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Posted October 24, 2007
About much more than just the fires...
This book centers on a series of arson fires in 1741 New York City and the arrest and execution of slaves who were believed to have set them with the purported intent of massacring whites and establishing a black kingdom. For me, though, the best feature of this book is the author's extremely thorough research and her penchant for digression along numerous fascinating trails of colonial history toward a wealth of historical information that the reader may not find elsewhere. These amazing side-stories include: On p. 133-136, the disclosure that New York town water was - and probably still is - abominably 'salty and slimy' and how a certain well with unusually sweet drinking water that was very popular with city households soon became a meeting place of those household slaves - perhaps for plotting? On pp. 125-126 there is a story of the illustrious black author and poet Francis Williams - with a reproduction of his portrait in frock coat and snowy white peruke - whose intelligence and literary abilities belied the prevailing notion that blacks were incapable of original thought. On p. 24 we learn that many slave names were English corruptions of the Ghanaian words for the days of the week on which they were born: e.g., 'Quack' for 'Kwedu' - Wednesday - or 'Cuffee' for 'Kofi' - Friday. Lepore also recounts the 1735 libel trial of printer John Peter Zenger, which established the legal precedent that where there is truth there can be no libel, as well as the possible role of Freemasonry, in white and black versions, in the alleged arson plot. The book is rather a slow read, heavily laden as it is with historical information, and may be frustrating for a reader who, because of the sensational title and sub-title, might be expecting a lively, racy tale. But it is fascinating nonetheless, simply for the many factual treasures to be found for anyone interested in between-the-lines details of colonial history.
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