"A Constant Source of Irritation":
Enslaved Women’s Resistance in the City of New York

Edna Greene Medford, Ph.D. and Emilyn L. Brown

     On January 3, 1664, authorities issued a search order for Lysbeth Anthonissen (also known as Anthonis), a "negro wench" belonging to Martin Creiger. The primary suspect in an act of arson that burned down his tavern at No. 3 Broadway,1 Lysbeth likely was the girl of the same name that Creiger presented in 1643 as a candidate for baptism in the Dutch Reformed Church. Purportedly, the onetime orphan master had taken into his household a child of one of the original eleven Africans imported into New Netherland in 1626. According to contemporary accounts, Creiger "brought the girl up well."2 If Lysbeth Anthonissen was indeed the Lysbeth Creiger of earlier years, her baptism represented an integral stage in the process of her acculturation to Dutch colonial society.

     On February 5, Lysbeth was officially charged with arson and reportedly confessed a few days later. Sentencing was swift, with execution scheduled for February 9. On the appointed day, the young woman was delivered to the site of public execution and tied to a stake, as her sentence stipulated. At the last moment, however, the authorities pardoned her and returned her to her owner. But Lysbeth’s ordeal was not yet over. On May 29, the young woman was sold at public auction.3

     As Lysbeth’s intended punishment suggests, arson was serious business in a city composed primarily of wooden structures. Yet, African New Yorkers resorted to the torch on numerous occasions during the city’s colonial and early national periods. Often, as a result of frustration and anger over their unfree status, enslaved people chanced resistance despite the deadly consequences of detection. Arson was a favored method, but African New Yorkers—like enslaved people elsewhere in the Americas—responded to their bondage in both demonstrative and subtle ways, through covert actions as well as overt ones.

     The traditional interpretation of the experiences of enslaved people in New York holds that the city’s use of a large domestic labor force produced a form of slavery that appeared mild, at least in comparison to the plantation South.4 The women who supplied most of this kind of labor, it was assumed, escaped the drudgery endured by their sisters who worked in southern fields. In recent years, however, some historians have concluded that domestic work placed extraordinary burdens on urban-based enslaved women.5


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August 2000