OIEAHC Colloquium: Sharples on the Common Scripts of Slave Conspiracy in the U.S. and the Caribbean

“A Priest at the Bottom of Every Plot: Catholic, Indian, and Irish Contexts for Discovering Slave Conspiracies in the Seventeenth Century”

A Paper by Jason T. Sharples of Princeton University
sharples at Princeton.edu

Beginning in the 1670s, residents of English North America and the Caribbean
developed common scripts for understanding the prospect of slave
insurrection. In my larger project, I take a fresh look at 71 purported
“slave conspiracies”-or conspiracy panics-and discover that slaves confessed
to remarkably consistent rebellion plots during investigations in different
times and places between 1670 and 1780. Masters and slaves alike invoked
conventional elements such as ambushes at decoy fires, incitement by
non-slave instigators (often foreign Catholic agents), secret officer lists
written in the style of an English militia, and a planned social inversion
in which conspirators would replace masters at the head of families,
estates, and government. These tropes became instrumental in sparking and
fueling conspiracy panics, as well as making sense of them afterward.

This colloquium paper focuses on the first major cluster of conspiracy
investigations in English America, which occurred in Barbados, the Leeward
Islands, and Virginia between 1675 and 1693. The paper seeks to demonstrate
that early assumptions about slave conspiracy borrowed widely from bodies of
knowledge about other domestic insecurities. When planters first encountered
the prospect of slave conspiracy, they had little prior experience to
understand this new threat. Instead, they made sense of their situation by
drawing on what they knew of Catholic insurrection plots in England and
Ireland, warfare with Native Americans, and labor revolts by indentured
servants. Slaveholders clipped ideas from those contexts and grafted them
onto what they knew of slave societies, creating a new discourse that would
inform subsequent conspiracy scares and fuel paranoid imaginations well into
the future. A close look at these early slave plots reveals the surprising
degree to which fears of slave insurrection were embedded in contexts
outside the institution of slavery.

Copies of the paper are available for reading at the Institute, Swem
Library’s Reference and Circulation Desks, the Lyon G. Tyler Department of
History, and the American Studies Program, all at the College of William and
Mary; Colonial Williamsburg’s John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Library; the
University of Richmond’s Department of History, the Virginia Commonwealth
University’s Department of History, the Library of Virginia, and the
Virginia Historical Society, all in Richmond; Virginia State University’s
Department of History in Petersburg; Old Dominion University’s Department of
History in Norfolk; and the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of
History in Charlottesville.  If you would like to receive the paper by
email, please send Melody Smith (mlsmit at wm.edu) your email address.

DATE: Tuesday, March 16, 2010
TIME:  7:00 P.M.
PLACE:  Kellock Library Conference Room at the Institute, Swem Library,
Ground Floor

Seminar attendees are cordially invited to supper at the Institute following
the presentation.

The Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture is sponsored
jointly by The College of William and Mary and The Colonial Williamsburg
Foundation.

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