Fires of Discontent: Arson as a Weapon of Slave Resistance in Colonial New England


Mellon/ACLS Community College Faculty Fellowships


Liberal Arts


The project examines how enslaved Africans used arson to contest their captivity in colonial New England. The ambiguous nature of New England slavery, in which enslaved persons had rights to legal marriage, property ownership, legal protection, and literacy, in fact produced opportunities for them to set deadly fires. The project explores how circumstances of work led to fire setting; enslaved women engaged in arson when they grew desperate from isolation and constant surveillance, while enslaved men used their mobility as harbor workers and skilled laborers to plan joint acts of arson. Such flexibilities in the slave system allowed a small and dispersed slave population to set destructive fires. The project also discusses how whites, fearful of the blacks in their midst, reacted proactively by issuing laws and organizing private fire clubs.