Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

The flames of insurrection: Fearing slave conspiracy in early America 1670-1780
by Sharples, Jason T., Ph.D., Princeton University, 2010, 398; 3424095
Abstract (Summary)

Focusing on the phenomenon of the slave conspiracy panic, “The Flames of Insurrection: Fearing Slave Conspiracy in Early America” uncovers shared cultural scripts with which colonists and enslaved people approached and described their societies’ vulnerability to slave rebellion between 1670 and 1780. Major conspiracy scares have long been understood as slaves’ failed attempts at organized rebellion. Increasingly, however—in cases from eighteenth-century New York to nineteenth-century Charleston—scholars have debated whether any given panic was an authentic averted plot or an overreaction to a false alarm. This dissertation pushes beyond the narrow question of whether or not slaves intended to rebel, which is based on our own modern liberal assumptions about the possibility and value of collective violence. Instead, the present study utilizes 87 known conspiracy panics, whether initiated by masters or slaves, to open up new interpretations of the fear that permeated precarious colonial slave societies.

My research relies on an archive of investigation records, trial minutes, government reports, and private correspondence to unearth and contextualize how blacks and whites understood the prospect of insurrection. I have discovered that an evolving collection of shared imaginings, derived from empirical experience and literary representation, shaped the anticipation of insurrection and the unfolding of conspiracy panics in British colonies throughout North America and the Caribbean. In particular, white settlers insisted, and enslaved blacks confessed, that several features consistently marked slave conspiracies—including, for example, ambushes at decoy fires, incitement by non-slave instigators (often Catholic agents), and secret officer lists written in the style of an English militia. Recurring elements such as these came to be instrumental in sparking and fueling conspiracy panics, and played a part in attempts at making sense of them afterward.

The present dissertation re-envisions purported slave conspiracies as culturally constructed group panics rather than straightforward signals of rebellion. This clarification reveals that, whatever limited violence the enslaved may have intended, common cultural scripts immediately took over in guiding the anticipation, experience, and memory of plots and insurrections as narrowly avoided catastrophes. The fears that blacks and whites articulated during conspiracy panics were schematic diagrams mapping out a society’s own understanding of its strengths and weaknesses: slaveholders articulated precisely how they believed their control could be overturned, thus communicating the essence of what they perceived to be their own position’s drawbacks and advantages. Attending to the coherence of slave conspiracy discourse advances our understanding of slave society by demonstrating the degree to which slavery, and its anxieties, were embedded within contexts usually considered unconnected to enslavement—including anti-Catholic ideology, inter-imperial rivalry, diasporic African social practices, English juridical culture, and an array of literary forms. And slaves, for their part, played a crucial role in voicing these fears of their masters.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Colley, Linda
School: Princeton University
School Location: United States -- New Jersey
Source: DAI-A 71/10, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: American studies, American history, Ethnic studies
Keywords: Colonial America, Slave conspiracy
Publication Number: 3424095
ISBN: 978-1-124-23143-3
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