Demonization and Racialization in British North America: Slave Revolts, Devilish Priests, and Infernal Landscapes

Today's guest post comes from Jeffrey Wheatley, a Ph.D. student at Northwestern University. His research explores religious contestation, racialization, the state, and capitalism with a focus on nineteenth-century North America. You can find him on Twitter or message him at jwheatley[at]u.northwestern[dot]edu. Note that an earlier version of this post appeared on the American Society of Church History blog.

Jeffrey Wheatley

Horsmanden's Journal
 (Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History)
The two things that British North Americans feared most in the colonial era were slave revolts and the Catholic Church. Within the colonial imaginary these two threats occasionally coalesced into one. The result was an infernal spectacle that forced colonial anxieties about the basic structures of colonial society to the surface. The soundness of the institution of slavery, emerging conceptions of the public, and the British Protestant beachhead in the overwhelmingly Catholic Americas all came into question.

The colonies were undergoing just such a crisis in the late 1730s and early 1740s. In 1739, a group of slaves in South Carolina rebelled and fled to Florida, where they were promised freedom by the Spanish. Along the way they burned down a number of houses owned by those who were especially cruel. In 1741, colonial officials believed a series of fires in New York City to be a sign of a potentially large-scale slave revolt orchestrated by Catholic priests. In both the Stono Rebellion and the New York Conspiracy, commentators worried that these revolts were but the first step of a larger invasion from Catholic Spain or France. Jill Lepore’s New York Burning (2005) has engaged the difficulties of figuring out what occurred on the ground in New York, but for this rather long post I want to focus on the colonial imaginary, and especially how the language of demons and hell functioned to protect and legitimate the interests of white colonial America.

The idea of a Catholic-backed black slave revolt haunting the British North American imaginary may, at first glance, seem strange, and in need of explanation. In the eighteenth century, many Britons understood the Catholic Church to be a global, conspiring institution bent on the destruction of the primarily Protestant British Empire. The Church acted through its Jesuit priests, who were marked by their rhetorical subtleties and capacity to manipulate the weak-minded. At the same time, blacks were believed to be easily fooled and prone to over-indulge in alcohol. Alongside the very real possibilities of Spanish-Catholic subversion and slave rebellion, the anxious British North American typologies of the “Jesuit” and the “black” made their collusion coherent and even probable within the colonial imaginary. In the case of the New York Conspiracy, the courts reviewing the incident believed that subversive priests like the Irishman John Ury had converted and thus weaponized black slaves. The latter were understood to be tricked not only because of their assumed intellectual inferiority, but because priests provided them with alcohol, drew them in with the superstitions of mass, and promised them penance for their violent actions.

The presumed coalescence of the calculating Jesuit and the violent black provoked totalizing language that emphasized the demonic and the infernal. Accounts provided vivid descriptions of both the agents of the revolts and the infernal landscape they produced by burning down—or at least attempting to burn down—private houses and governmental buildings.

New York Prosecutor William Smith described the scheme as such:
Scarce any thing can be conceived more horrid than the crimes charged on the prisoners. A scheme so black and hellish, as the burning of this city, and the murdering of the inhabitants of it, one would hardly imagine, could enter into the thought, much less be harboured in the breast of any human creature; but more wonderful is it, that so great a number should unite and conspire in so detestable a piece of villainy. And yet, gentlemen, there seems nothing wanting to complete the evidence of so barbarous, unjust and cruel a design as has been set on foot; of which we have had in part occular demonstration, in the late fires that have been enkindled in divers parts of this city; several of which have been lighted up in one day, to the amazement and terror of the people.
Other examples abound. In New York Justice Daniel Horsmanden, who presided over the trials and provides us with the most detailed account of the court proceedings, described the alleged rebels as “a conclave of devils” (1). From Savannah, observer William Stephens wrote that the slaves in the Stono Rebellion were “destroying all that came in their Way” and that the “Country thereabout was full of Flames” (2). The destruction of private property was especially hellish. The official report of Stono lamented that “Evil [was] brought Home to us within our very Doors” (3). One young slave, the French-speaking Bastian, used this language to indict conspirators after he was pardoned and asked to confirm the investigator’s suspicions. When asked how he and the conspirators were to execute the plot, Bastian responded: “By lightning and thunder, and by hell flames, that I would set fire to whatever I came across, and destroy as many whites as I could” (4). The aesthetics of the infernal on earth—embedded in both the conspiring agents and the landscape they produced—was used by colonial officials to make a case for the absolute scale of the threat and the need for a proportionate response of violence from colonial governments.

The reported hellish landscapes—and, likely, the extent of conspiracy, as Lepore argues—were exaggerations that tell us far more about the anxieties of colonial officials than the actual extent of damage. But the language was important; the language did work. Demon-talk and images of hellish infernos realized colonial fears of a world-turned-upside-down. Demonization also rendered slave revolts as one event in a cosmological battle between good (Great Britain, whiteness, Protestantism) and evil (the Pope’s imperial desires, blackness, Catholicism). Official accounts made it seem that slave revolts had little to do with colonial structures (i.e., slavery); the accounts made it seem that when blacks such as Cuffee, Caesar, and Prince—to name a few of those accused and executed—rebelled, they were only partially, and perhaps only incidentally, responding to their enslaved condition. Official rhetoric made them part of a much broader demonic and Catholic evil. Their “blackness” made them especially vulnerable to this evil. In Horsmanden’s account, the white conspirators are more often described as the true devils. John Hughson, accused of being a ringleader, was described as “that devil incarnate, and chief agent of the old abaddon of the infernal pit, and regions of darkness” (5). Black slaves, who were assumed to naturally appreciate their “masters and benefactors,” were more likely to be described as suitable vehicles for the devil’s work. The reports were dedicated to a bifurcation of intention and action: Catholics provided the cunning; black slaves provided the violence. The latter, the court documents wanted to suggest, never made a choice to rebel, but were tricked, and fell for it due to their internal weaknesses.

This is but one intense example of a long-existing pattern, albeit one that changes dramatically depending on the particular context of time and space. Historically, demonization and racialization have been tightly intertwined. The racialized have often been racialized through demonization. They might be rendered as possessed by devils, undergoing devilish work, or the devil himself. As Geraldine Heng, among others, has argued, racialization (i.e., the process of maintaining a structural relationship of fundamental difference for the sake of political inclusion and exclusion) via demonization has deep medieval roots (6). This process clearly exceeded the medieval period. During the Middle Ages this was most often applied to Jews, but this structuring became a salient feature of a European imagining of Native Americans and Africans during European expansion. This imagining attributed superhuman powers (e.g., strength and sexual excess) to these colonial others. Such imaginings mandated that righteous Christians, responding proportionally, contain, totally control, or annihilate the purveyors of the demonic.

It was by “the blessing of heaven” that the New York court believed that it had stopped the plot from self-fulfillment and that it had captured most of its conspirators (7). Alongside such a blessing, stopping the plot and preventing future plots required state diligence. By the end of the New York trials, 146 blacks had been arrested. 35 blacks and 4 whites had been hanged or burned. In the Stono Rebellion, after some success against the white pursuants, 44 blacks were killed, their heads placed on pikes on roads as warnings. Both New York and South Carolina issued new restrictions that prevented, among other things, blacks from traveling freely, from congregating in publics (especially public houses, which were believed to be the site of conspiracy), and from buying and selling goods.

The devil’s work had been quashed, the reports were eager to exclaim, but not defeated. Horsmanden, responding to critiques that unfavorably compared his judicial responses to those of Salem in 1692, claimed that “the enemy is still at work within our bowels . . . and should at length break out again in flames about our ears . . . ” (8). Although almost always consigned to elimination, the devil’s work, Horsmanden argued, would return if colonial elites failed in enforcing the rigidified colonial structures built upon the premises of racialization and demonization.

[1] Daniel Horsmanden, The New-York Conspiracy, or a History of the Negro Plot, with the Journal of the Proceedings . . . (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969), 81, 119. Horsmanden published his account in 1744. This edition is a reprint of an 1810 publication that included a preface condemning the anti-Catholicism of the court proceedings.

[2] William Stephens, A Journal of the Proceedings in Georgia, Beginning October 20, 1737, vol. 4, The Colonial Records of the State of Georgia (Atlanta: Franklin Printing and Publishing Company, 1906), 412.

[3] “The Official Report,” in Stono: Documenting and Interpreting a Southern Slave Revolt,edited by Mark M. Smith (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005), 29.

[4] Horsmanden, New-York Conspiracy, 381.

[5] Horsmanden, New-York Conspiracy, 113.

[6] See Geraldine Heng, “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages I: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages,” Literature Compass 8, no. 5 (May 1, 2011): 315–31 and Heng, “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages II: Locations of Medieval Race,” Literature Compass 8, no. 5 (May 1, 2011): 332–50.

[7] Horsmanden, New-York Conspiracy, 119.

[8] Horsmanden, New-York Conspiracy, 348.


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