In dozens of slave conspiracy scares in North American and the Caribbean, colonists terrorized and killed slaves whom they accused of planning to take over the colony. Jason T. Sharples explains the deep origins and historical triggers of these incidents and argues that conspiracy scares bound society together through shared fear.
2020 | 365 pages | Cloth $45.00
American History,African-American Studies/African Studies
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Table of Contents
Introduction. The Cup of Wrath Is Almost Full
Chapter 1. Making Sense of Strangers: The Invention of Anglo-American Slave Conspiracy
Chapter 2. Studying the Horizon: The Stories and Circumstances That Conjured Demons
Chapter 3. Seeking Truth Through Terror: Coercion and Survival Inside the Courtroom and the Jail
Chapter 4. The Risk of Relations: Community-Seeking and the Politics of Association
Chapter 5. The Accountants, the Opportunists, and the Rebels: Taking Chances in the Era of the Seven Years' War
Chapter 6. Governing in a World of Fear: Political Mobilization in the American Revolutionary Era
Epilogue. The Transforming Fires of the Haitian Revolution
The Cup of Wrath Is Almost Full
There is a puzzle in the history of early American slave rebellions that offers a view of the hidden workings of slave societies and how fear coiled the springs of exploitation, resistance, and power. The mystery is the dissimilarity between two events—one a spontaneous uprising, another a planned insurrection—in the heart of coastal South Carolina rice country, roughly ten years apart, each involving more than one hundred enslaved people. In the first, in the predawn hours of a Sunday in September 1739, a core group of about twenty desperate people near the Stono River broke into a store, seized weapons, and killed two white storekeepers. They chose not to march ten miles north to strike at the heart of the regime in Charleston, where the slumbering townspeople would have made easy targets. Instead they tried to flee almost three hundred miles south to St. Augustine in Spanish Florida (fig. 1) to secure their legal freedom through a policy that welcomed them as refugees.
As the group advanced along the road and raised a banner, about eighty more people joined from among the several hundred who were enslaved in plantation labor camps in the immediate area. The insurrectionary force plundered some of the houses they passed and burned them as they left, killing about two dozen enslavers and sparing the lives of others. They made it to the next river but succumbed to the colony's militia in the open field. As a Royal Navy captain reported shortly after these events, this rebellion "was not general"; it was limited to "only ... part of the Country." He also observed that this revolt was homegrown, contrary to British colonists' usual suspicions. He did not yet see reason to think that it was "stirred up by the Spaniards" or any other agitator, despite later speculation to the contrary. In South Carolina's largest rebellion before the chaos of the American Revolution, these insurgents rejected slavery through personal escape rather than general massacre and political takeover.
In the second event, ten years later and ten miles away, a different group of enslaved people appeared in the highest court of the colony, the council chamber in Charleston, to confess their plans for insurrection in January 1749. As they described their intentions, however, they painted a picture of planned violence that looked rather different from the Stono Rebellion. An enslaved boatman named Agrippa stood before the governor of South Carolina and six of the most powerful men in the colony to reveal that hundreds of enslaved people would rise at the end of the week. The governor ordered costly countermeasures. He forced common white men to put down their work so they could mobilize as a militia to patrol by foot, horse, and boat. He also stopped all traffic at Charleston's harbor and stationed two Royal Navy vessels nearby. Normal business ground to a halt for two weeks.
The uprising did not occur. Agrippa and six other enslaved informants described the plan, termed a "conspiracy" or "plot," and implicated 104 enslaved people and thirteen white laborers in joining it. Two white men, transients believed to be connected to the Spanish, seemed to have proposed the plot and organized it for enslaved people, whom white society deemed at the time to be natural followers incapable of the necessary strategic vision. They appeared to initiate conspirators by swearing them to secrecy with formal oaths, creating a network of confirmed conspirators that stretched to the enslaved "Headmen" on many rural plantations who recruited the "Cleverest Slaves" in their employ. The informants insisted that racial massacre was the goal—to "kill the White People"—and that Charleston was the target, where they could take advantage of the concentrated white population. The masterstroke of the plot was to "set the Town & [powder] Magazine afire and in the Confusion kill the white People," using fire to draw victims into the streets to be ambushed before heading to the frontier for freedom. Why was the Stono Rebellion of 1739 so different from the plan for rebellion that informants warned about in 1749?
The rest of the puzzle comes into view when we expand our compass to include the rest of the anglophone American colonies. Dozens of times, enslaved informants confessed to "conspiracies" or "plots" that included plans for insurrection and visions of violence that were strikingly similar to Agrippa's revelations. In many, they said that they would set diversionary fires and ambush the white people who rushed to extinguish them. In Barbados in 1692, investigators believed that conspirators would have "sett the towne on fire in severall Places ... to amuse [distract] the inhabitants" and lure them into a slaughter. In New York (1741), a series thirteen fires prompted investigators to announce that plotters set them with the intent of ambushing "the white people [who] came to extinguish them, [to] kill and destroy them." In Jamaica (1744), it appeared that conspirators planned to light fires in a town "first at one End of it, and then at the other," so that when "People ran in Confusion to the same, they were to be stab'd and destroy'd." In New York, in the tense winter of 1775, an investigation in the Hudson Valley found that plotters planned to "fire the houses, cry fire, and kill the people as they came out." In South Carolina in 1822, investigators claimed that conspirators wanted to "set the town on fire in different places & as the whites come out . . . slay them," in Charleston's iconic Denmark Vesey affair. The centerpiece of the South Carolina plot of 1749—to blow up the powder magazine and use the distraction to massacre the townspeople—had more in common with these revelations of intended violence than with the progression of actual violence in the Stono Rebellion, when insurgents followed the road away from Charleston and burned rural plantations only after the fact.
The idea of an ambush at a diversionary fire was just one of several recurring features in conspiracy confessions that had more in common with Agrippa's confessions than with the Stono rebels' actions. During several conspiracy scares in slave societies of North America and the Greater Caribbean, informants said that conspirators took direction from outside agitators such as Catholic spies (another element of Agrippa's confession), swore oaths to one another to maintain secrecy (witnessed by Agrippa's enslaver), and circulated lists of conspirators. In terms of tactics, some said that they timed the averted rebellion for a holiday such as Easter, St. Patrick's Day, or Christmas, and that they would coordinate the uprising with French, Spanish, or American Indian invaders. Often the initial informer claimed to alert the community within days of the planned insurrection, as Agrippa did, in a dramatic turn worthy of the early modern stage. They described common goals of massacring white men and raping white women. Above all, they said, conspirators appeared to aim for a social inversion by which they would take the names of leading planters and replace them at the heads of families, estates, and government. While Agrippa's confessions certainly had some connections to the Stono Rebellion, they also must be understood as part of this related but distinct phenomenon—the slave conspiracy scare—which grew from different historical forces and generated a different set of effects on the world. These were events of information and misinformation at least as much as they were insurrectionary events.
The distinctiveness of conspiracy allegations is evident when we expand our comparison to what actually happened in most revolts in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America. When groups of rebels took up arms against their oppressors, their insurrections usually began at one or two plantation labor camps and typically remained limited in scope. Out of fear of reprisals, many hundreds of people enslaved in the immediate vicinity did not join. When larger numbers of enslaved people accepted the risk of joining insurrections, which happened only a handful of times in the Americas, they usually did so in viral fashion, from plantation to plantation, rather than in a premeditated, simultaneous rising as part of a clandestine network.
Rebels also pursued tactics and goals different from those professed by informants for alleged conspiracies. They usually killed very few white people and rarely committed sexual violence, contrary to enslavers' expectations of massacre and rape. Generally, they prioritized plundering for provisions and escaping from the zone of colonization rather than going out of their way to murder white people or to conquer colonial centers. They did not jeopardize their opportunity for individual success with complicated plans for overturning the social order. They set fire to buildings to deny their adversaries shelter and to intimidate pursuers with billowing spectacles; there is little evidence that they initiated rebellions by setting diversionary fires to draw inhabitants out of buildings into an ambush. These limited conflicts, a sensible strategy in situations of extreme domination, allowed rebels to seek autonomy in regions inaccessible to their former oppressors—mountains, swamps, forests, and even Spanish settlements. The Stono Rebellion corresponded to most other rebellions with its limited initial participation, its viral spread, and the primary goal of escape more than massacre, even if it did not square with the confessions of Agrippa in 1749.
The initial answer to our puzzle—why did the violence of South Carolina's 1739 rebellion differ so markedly from the predicted violence of 1749?—is that these were two distinct types of events, which have been conflated from the beginning. During investigations into possible plans for rebellion, enslavers forced enslaved informants to speculate about violence that might occur or could have occurred instead of describing something that actually did occur. For white people in early America, the only significant difference between a conspiracy and a rebellion was the stage to which the insurgent activity developed. In their minds, when enslaved people did take up arms in rebellion, magistrates retroactively explained it as having originated as a "conspiracy" that they had failed to detect. (When the rebellion did not engulf the whole colony, as with the Stono Rebellion, they expressed relief that the original conspiracy somehow misfired.) An "insurrection" or "rebellion" is properly defined as collective violence that actually occurred, whereas a "plot" or "conspiracy" is a representation of violence that was supposedly planned but appeared not to come to fruition because enslavers anticipated it and arrested the alleged "conspirators." This distinction is the beginning of the answer. The rest requires recognizing that slavery was, at its core a system of fear.
Violence and Fear in Slavery
Enslavers systematically used terror against the Africans and African Americans whom they enslaved as a strategy for trying to command obedience. "Fear," theorized the slavery apologist Bryan Edwards, was the only "impulse to action" to which an enslaved person could respond. Individual enslavers wielded the lash, the most obvious instrument of attempted terror, not to mechanically prod enslaved people so much as to inflict freshly stinging examples of what could befall them if they displeased an enslaver. The historian Edward Baptist has aptly characterized this as a system of torture for compelling labor and outward obedience from enslaved people, and a seventeenth-century traveler also described this as a system of "torment[s]" and "excessive tortur[e]s." Enslavers throughout the colonies terrorized enslaved women and men with rape and its lingering trauma, and they threatened them with the possibility of physical pain, humiliation, confinement, or reassignment to difficult labor. They also used the chattel principle to threaten to separate families through sale, and they could send an individual to a new enslaver who was more sadistic or whose position in the economy involved a more grueling labor regime. In wielding these instruments of fear, enslavers deliberately exploited people's human instinct to avoid doing whatever might lead to pain or loss. Coercion in slavery depended on fear of violence: it occurred when enslavers convinced the people whom they enslaved that they could be assured of specific negative outcomes, particularly in the realm of basic needs, if they did anything other than what was bid them. But in doing so, white people generated the unintended consequence of their own fear of black people.
Enslaved people experienced another form of terror from colonial governments. They faced the possibility of painful death and mutilation at the hands of the state, which had less interest in preserving their value as property, whenever it claimed to act for the public safety of white people. Enslaved people experienced this as a compound fear because the public display of dismembered corpses had religious implications, as Vincent Brown has shown. They also continued to experience the terror long after the grisly spectacles had vanished from sight because, as Marisa Fuentes has observed, their daily travels carried them through a landscape of crossroads and market squares that retained their traumatic association with punishment. Colonial governments meant these punishments to influence the living, to terrorize onlookers into changing their calculus for actions in the future. With executions after one uprising, an enslaver shared this hope that the grisly spectacle would "leave a Terrour on the Minds of all the other Negros for the future" to prevent them from rising again, and Enlightenment thinkers agreed that terror could maintain the standing order. Enslaved people carried an accretion of violent experiences and traumatizing examples that enslavers and colonial governments deliberately deployed to try to control them.
Historians have been coming to grips with the centrality of deprivation, pain, and trauma to enslaved people's lives. The scholarship of Saidiya Hartman, Nell Irvin Painter, Wendy Warren, Edward Baptist, and Sowande' M. Mustakeem, among others, emphasizes the all-encompassing violence of enslavement. This corrects views that ignored the considerable constraints on "the world the slaves made" and minimized violent encounters in "the world they made together." The world of white violence and black trauma that scholars have come to recognize was, in truth, a world made and sustained by fear.
This emphasis on violence and trauma has led some scholars to see that the bodies of enslaved women and men were a main site of political resistance against oppression. Survival was the most fundamental struggle. The slaving regime imposed scarcities that directly threatened people on the brink and also pitted them in competition for limited resources. In fear of punishment, many resorted to subtle forms of resistance that could not easily be ascribed to them but that achieved human-scale victories: they preserved something of their bodies for their own use by taking food, feigning or exaggerating illness, destroying equipment necessary for production, or working less vigorously when unobserved. These were realistic ways for vulnerable people to attempt to meet basic needs and to cope with the pervasive pain and terror of enslavement.
When possible within the considerable constraints of enslavement, slaves asserted personal control of their bodies as resources, at the expense of enslavers, through their movement, adornment, enjoyment, and depletion. Many attempted to forge bonds of mutual responsibility at funerals, religious occasions, and illicit social gatherings where they could discuss their shared plight with a few trusted souls. Some even temporarily fled their enslavers for days or weeks as a way to preserve their bodies from work or to visit family members held in captivity on a distant plantation. These clandestine activities were moments of freedom: as political scientist and Africana studies scholar Neil Roberts has theorized, given the impossibility for any human being to experience perfect liberty or absolute domination, we should look for historical freedom in enslaved people's acts of "flight" from one pole to the other, along paths both real and metaphorical that led from oppression toward relative autonomy. This array of responses showed just how wrong enslavers were when they proclaimed that slaves lacked the mental capacity to resist.
A small number of enslaved people, driven to desperation, took the dangerous path of rising in open rebellion against their oppressors even though they risked almost certain death. From the ancient world to the modern, as David Brion Davis has observed, "revolts appear to have been extremely rare" because large-scale insurrections lacked a clear exit strategy and brought violent crackdowns against rebels and bystanders alike. Some followed a slightly less dangerous path away from domination: they permanently fled their enslavers. Self-liberated fugitives could seek safe harbor by forming illicit settlements in swamps and mountains, known as maroon communities, hidden or inaccessible to colonizers who would re-enslave them. Others took refuge among American Indians beyond the colonial frontier or among the transient populations and people of color in urban seaports. In times of war and other interimperial tension, a significant number fled across battle lines or imperial boundaries, took refuge, and later participated in battles against their former oppressors. Within the severe constraints of enslavement, terrorized enslaved people selected from this array of resistance strategies to respond to the violence and trauma of their exploitation. The most violent and visible of these approaches, however infrequent, in turn struck fear into their tormenters.
For their part, enslavers feared that the violence and terror with which they attempted to control enslaved people also sowed the seeds of their own destruction. They wielded enormous power, but they were also aware of their regime's vulnerabilities. Enslavers understood that they surrounded themselves with people whom they exploited, and they recognized that they furnished implements, such as machetes for cutting sugar cane, that could be used as weapons. They knew that as a practicality they sometimes had to turn their backs, as shown in the rare visual admission by an illustrator in figure 3. In time, they worried, enslaved people in desperation would answer their tormentors' persistent violence by erupting into armed rebellion. An artist who depicted Tacky's Rebellion in Jamaica (1760), without having witnessed it, represented this reversal as an insurgent bursting into a domestic space (fig. 4). The insurgent brandishes a machete that the artist has morphed into an Ottoman scimitar, with implications of tyranny, barbarity, and a threat to English liberty. Such transformations of New World phenomena through references to threats white people perceived from the Old World, as in this fantasy illustration, contributed to enslavers' heightened fears. Absent from either of these deeply flawed depictions, each predicated on a harmful stereotype, is the violence and fear experienced by enslaved people in reality.
When revolts occurred, enslavers located their origins in slaves' desire for vengeance. When South Carolina's colonists tried to make sense of the Stono Rebellion of 1739, some presumed it was "revenge for particular severity's [that slaves] conceived they had received from their Masters and overseers." They pointed to insurgents' decision to spare the life of one of the enslavers whom they encountered because supposedly "he was a good Man and kind to his Slaves." After another rebellion, in Antigua, the colony's governor thought that the enslaver whom the rebels beheaded was probably "guilty of some unwise act of severity or ... indignity." After all, he mused, the people who revolted were from the Gold Coast region of Lower Guinea and therefore, he unsoundly generalized, "Obedient to a kind Master, but implacably revengefull when ill treated." When Bryan Edwards remembered Tacky's Rebellion, he thought that insurgents' "emotions of fear and revenge" clouded their ability to discern which enslavers were "innocent," deserving quarter, and which were "guilty." Enslavers predicted general massacre because they knew they were guilty of brutalities. Recognizing a "just Law of Retaliation," they acknowledged that they deserved the worst fates that enslaved people could give them.
The radical thinker Thomas Tryon played on enslavers' fear of vengeance to advocate for better treatment for enslaved people. He wrote an imagined dialogue between a man and his enslaver. Adopting the voice of a slave, he noted that enslavers mistreated enslaved people with "great Tyranny, Injustice, and cruel Usages," including by "gratif[ying] their raging Lusts ... [with the rape of] our Women." He cautioned the enslaver that this violence "stir[red] up ... wrathful Qualities in us" and noted that enslaved people had already formed "several horrid Plots and Conspiracies" to "kill and destroy you." The corresponding solution, he wrote, was to treat enslaved people more humanely—although notably not to free them—to "disarm the Rage of the fierce Wrath."
Enslavers heeded Tryon's warning that "the Cup of Wrath is almost full," and they watched for warning signs that enslaved people were about rise. They established legal and policing apparatuses organized around the possibility of insurrection. The wellspring of slave law was their own fear. Their hypervigilance prompted them to interpret as sinister whatever they glimpsed of slave life and overheard of their conversations. At times, enslavers' fear boiled into an intensity that gave conspiracy scares a head of steam, and the findings of those investigations appeared to affirm what enslavers had always suspected: it seemed that their slaves had been wanting to kill them all along.
The Conspiracy Scare Phenomenon
The conspiracy scare phenomenon emerged from this combination of enslaved people's traumatic experience of terror and enslavers' awareness of their culpability and exposure to the people whom they exploited. On at least ninety-six documented occasions before 1790 (see Appendix, table 1), colonial officials in eastern North America and the British Caribbean believed that they discovered evidence of a "slave conspiracy"—a detailed plan for insurrection coordinated by a network of enslaved men—just in time to avert the uprising. Often they ended up convincing themselves that they regularly dodged ambushes at decoy fires and averted a world turned upside down. Two questions about conspiracy scares motivate The World That Fear Made. How and why did white colonists, with the coerced involvement of enslaved people, create these particular fears and come to believe in them? And how did people remake their societies in relation to fear and navigate the world that it conjured?
The creation and logic of conspiracy scares has eluded explanation partly because historians have been using conspiracies to debate the degree of slaves' resistance or acquiescence to enslavement. In the mid-twentieth century, recovering examples of collective political consciousness was historiographically urgent as the United States struggled openly with racial injustice on many fronts. Troubled by misguidedly sanguine portrayals of enslaver-enslaved relations, Herbert Aptheker and others argued for enslaved people's perpetual resistance by cataloging rebellions and rebellion plots in North America and the Caribbean that appeared ready to explode into revolution. This scholarship sometimes confused the matter by conflating the distinct but related phenomena of insurrections and conspiracy scares.
Conspiracy scares were recognized as a distinct phenomenon when Bertram Wyatt-Brown and others offered early voices of skepticism about rebellious intentions by emphasizing that these events were important as white community rituals. More stridently, Michael P. Johnson has argued that the iconic Denmark Vesey plot in South Carolina (1822) was not an imminent rebellion so much as a fabrication by politically motivated judges. Johnson's skepticism has ignited new debate about other high-profile conspiracy scares—in each case, did slaves intend to revolt, or did enslavers falsely accuse them?
The World That Fear Made views this question as an artifact of archival power, forged in fear. We must remain constantly aware of chattel slavery's extreme relations of power, which were even more warped in the courtroom during a crisis. Officials applied tortures that were meant to terrorize enslaved informants and extract information from their trauma. They converted this physical violence into what Marisa Fuentes has called "epistemic violence" by wielding pens that reduced asymmetrical exchanges to summary caricatures of purported plans for rebellion. In the end, officials inscribed the enslaved in ways that obscured their full humanity in the conventional record. Fear in many forms was a crucial ingredient in the manufacture of these distortions: white people's fear of slaves' violent resistance, colonial officials' fear of failing to protect the white population, and enslaved people's fear of punishment, loss, death, and religious violation at the hands of the enslaving regime. We must pay attention to how these threats and forms of power interacted at crucial sites of knowledge creation, such as in street conversations, jailhouse collusions, tortured confessions, courtroom confrontations, and print shops.
In these interactions animated by fear, enslaved people and their enslavers navigated their immediate predicaments by thinking across broad landscapes of ideas and experiences. They used conceptual guides from Africa, Europe, and other colonies in America. They evaluated these ideas within broadly regional developments such as demographic changes and interimperial wars, and they applied them to explain and influence local dynamics among enslaved people and colonists. Each of these layers had implications for the others in generating conspiracy scares and constructing their findings. Using these shifting scales of Atlantic history, it is possible to map the dynamics of fear between colonial enslavers and the vulnerable people on whom they preyed. This book's archaeology of the discourses that informed conspiracy scares may assist the efforts of other scholars who wish to read between the lines of these trial records to recover more details of life in enslavement.
This angle on conspiracy trials has much in common with studies of early-modern witch-hunting. Trauma, racial anxiety, and wartime fear are at the center of Mary Beth Norton's interpretation of the Salem witch trials. Other scholars of European inquisitions and witch-hunting have noted how extreme power relations between magistrates and suspects, often society's most vulnerable members, generated false confessions and expansive networks of accusation. Investigators both of witchcraft and of slave conspiracy fixated on a shadowy countersociety that threatened to replace elements of the status quo with abominable opposites, and confessing suspects in each scenario used vocabularies that simultaneously reflected their own understanding of the world while also speaking to magistrates' expectations of conventional scripts and stock characters. Very often, in both situations, a governing class shored up its power by preying on weak links of acquaintanceship between informers and victims.
Applying this approach to understanding slave conspiracy scares in the anglophone colonies is more effective if we examine them in a geographic frame that includes both the Caribbean and North America. In a zone we might call the Greater Caribbean, tied together by the connected labors of exploited people of African descent, we must include the wharves and workshops of New York, Charleston, and Bermuda; the rivers and fields of the Chesapeake Bay and the Carolinas; and the sugarcane fields and cattle pens smothering Barbados, the Leeward Islands, and Jamaica. While it would be tempting to look at figure 5 as depicting a comparison between North America and the Caribbean, perhaps showing greater fear in one area, on closer inspection it represents the two regions' interconnection. The territories' formal political separation in 1776, at the start of the American Revolution, has obscured their earlier circuits of migration, trade, and information. That shared anglophone culture was one ingredient that made conspiracy confessions sound strikingly similar across these regions, and enslavers in each learned from the other's experiences with conspiracy scares. These two regions of the British American empire, furthermore, experienced similar developments, such as war, that impinged on enslaved people's constraints and opportunities as well as enslavers' everchanging awareness of their own vulnerability.
Conspiracy scares varied in size and intensity. In minor scares, judicial authorities at the county and parish level interrogated informants, sometimes torturing them. In these cases, white colonists' fears remained in check and coerced informants did not implicate more than a handful of suspects convincingly enough for the court. Although comparatively small in scope, these ordeals still terrorized local enslaved populations with public whippings or the exemplary execution of one or two alleged ringleaders. In major conspiracy scares, in contrast, judges at a colony's highest level investigated for weeks, if not months, and forced informants to help them arrest dozens or hundreds of suspects. These tribunals usually sentenced some convicted conspirators to banishment, requiring their enslavers to sell them out of the colony, and sentenced others to grisly spectacles of execution, dismemberment, and display, terrorizing thousands of black people in an effort to defuse white fears. Some went into hiding or fled to another colony.
These different kinds of scares produced an archive that ranges widely in terms of format and level of detail. Investigators collected hundreds of pages of enslaved people's testimonies in some cases, but in others they only summarized that evidence as a synthesis of what they deemed to be true. These two sets of documentation lend themselves to in-depth explorations of the contributions of enslaved people and their enslavers to conspiracy scares. When we lack such detailed information about an investigation's findings, we can use other governmental records to examine patterns in colonial officials' actions in response to a perceived threat and to characterize their fear. Sometimes we can complement our knowledge of governmental actions with laypeople's narrative descriptions of the plot in newspapers and correspondence. Finally, because governmental archives are incomplete, we learn of some conspiracy scares only through newspapers or histories written at the time. I exclude any reported rumors that did not worry authorities enough for them to accept the costly disruption to white people's economic and public life in the colony.
Colonial governments did not make the decision to investigate lightly, because false alarms could be costly. White colonists wanted to avoid the lost chattel value of convicted people, the neglected livelihoods of white men who mustered in the militia, the economic loss of a closed harbor, and the sapped public finances of a colony in emergency. In government, assembly chambers typically voiced these financial concerns because their elected members controlled the purse strings in colonies under royal control, such as those at the heart of this book. On the other hand, smaller chambers known as councils were appointed by the king and tended to emphasize potential risks to white people's physical security because they assisted governors in protecting his subjects. Assemblies, councils, and governors attempted to balance these concerns as they directed governmental responses to rumored uprisings and supported investigations.
Judicial authorities sought the facts of the matter even if the conclusions they drew were often incorrect. Each colony used a slightly different investigative body, sometimes inconsistently, deploying county courts, high criminal courts, courts-martial, and ad hoc tribunals. Always, however, judicial authorities tried to "get the Truth out," as South Carolina's council put it, because of the high costs of false alarms. To do this, they attempted to fairly evaluate informants' evidence, accurately identify possible conspirators, and uncover information that would quash any imminent rebellion. In nearly all cases, investigating judges simultaneously generated this information and decided the innocence or guilt of individual suspects. They did not think as much about the suffering that they caused the enslaved people whom they ensnared in investigations or the trauma of thousands more living in its shadow. The highest cost of conspiracy scares was in black lives.
Investigators used coercion and torture to compel suspects to confess. Those who turned informant recognized that their route to power lay in offering investigators the right information to curry favor with them. They provided evidence against jailed slaves and named new suspects in exchange for promises of pardons, monetary reward, or even freedom. As a suspect named Cudjoe explained to a jailer, "Fellows to Save their own lives would Say any thing against him." Some turned informant out of fear for their own lives and in order to protect their loved ones by redirecting the inquiry away from their home quarter, in a local kaleidoscope of social tensions that went far beyond the fundamental conflict of exploitation. They did this at a steep human cost: those who did turn informant gave evidence that enabled colonial authorities to terrorize still more enslaved people. Informants scoured the jail for information that could help them, and they presented it in the courtroom in crafted performances. The most powerful informants drew on their torturers' assumptions about the nature of slave insurrection. They deployed potent idioms against other suspects, incorporating stereotypes that touched sensitive nerves. They found that their own route to power depended on getting investigators to believe them. Playing directly to their fears was one way to accomplish that.
Conspiracy investigations were not clear windows through which enslavers could look out onto enslaved people's politics. They were more like the warped and bubbled glass of an eighteenth-century pane, distorting white people's views of enslaved life and partially obscuring it with their own fearful reflections. If we bring those distortions of the record directly into focus, we can see that they have disguised significant dynamics of fear for enslaved people. We can also see that they have naturalized, through enslavers' fear and archival power, many embellishments and racialized visions of the threat of insurgent violence from the perspectives of white colonists. Our clearer vision shows us that enslavers had less confidence in their "mastery" than they claimed, articulating their perceived vulnerabilities, and it also gives us a better understanding of enslaved people's human experiences of terror and trauma and their array of responses to it. Violence's less-visible counterpart, fear, influenced a person's perception of the realm of possibility. This could shape decisions, inspire actions, and govern social relations. At the same time, a person with some awareness of others' fear could use it to exercise power to attempt to oppress them, to subvert them, or to survive.