History lessons from the slaves of New York

January 13, 2000|By Brent Staples

WHILE New Yorkers celebrated a new century, a team of biological anthropologists at Howard University in Washington were intensely focused on a most grisly aspect of New York City's past. Led by Michael Blakey, the team has spent several years examining the skeletal remains of more than 400 African slaves whose graves were accidentally uncovered during the construction of a federal office tower in lower Manhattan nine years ago.

That the graves existed at all surprised New Yorkers who grew up believing that theirs was a "free" state where there had never been slavery.

Northern slavery

But a series of reports from the Blakey team -- the first due out early this year -- will present statistics to show that colonial New York was just as dependent on slavery as many Southern cities, and in some cases even more so. In addition, the brutality etched on these skeletons easily matches the worst of what we know of slavery in the South.

The first slave ship that sailed into Jamestown Harbor in Virginia in 1619 contained a handful of captive Africans. But by the end of the Atlantic slave trade more than two centuries later, somewhere between 8 million and 12 million Africans had arrived in the New World in chains. The historian Ira Berlin, author of "Many Thousands Gone," estimates that one slave perished for every one who survived capture in the African interior and made it alive to the New World -- meaning that as many as 12 million more captive Africans perished along the way.

Selling family members

During the 16th century, the massive outflow of slaves decimated countries like the Kingdom of the Kongo, whose monarch, King Affonso I, wrote letter after letter imploring King Joao III of Portugal to cease the slave trade because it was generating "depravity ... so widespread that our land is entirely depopulated." He said that "a monstrous greed pushes our subjects, even Christians, to seize members of their own families, and of ours, to do business by selling them as captives."

Many of the stolen Africans ended up in the United States, some of them in the Dutch colonial city of New Amsterdam, which later became New York City. The Dutch recruited settlers with an advertisement that promised to provide them with slaves who "would accomplish more work for their masters, at less expense than (white) farm servants, who must be bribed to go thither by a great deal of money and promises."

In life, slaves lived in attics, hallways and beneath porches, cheek to jowl with their masters and mistresses. In death, these same slaves were banished to the Negro Burial Ground, which lay a mile outside the city limits and contained between 10,000 and 20,000 bodies by the time it was closed in 1794, according to the historian Sherrill Wilson. The graveyard was paved over, built upon and forgotten -- until 1991, when the General Services Administration excavated the foundation for a new tower.

After protests from black New Yorkers, the agency agreed to finance research on the skeletons, but failed to budget the necessary money and generally dragged its feet, putting one of the most important archaeological projects of the century years behind schedule. The Howard team has yet to identify among the skeletons the many Africans who are known to have been burned at the stake during the rebellion-plot hysteria that swept the colony in 1741. But what the researchers have found is brutal enough on its own. Of the 400 skeletons taken to Howard, about 40 percent are of children under the age of 15, and the most common cause of death was malnutrition. Most of the children had rickets, scurvy, anemia or related diseases. About twice as many infant girls seem to have died as boys, suggesting at least some infanticide. As Mr. Blakey said, "Women who gave birth in these conditions knew that they were bringing their children into hell."

Overworked chattel

The adult skeletons show that many of these people died of unrelenting hard labor. Strain on their bodies was so extreme that muscle attachments were commonly ripped away from the skeleton -- taking chunks of bone with them -- leaving the body in perpetual pain.

The Blakey team will conduct two sets of studies in an attempt to determine more closely where the slaves were born. One study will analyze tooth enamel for trace minerals that would mark the captives as having grown up in Africa, the Caribbean or in North America.

If DNA research proceeds as planned, it will further pin down the country of origin by comparing the dead with populations in Africa. The skeletons will be returned to their graves by 2002. By then the burial ground will have rewritten the book on slavery in New York.

Brent Staples is an editorial writer for the New York Times.

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