one of the eleven slaves manumitted in 1644, became one of the twenty-three original patentees of Boswyck in 1660.’’
Nothing comparable to this manumission of slaves by the Dutch occurred later under English rule. Manumission became rare until the later part of the 18th century, and when it did occur, it was the act of an individual owner.
When Barnabus Wines of Southold died in 1762, he not only freed two of his slaves, Peter and Pegg, but also gave them a generous legacy, according to Kruger. To Peter he gave “his chest and wearing apparel, and 10 [10 pounds sterling], also my gun and small iron pot, hoe, one scythe, one sickle.’’ To Pegg he gave “all her wearing apparel, and her bedding, three pairs of sheets, two chests, one pot, one trammel [an adjustable pothook for a fireplace crane], one pewter tongs, four old chairs, two basins, a linnen wheel, one cow and calf, one box.’’ He also gave the two of them a half-acre of land.
The first slaves in Suffolk County were brought to Shelter Island from Barbados in 1654 by Nathaniel Sylvester to work on his large estate. Little by little, others on Long Island turned to slavery to solve their labor problems. There was a slave market in New York City, but a Long Island farmer more likely would find a slave for sale from another slaveholder in Suffolk or Queens counties.
It was not always easy, however, to find a slave for sale, even for someone as well off as William Smith of the Manor of St. George, in Mastic. In an April 14, 1746, letter to his father-in-law, Henry Lloyd, Smith wrote:
“I have taken a great deal of pains to buy a good slave but cannot get one. If you ... could recommend any one to me I should take it as a great favor and will come and buy him as soon as I hear of any one to be sold.”
A slave might have been a farmer’s most valuable possession. Moss says that by the middle of the 18th Century, the average cost of an adult male slave was about 38 pounds sterling. This would translate roughly to $5,000 in today’s currency.
“Account books and other records indicate that owners generally sought to protect their valuable investment in slave property and therefore provided medical care similar to that available to the owners’ families,’’ writes Grania Bolton Marcus in her 1988 book, “Discovering the African-American Experience in Suffolk County, 1620-1860.’’ “Some slave owners ordered clothing and shoes for their slaves from the same tailors, dressmakers and shoemakers who made their own clothing.’’
The rare Long Island farmer with a dozen or so slaves probably housed them in slave cabins separate from the main house. But slave owners with only one or two slaves might have them living in an attic, a cellar or some other out-of-the-way section of their own homes. The farmer might have employed indentured workers as well as casual labor, and when it came time to work the crops, all of them might be found in the fields, working side by side.
“Slavery in New York was quite different from the plantation slavery we often imagine,’’ writes Marcus. “Few New Yorkers owned vast numbers of slaves: only seven people in the entire colony held 10 or more slaves, according to a mid-18th century census. It was much more common for an owner to have but one or two slaves working for him, indeed often working with him. In the town of Huntington, Long Island, for example, a total of 53 masters owned 81 slaves.’’
While the Dutch took an almost casual approach to the treatment and control of the slaves that were imported into the colony after 1626, everything changed after the British took over in 1664. The British, who controlled what was now New York, not only stepped up the importation of slaves into America, they passed a series of slave codes regulating slavery that made it harsher, repressive and more brutal.
How slaves lived under British rule was essentially how the slave codes said they could live. The rules covered marriage, slaves congregating, court protection, family life, ownership of property, bearing of arms and many other aspects of daily life.
Under the 1702 law, a slave who assaulted or struck any free Christian man or woman was subject to prison for up to 14 days, as well as “reasonable’’ corporal punishment. No slave could give evidence in any court, except against other slaves who were plotting to run away, kill their master or mistress, burn their houses and barns or destroy their corn or their cattle.
A 1706 law allowed “Negro, Indian and Mulatto slaves’’ to be baptized as Christians, pointing out that this would not, contrary to widespread opinion at the time, automatically free them from slavery. The law also stated that any child born of a slave woman would carry the slave status of the mother, apparently a reference to a child whose father was either a free black or a white slave owner.
The brutal murder of an entire family in Newtown (now Elmhurst) in January 1708, led to a capital punishment statute against slaves later that year. A farmer named William Hallett, his pregnant wife and their five children were ax-murdered in their sleep by their two slaves, an Indian man named Sam and an unidentified black woman, apparently in the belief that they would fall heir to the property. They were arrested and found guilty at trial. They were executed in front of a large public gathering on Feb. 2, nine days after the murder, the woman burned at the stake, the man hanged. Two other black men were hanged as accessories.
In response, the Colonial Assembly on Oct. 20, 1708, passed “An Act For Preventing the Conspiracy of Slaves.’’ The law said that any slave who killed or conspired to kill anyone who was not black or a slave would be subject to execution. The owner of the executed slave would be reimbursed by the colony up to 25 pounds sterling.
As the years went by and the numbers of slaves increased, new laws were passed, piling on more restrictions. Import duties were placed on all slaves brought into the colony. The selling of oysters in New York by slaves was banned. The selling of rum and other strong liquors to slaves was prohibited. A 1712 law said that even freed slaves could not own property, reversing the Dutch law. And a slave could not own a gun, or even use a gun except with the permission of his master.
Local laws on Long Island also curtailed slave movements. In 1732, the Town of Brookhaven forbade slaves to be out at night except on an “extraordinary occasion.’’ In 1734, one report in Hempstead said that 10 slave men had been imprisoned for being “unseasonably in a frolick.’’ And in 1757, Smithtown passed a law “that no negro be found without a pass from his master, not to exceed one mile ...’’
Slaves were chattel, pieces of property that could be bought, sold, rented out and moved around at the will of the owner. They could be bequeathed to heirs. And even taxed. A 1702 law laying out sources of income for the colonial government listed import duties on black slaves along with mackerel, salt, barrel staves and cocoa nuts. The children of slaves automatically belonged to their owners.
The work of the slaves was varied. “Agriculture commanded the largest number of African-Americans as well as whites, but slaves occupied every rung of skilled and unskilled labor,’’ writes Marcus. “They cut stone, made barrels, blacksmithed, manned fishing boats and whaling ships. African-American women were involved in the same complex domestic economy as white women, as well as in agricultural work and domestic service.’’
As the colonial period came to an end, on the eve of the Revolutionary War, slavery remained a potent force on Long Island. In the 1771 census, Kings County had 3,623 people, and almost one-third of them were black, most of them slaves. Queens, which included present-day Nassau County, had 10,980 residents, one-fifth of whom were black. Suffolk County by then had the largest population on Long Island, 13,128, and 11 percent were black.
At that time there were only faint stirrings of distaste for the slavery system on Long Island. It would take a revolution, the formation of a new state government and the rising of abolitionist sentiment before New York State, the largest slave state in the North, would give up its peculiar institution.