False witness, coercion, and the Cooper River conspiracy
Our upcoming resource, Colonial America Module 4: Legislation and Politics in the Colonies, contains many records of petitions, land grants, and legislation, but an entry in the South Carolina Minutes of Council marks the beginning of a drama which demanded the councilâ€™s almost entirely undivided attention (and my own) for no fewer than eighty pages. The sparsely written account is as gripping as any modern criminal investigation, with lives in jeopardy until the denouement.
On 24th January 1749 Governor Glen was informed by James Akins that his slaves Agrippa, Susannah and Kate had reported a conspiracy among their fellow slaves to escape from South Carolina, burning the town and killing its white inhabitants.
This conspiracy is noteworthy for several reasons. Firstly, its sheer scale: the plot supposedly involved men and women enslaved on almost two dozen plantations in four parishes along the Cooper River, and caused so much concern that the militia was placed on guard and Navy assistance was requested to contain the revolt. During the investigation, over 100 enslaved people and 16 free white people were brought in for questioning. The council journals detail the interrogations, denials, testimonies, re-examinations, and recantations of the accused and accusers.
Secondly, the testimony of a small number of enslaved black people, particularly three women, plays a central role in imprisoning free white people as well as large numbers of other enslaved people.
And thirdly, examination of the council journal not only reveals the unravelling of the plot, but offers up for scrutiny the potentially questionable methods used by the governor and slave-owners to extract testimony from the enslaved people who were at their mercy.
On 6th February 1749, the Journal notes that Agrippa has entirely recanted his account of a conspiracy, which he gave under duress. He mentions another slave being pinched â€śto make him talk good to the Governorâ€ť and states that his master had â€śtold them they must say as the wenches said, or he would whip themâ€ť.
In contrast, Kate sticks to her story, as does another enslaved man, Robin, even though he is â€śurged and pressed again and againâ€¦under the most awful and solumn [sic] considerations to speak the truthâ€ť by the governor.
Faced with conflicting testimonies, the Governor concludes that the whole plot is â€śnothing but a forgeryâ€ť. At first glance, this verdict appears to be a victory for enslaved people over a slave-owner, but on closer examination, itâ€™s actually pretty ambivalent. The councilâ€™s view is that James Akins has been imposed upon by his slaves and has merely made the mistake of â€śbelieving what they had told himâ€ť. There are no consequences for Akins; Governor Glen merely rules that the slaves who misled Akins must be removed from the province, and the slave-owner willingly assents.
It is interesting therefore to note two things not mentioned in this council journal at all. Firstly, that James Akinsâ€™ neighbours suspected that he cared more for Kate than â€śhis own Wife and Childrenâ€ť. And secondly, that despite the command to send his slaves out of the province, James Akinsâ€™ inventory upon his death ten years later still contained a woman named â€śKateâ€ť.
Navigating the colonies as an enslaved person was no easy task. Though Kate may have found a way to acquire a certain amount of autonomy, ultimately she remained a chattel, with all the vulnerability inherent in that status. By bearing false witness against her fellow slaves, she perhaps traded the ties of community for a more isolated and precarious position of dependency upon her ownerâ€™s continued affection.
The colonial records illuminate an invented conspiracy, but also highlight the complex and uncomfortable power dynamics of Colonial America.