Slavery and Rebellion in Eighteenth-Century New Jersey
Chattel enslavement was introduced into the colony of New Jersey in the seventeenth century, shortly after the Dutch first settled in the colony. While a port existed in Camden to the southwest, Perth Amboy was the major port of entry for trafficking enslaved persons in the state due to its close proximity to New York City. From 1737 up until 1800, the slave population went from just under 4,000 to well over 12,000, with the highest concentration of enslaved persons in Bergen, Monmouth, and Somerset counties, and many of those bodies entering New Jersey at Perth Amboy. Most Africans arrived in New Jersey from the Caribbean, and there was fear of acquiring Africans from there because it was believed they were more prone to rebellion. No matter where they arrived from, African people in New Jersey asserted sovereignty over their bodies. Enslaved African peoples often resisted by running away or sabotaging their captors by destroying tools, crops, or animals. Some enslaved persons engaged in violent retribution against their captors alone or in collaboration with captives like themselves.
Rebellion or insurrection of enslaved Africans is a phenomenon often attributed to those in Antebellum Southern states—the Stono Rebellion, the German Coast Uprising, and the rebellion of Southampton County—however, rebellion or insurrection happened in Northern states as well. Most Africans arriving in New Jersey from the Caribbean, as Dr. Leslie Harris details in her text In the Shadow of Slavery, held on to African traditions and customs. Those ways of knowing—along with adopted aspects of European culture—were used in ways that sometimes led to revolt or rebellion, which, according to Dr. Herbert Aptheker, meant an action involving ten or more enslaved Africans with freedom as the apparent aim. While documented revolts of enslaved persons in New Jersey aren’t abundant—unlike the 1712 and 1741 revolts in nearby New York City—there are examples that speak to the spirit of resistance among African people who were held captive.
In 1734 a slave revolt was foiled in Somerset County when a slave told an Englishmen that his countrymen were “generally a pack of Villains and Kept the Negroes as Slaves, Contrary to a Positive Order from King George.” Further investigation discovered that as many as thirty slaves were part of the conspiracy vowed to each:
“rise at midnight, cut the throat of their Masters and Sons, but not to meddle with the women who they intended to ravish and plunder the next day, and then set all the houses and barns on fire, kill all the draught horses and secure the best Saddle Horses for their flight towards the Indians in the French interest.”
A second revolt in Somerset County occurred five years later in 1739, where an enslaved person in Rocky Hill was ordered by the overseer’s wife to fetch wood and make a fire. He replied in a surly tone that he would make fire enough and pursued her with an axe. After killing the overseer’s son and then setting fire to the barn, burning more than a thousand bushels of grain, the enslaved individual was captured and burned at the stake.
In December of 1752, an enslaved African that remains unnamed to this day took matters into his own hands when offended by his captor, Jacob Van Neste, who stole some of the enslaved man’s tobacco. Van Neste was met with an ax at the hands of the enslaved man, who nearly decapitated him from the blow. After Van Neste died, he was dragged a distance and buried in the brush. Local whites believed the enslaved captive was at fault, but were fearful of arresting him because he was “large and athletic,” and considered dangerous. Yet they hatched a plan and jumped him when he was returning from fetching wood. His involvement was confirmed when he was forced to touch the slain man’s head, causing, according to eyewitness reports, blood to run from the corpse’s nose and ears. At the enslaved person’s execution, newspaper accounts related that as the flames covered his body, the man shouted to the assembled Black people, “they have taken the root but left the branches.” In West African societies from which many enslaved Africans came, adults were taught to have a profound disdain for pain—to shed a single tear would be dishonorable.
Through self-knowledge and courage, an African secured esteem from his peers and the assembled group of enslaved persons, the anonymous enslaved gentleman burned at Raritan was a hero; his memory recounted in the collective identity of resistance.
The enslaved woman Silvia Dubois, born in Sourland Mountain, NJ, was renowned for her strength, endurance, self-reliance, and fearlessness, making her a local celebrity. Known for fighting both women and men, she inspired both awe and terror among her community, children, in particular, fearing that she would—as she told them—kidnap and swallow them whole. DuBois was a captive of Dominicus (Minna) DuBois, a strict yet accommodating captor who was much more congenial to Silvia than his wife, who beat Silvia badly. It was due to a perceived sense of disrespect by Silvia towards the lady of the house that she scarred Silvia’s body permanently from lashings with whips and sticks, even scarring the side of her head with a shovel. The turning point in Silvia’s life—and the root of her legend—was the battle with Mrs. DuBois that led to her freedom. This battle Silvia planned to have from childhood when her mistress’s captor began the beatings. One day, Silvia was told to scrub the floor, but when she failed to do so exactly as she was told, Silvia was struck by Mrs. DuBois, to which Silvia struck back. Silvia landed what she remembered as a hell of a blow that knocked the mistress captor against a door and nearly killed her. This happened at a tavern around others who came to the defense of the mistress’s captor. When they did, Silvia wielded her fists at the crowd, cowing the group by threatening to thrash each and every one of them as she did her captor’s wife. Silvia fled for her safety immediately after yet returned to her captor when summoned. Minna DuBois understood that the gulf between Silvia and his wife was too great for the arrangement to continue, and he granted Silvia her freedom. Silvia left the DuBoises with her 18-month-old child to return home to reunite with her mother and maternal grandfather.
To the surprise of some, support for the institution of enslavement was stronger in New Jersey than in any other Northern state. So strong was New Jersey’s support for enslavement that as many as 400 Black people remained in some form of enslavement after the end of the Civil War. New Jersey was the last Northern state to end enslavement, ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment in 1866 (after previously rejecting it). New Jersey was so anti-Black that after ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment, which provided Black people with equal protection under the laws as whites, the state rescinded ratification, only just re-ratifying it in 2003. It’s no wonder New Jersey was considered the “slave state of the north.”permission.