Slavery, Surveillance, and Carceral Culture in Early New York City
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Slavery, Surveillance, and Carceral Culture in Early New York City


This dissertation examines enslaved people’s navigation of the spatial power that shaped New York slave society between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. From their inception into the Middle Passage until their deaths in the New York area, enslaved people experienced a panoply of intense violence, surveillance, coercion, and punishment, more pervasive than scholarship has previously suggested. By the mid-eighteenth century, I argue that European ideas about gender informed how enslavers, officials, slave merchants, and non-slaveholders pursued and policed the colony’s racial hierarchy. My sources including letters, wills, journals, court documents, coroners’ inquests, half-freedom grants, land deeds, and newspapers, which provide evidence for the ways gender divisions of labor became significant mechanism for policing the bodies and mobilities of African-descended men and women. Each of the four chapters in this dissertation centers around one of four spaces (slave ships, the domestic sphere, public punitive spaces, and death) where enslaved people, enslavers, and non-slaveholding overseers defined the contours of power in New York City and the Atlantic world. African-descended people entered New York City shaped by surveillance, discipline, and punishment suffered in the Middle Passage, thus a close analysis of slave traders’ representations of carceral strategies in the transatlantic slave trade opens this dissertation. Once in New York City, an enslaved person’s ability to escape their enslavers’ oversight hinged on the time, place, and the productive and reproductive labor they performed. Gender divisions of labor undergirded enslavers’ ability to control the movement and activities that enslaved men and women pursued in households, taverns, bawdy houses, and other leisure spaces. Enslaved women suffered increased legal and social oversight on their mobility compared to enslaved men because they worked in much closer quarters with enslavers and overseers. Indentured and enslaved servants were also informants for officials who wanted to surveil enslaved people’s activities, as testimony given during the 1741 Slave Conspiracy Trials reveals. Furthermore, this episode demonstrates the critical role that non-slaveholding white women like Mary Burton played in uniting white inhabitants across class lines to police, surveil, and prosecute enslaved and free people of color. The racial hierarchies and social alienation that characterized New York slavery in life shaped the deaths of African-descended people. Coroners’ investigations into untimely deaths and early modern anatomists’ dissections helped crystalize white supremacy through the criminalization of both enslaved people and Black cadavers culminating in the Doctor’s Riots of 1788. Taken together, these chapters foreshadow the rise of carceral culture and the penitentiary system that arose in the post-Revolutionary North as slavery declined. In colonial New York, enslavers, officials, and non-slaveholders participated in creating and managing a system that sought to confine, surveil, and impose control over the bodies and movements of enslaved people in multiple spaces of captivity. Enslavers’ and slave merchants’ tight management of enslaved people in households and slave ships, colonial lawmakers’ deliberate restrictions on slave mobility, manumission, and free(d) people owning land; officials’ encouragement of non-slaveholding whites to inform on enslaved people; and the criminalization of African-descended people and cadavers during periods of social turmoil in New York City suggest that aspects of urban slavery were revitalized under the penitentiary system.

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