The Story Behind the Bones: During the 17th and 18th Century in New YorkGSA’s African Burial Ground project began in 1999.
During excavation work for a new federal office building, workers discovered the skeletal remains of more than 400 men, women and children. Further investigation revealed that during the 17th and 18th centuries, free and enslaved Africans were buried in a 6.6 acre burial ground in lower Manhattan outside the boundaries of the settlement of New Amsterdam, which would become New York. (1)Subsequently they found the remains of over 20,000 slaves. The large number indicates a sizeable slave presence in New York. The excavation was unlike any other previous find.The systematic use of slaves began in New Netherland in 1626 when 11 slaves were delivered by the Dutch West India Company.
Before 1700, the area around New York was called New Netherland and controlled by the Dutch. In 1644, the DWI Company brought 6900 enslaved Africans to the West Indies. The slaves sent to New Netherland were used to clear the forests, pave roads, build houses and grow food. Slave labor built the City of New York and most other areas of early New England.The slave trade had a tremendous effect on the economy of New England as well as the rest of the Americas. Although Northerners do not speak of the history behind slavery, it created a wealthy class of merchants in both the North and South and funded the industrial revolution in America. Slavery was quite widespread in New York, New Jersey and other areas of New England prior to 1808 when direct importation of slaves from Africa was banned. Ownership of slaves was banned in 1827.
In 1644, the first slave catching venture was initiated by a group of Boston merchants who sent three ships to obtain gold dust and black slaves from Africa. Only one ship returned with tobacco, wine, salt and sugar they obtained in Barbados for the slaves they caught. The other two ships were intercepted by European warships and were unsuccessful in their quest for slaves. They barely escaped with their lives. The European countries competed fiercely for the slave traffic and for colonies in the new world.
Besides pirates, there were many hazards on the Atlantic during the slave trade.For this reason, American colonialists avoided the slave trade. The Dutch West India Trading company and the English Royal African Company were the major slave catching enterprises of the time. Other independent merchant ships also engaged in slave trading sometimes funded by European leaders as in the case of Columbus, an Italian merchant funded by Queen Isabella of Spain.Portugal, Spain, Great Britain, France, The Netherlands, Brazil, Scotland, Brandenburg-Prussia, Denmark, and Holland all took part in slave trading. There was a great deal of greed involved and little regard for human life. Many African kings were complicit as well. African rulers became wealthy by selling their countrymen as slaves.
They often sold their enemies into slavery after defeat. Europeans were known to incite war between tribes in order to obtain slaves. Africans used slavery in place of a penal system.The Africans were unaware; however, that the Europeans had concocted a form of slavery from which there was no escape. They did not realize they were selling their brethren into slavery which would never end and would be passed down from generation to generation.
Brazil was the largest importer of slaves and the last country to end slave trading. The largest percentage and number of slaves was captured in the Congo after the slave catchers discovered the Congo River. Currently there remains a huge contingent of slave descendents in Brazil, the largest group outside of Africa. They have managed to maintain some semblance of their own culture by combining African traditions with Christian practices. Slave trading was very lucrative. It created immense wealth for those involved in trafficking and the plantation owners, who received free labor.
The British became dominant in this endeavor around 1700.The Africans were used to cultivate and clear the fields for agriculture. The colonists attempted to enslave Native Americans but found that they needed them as allies for survival in the new world. They signed treaties with them. Many Native Americans died from contact with European diseases so they decided to use Africans for slaves because they were far more hardy and plentiful. They assuaged their guilt by claiming the Africans were savages who were not Christians and therefore had no souls. They created the concept of race and declared themselves superior to people of color.
The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 gave the British a contract to supply unlimited slaves per year to Spanish America along with other goods. The enterprise continued to be very lucrative.The British were far crueler as slave masters than the Dutch.
The Dutch viewed slaves as an economic necessity. They treated them with some measure of respect. The British were cruelly racist to the Blacks for no apparent reason. The Dutch allowed slaves a few rights which were all lost under British control. Americans, like the British, were brutally cruel to their slaves with a few exceptions. Slaves were subjected to subhuman living conditions and beat unmercifully for the slightest infraction.
They were often branded, burned, tortured and cut at the whim of their masters.Boston and Newport were the major ports of entry for slave ships bringing Northern slave cargo. Rhode Island was a favorite entry point because of its excellent harbors. Colonial newspapers earned a substantial income from advertisements of slaves for sale or hire. Slavery created booming business for many.
New York was the capital of American slavery for more than two centuries. Although many think slavery was limited to the American South, the institution thrived in New York until 1827 when the state abolished it. During colonial times, New York City ranked second only to Charleston, South Carolina, as a slave trading center. In fact, slaves constituted nearly 40 percent of the population of the original Dutch colony.
(4) Many fought in the American Revolution although many more joined the British for freedom.Slaveholding was heavily concentrated in New York City as was the population of Whites. As the numbers of slaves grew, the colonists became fearful of uprisings. They enacted public controls. Slaves were not allowed to meet in groups of more than four. There were restrictions on when and where they could be.
A Negro “whipper” was hired to flog violators. These laws prohibited social life for Blacks. These practices were similar to practices during apartheid in South Africa.The population was racially mixed due to the ongoing rape of slave women. Slavery was passed down matrilineally. If the mother was free, the child would be free even if the father was enslaved. If the mother was a slave, the child was also a slave. Since White men frequently fathered children with slave women, they were assured of an ongoing supply of half White children who were considered Black and were born into slavery.
They had no regard for the fact that the children were their own descendents.There were numerous visibly white individuals who were slaves due to the one drop theory and the practice of matrilineal slavery. The rule of one drop of blood (if one had one drop of African blood, they were considered Black) was put in place because the slave holders wanted to make as many people slaves as possible because the enterprise was so profitable.
In doing so, they guaranteed they would be outnumbered at some point. They found all sorts of justification for their greed including imaginary superiority of the white race.Even the popes agreed with the enslavement of Africans since they regarded them as non Christian heathens. Africans practiced their own religion and really had no need to be “saved” by the Europeans.
Islam was the religion of choice in many African countries.In 1712 there was one of several rebellions among the slaves in New York City. African born slaves led the revolt because they preferred death to life long bondage. They managed to collect weapons which they used to kill five Whites. The uprising was shocking to the residents of New York.
The slaves were caught and put to death.In yet another protest of the practice of slavery, in early 1741, enslaved Africans in New York City planned to overthrow colonial authority, burn the city, and turn it over to the Spanish to set up a black governor. Encouraged by the War of Jenkins’ Ear, (The war of Jenkin’s ear was named for an incident between the British and Spanish when a Mr.
Jenkins lost his ear) slave revolts in South Carolina and the West Indies, and personal attacks on local slave owners, they felt they could succeed. There was ongoing conflict over the control of the colonies and territories in the New World between Spain and Britain during this period. Atlantic slave ships were targeted for sabotage and groups of conspirators in and around New York City planned a massive uprising.
They plotted at gatherings in taverns, on piers and street corners, and at homes of free Negroes. Dozens of enslaved Africans joined in for the plot. Participants included enslaved people owned by masters from every ethnicity and rank in local society, South American free blacks captured by privateers and sold into slavery, gangs of escaped slaves and abolitionists. The plot was discovered and seventeen Blacks and four Whites were burned at the stake.New York had many free Black Citizens as well as slaves. The developed their own culture within the society.In 1712, Trinity Church, of Manhattan, disallowed burial of Blacks in its cemetery. Africans were provided an isolated area outside the city limits where they could bury their dead.
By 1794, when the city decided to expand beyond its original colonial walls, the burial grounds were closed to allow the growth. Years of debris and landfill covered the site, and its original purpose as a burial site was forgotten until work began on the new Federal building nearly two centuries later.(4)A team of anthropologists led by Dr. Michael Blakey of Howard University studied the recovered bones searching for a glimpse into the lives of these deceased New Yorkers. Filed teeth and ear bobs, shroud pins, beads, cowry shells, and pottery shards were found that could be traced to their West African origins. DNA scraped from tooth enamel revealed clues about diet. Bone lesions on skeletal remains pointing to muscle tears and spine fractures caused by extreme overwork. They also indicate malnutrition and disease among these enslaved people.
Some graves held musket balls with their skeletal remains. Buttons with still visible insignia of the British Navy like those worn during the American Revolution attest to an allegiance some blacks had with the Loyalists who promised slaves their freedom. Moreover, anthropologists determined that nearly 40 percent of the graves contained remains of children under the age of 12. (4) Some of the skeletons had filed teeth indicating cultural African markings.
Those cultural makings indicate many were born in Africa and brought on slave ships rather than having been born in New York or on one of the breeding farms established in Virginia. Most of the women were under 40 years of age. One person was found buried in cowry shells around her waist and neck, indicating royal birth, African royalty buried as a slave. Burying individuals with their possessions was a custom from Africa.A variety of trade beads were found which assist archaeologists in determining the origin of the deceased persons. Beads were considered important and powerful symbols. They were used to signify important milestones in life such as birth, deaths and marriages.
The Africans believed the beads would save them from harm in the present life and make their journey easier in the next life.The artifacts recovered give clues to the burial customs which the Africans retained from their native practices in West Africa. The ornamentation of the bodies tells a story as well as the positions they were placed in. Some were buried with children in their arms. Africans believed their heads should face east when they were buried so their heads would face Jerusalem and Africa on judgment day.
Their funeral ceremonies were held at night. They would place coins over the eyes of the corpse to keep the eyes closed.Africans believe that death, although sad, is a journey into another life to become a revered ancestor. They were not fearful of death but viewed it as a part of life. They believed the dead had to be buried properly or their soul would not rest. In Africa, burial rituals often involved the slaughter of animals.
Recent anthropological findings in other areas of New York and New Jersey indicate there were fully functioning plantations similar to the ones in the South which existed for many years in the North during the 17th and 18th centuries. The hidden history of Northern plantations and their slaves is emerging from excavations in and around historic manor houses in Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. From bits of china, kitchen utensils, tools, buttons and jewelry, archaeologists are getting glimpses of a chapter of America’s past that written histories have either ignored as most of Black history has been ignored in America.(5)Most Northern states abolished slavery before the Civil War. But recent excavations show that during the late 1700s and early 1800s, many of what later came to be called manors and landed estates were full-fledged plantations that enslaved African-Americans under conditions similar to those in the South. New York was no exception. In fact it was a major participant in slavery.Slavery was far more important to the South because the economy was based on agriculture and they desperately needed the slave labor.
Therefore, slavery lasted far longer in the South and they fought to avoid putting an end to it. Southerners lived idyllic lives, pampered and waited on by enslaved people, secure in their imagined superiority. They built their wealth on the backs of a group of people.The bones found in Manhattan tell a story about a forgotten group of slaves who were buried there decades ago. They tell about the institution of slavery in the North. They tell us that whites practiced segregation even in death. The remains tell us the children died at a very high rate probably due to malnutrition and abuse. Some slaves would kill their young rather than allow them to live a life of unrelenting bondage.
This is especially true of African born slaves.In retrospect, it can be said that the institution of slavery was extremely damaging to the African continent by robbing the country of its most important resource: its people. Africans who may have been gifted in so many different ways were relegated to the status of slave and stifled in their development.
They definitely could not reach their potential in racist America. Africans populated the Americas and provided a free labor force. For this reason, many slave descendents feel they should be awarded reparations for the work of their ancestors.America was torn apart in a bitter civil war due to slavery.
The very idea of enslaving human beings is totally evil, yet it was sanctioned by religious leaders during the slave trade. It is a very shameful part of our nation’s history. It is sad that most slave holder descendents deny their role in slavery. Many African American families have never recovered from the scars.Although slavery helped fund the industrial revolution, the toll on society and on the Black community especially has been expensive.
America deprived itself of the genius of African Americans by enacting racist laws and policies. Africans were relegated to a diminished status which caused them to suffer from social ills and poverty. Meanwhile, descendents of slave holders live on the spoils of their unconscionable ill gotten gains from human trafficking.What the discovery of the burial ground reminds us of is America’s shameful relationship with racial discrimination resulting from slavery. It makes us realize that slavery took place in the North as well as the South. African American New Yorkers experienced painful discrimination. They were denied voting rights and limited to certain professions until the 19th century.
Black Americans in New York developed their own society. New York later became the center of the abolition movement. It became a refuge for slaves seeking freedom in the end. There is now a national monument on the burial site.The African Burial Ground National Monument is located at the corners of Duane and Elk Streets in Lower Manhattan. The memorial is open Monday through Sunday from 9 to 5 except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day.1. http://www.