Welcome to the Rye History blog

Welcome to the Rye History blog

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Hidden History: The Story of Slavery in Rye, NY. Part 4: The Slave Control Laws.

Under British rule, New York's colonial government adopted a wide variety of laws subjecting slaves to special restrictions, disqualifying them as witnesses against Whites, and legitimizing the complete control of masters over their slaves.  The slave system rested on naked force to restrain the normal human impulses for freedom.  

To reduce the risk of slave insurrection, most of the public controls were aimed at restricting communication among slaves.  As early as 1682, it was a misdemeanor, punishable by flogging, for more than four slaves to meet together on their own time.  In 1702, the number permitted to meet together was reduced to three, and in order to insure uniform enforcement, each town was required to maintain a "Negro whipper" to flog violators.  Thomas Ricket was appointed as "public whipper" in Rye 1739, followed by Samuel Bumpos in 1747.  A whipping post and public stocks stood in Rye's village green located close to Christ's Church, and a small stone building nearby was used to jail slaves who committed criminal offenses.

Minutes of Rye Town Meeting, dated April 3, 1739
Credit: Rye Town Records

After the 1712 slave revolt in Manhattan, the Provincial Assembly of New York organized the laws restricting the activities of slaves into the Black Codes.  The law authorized slave owners to punish a slave for his misdeeds at the owner's discretion, stopping short of death or dismemberment.  If, however, a slave was found guilty of murder, rape, arson, or assault, there were no limits to the harshness of the punishment.  The law also prohibited free Blacks from owning real property.  In 1730, the Assembly again amended the Black Codes making it a crime for any slave to possess a weapon and continued the prohibition on slaves meeting in groups of more than three.  Slaves were also prohibited from being on the streets after dark except with their master and from using the streets in a disorderly manner.    

The ever-present fear of insurrection was reflected in the harshness of the Black Codes.  Since the purpose of the law was to protect the White community by any means necessary, no matter how severe, a double standard of justice existed for Whites and slaves.  Slaves were seldom allowed out of prison on bail, and even minor offenses by slaves were punished severely.  Many criminal offenses that were not capital when committed by a White person were punishable by death when committed by a slave.  Offenses committed by slaves against Whites were relentlessly prosecuted and punished, while similar offenses by Whites against slaves were either ignored by the authorities or dismissed by the court.  Laws prohibiting testimony by a slave against a White person made it extremely difficult to obtain justice in cases involving both slaves and Whites.

When slaves were executed for their crimes, their owners were permitted to receive compensation from the colonial government.  In 1714, Issac Denham of Rye petitioned the Court of Special Sessions in Westchester County to receive 25 pounds in payment for the execution of his slave Primus "for his misdemeanors."  In 1719, Denham, along with Charles Foster, petitioned the Court for compensation for the execution of another slave.  The Court valued their slaves at 20 pounds each and ordered that payment be made to Denham and Foster.

All of these laws were premised on deep-seated notions of racial inequality and racial fear.  Corrosive insecurity was the price that every member of the community paid for slavery.  

Sources (in addition to those listed in Part 1):

Linder, D.O. (2013).  New York Slave Laws: Colonial Period.  Retrieved from http://law2.umkc.edu

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