Slavery in New Amsterdam


1st Lieutenant
Aug 12, 2011
I ran across this interesting article published by the New Netherlands Institute about how slavery was practiced by the Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam.

The difference between slavery as practiced in the South is stark.

Slavery in New York changed considerably over the course of these two hundred years. The lives of New Netherland’s enslaved population looked nothing like those of the men, women, and children who would be traded at the Wall Street slave market a century later. Manuel de Gerrit de Reus, Sijmon Congo, and Paulo Angola were among the first enslaved men who lived in New Netherland. They had been brought to the colony only a year or two after the first Europeans settled in the region, and as Company slaves they helped build the colony’s early infrastructure. New Netherland’s enslaved population often lived, worked, and worshipped beside free white settlers. Unlike their eighteenth-century counterparts, some of these enslaved people earned wages, owned property, married and baptized their children in the Dutch Reformed Church, obtained conditional freedom, and received farmland in Manhattan.​
Because New Netherland’s enslaved population did not leave any written records, their stories often remain untold. Thankfully, court records, land deeds, church records, and official correspondence, among others, do mention Manuel de Gerrit de Reus, Sijmon Congo, Paulo Angola, and many of their fellow enslaved Africans, thus leaving invaluable resources that allow us to tell at least part of their stories. Like the plaque and monument in Lower Manhattan, this exhibit hopes to draw attention to this important part of New York history, a history that is often forgotten.​
Unlike the plantation systems of the southern and Caribbean colonies, New Netherland’s economy did not rely on a cash crop cultivated by unfree laborers. Nevertheless, the enslaved population proved very valuable to the colony’s growth and development.​
The colony’s main slaveholder, the Dutch West India Company, used slave labor throughout the colony for various tasks. Company slaves built the colony’s fortifications and infrastructure, helped develop its agriculture, tended to livestock, and protected Dutch settlements from Native American attacks. In the 1630s, for example, the Company slaves helped build Fort Amsterdam. An overseer supervised Company slaves who worked in gangs. During Kieft’s war (1643–1645), when Dutch settlers fought local Indians, slaves took up arms to help secure New Amsterdam from Native American attacks. At times, the Company used slaves to help apprehend and return runaway servants and slaves. In 1657, the Company advised Stuyvesant to teach slaves certain trades, such as carpentry, brickmaking, and coopering, as was common practice in other Dutch colonies, though it is not clear if Stuyvesant took this advice.​
Initially, the Company and the States General considered the importation of enslaved Africans as a way to supplement the colony’s population, further promote Dutch immigration, and encourage agricultural production. However, the Company never developed a regular plan for importing slaves into New Netherland until the late 1650s. Thus, although the “Charter of Freedoms and Exemptions” promised to supply the patroonships with enslaved laborers, Rensselaerswijck, the colony’s most successful patroonship, never received a significant number of enslaved Africans. Consequently, the slave population in the Upper Hudson region remained small. The majority of the colony’s enslaved population could be found in New Amsterdam and its immediate surroundings.​
Especially during the early years of colonization, free settlers did not make much use of slave labor or own many slaves, but they did rent or buy enslaved Africans from the Company when the Company did not need their labor. In 1644, for example, Nicolaes Coorn rented Maria, daughter of Groote Pieter (Big Pieter), from the Company for four consecutive years. The Company even leased complete farms with its laborers to settlers. As individual settlers became more reliant on slave labor, they began to purchase their own slaves from the Company. Many of these slaves labored on farms, others worked in the docks, as house servants, or they assisted Dutch artisans in the workplace. For example, Egbert Van Borsum’s slave assisted him with the ferry, Jeremias van Rensselaer’s slave Andries took care of the horses, and Pieter Taelman had two slaves to help him cultivate tobacco.​
The early development of New Netherland slavery was not carefully directed, and the institution of slavery itself was not clearly defined. As a result, enslaved people could own property, receive wages, and petition for their freedom. In 1639, Francisco Alvares Capitaino, Groote Anthonio, Anthonio Congo, Anthonio Angola, and Laurens de Porto Licho requested that the Company pay them the 8 guilders per month that they had earned but not yet received. Four years later, Manuel, “the commandant’s servant,” claimed that Hendric Fredericksen van Bunninck owed him 15 guilders in wages, and Pedro Negretto demanded payment from Jan Celes for taking care of his hogs: Celes was condemned to pay Negretto 2 schepels of maize. Although slave labor proved important to the colony’s development, slavery in New Netherland did not resemble the plantation system with which slave labor is often associated.​
On August 15, 1664, the slave ship Gideon arrived in the New Amsterdam harbor with 290 slaves—153 men and 137 women. The entry of so many slaves at once was quite unusual for the colony, and it caused the colony’s enslaved population to increase drastically. Although the arrival of a large slave ship was rare for the colonial port town, the slave trade itself had been an integral part of colonial society.​
Most of New Netherland’s enslaved people were brought to the colony either through the inter-colonial or transatlantic slave trade. The first enslaved laborers arrived in New Netherland as early as 1625 or 1626, soon after European families began to settle in the colony. Most often slaves were imported in small groups. Many of them were brought to the colony by Dutch or French privateers who had taken these enslaved men, women, and children from the Portuguese or Spanish ships that they had captured in the Western hemisphere. In the 1650s, for instance, the privateer Geurt Tijsen sold slaves in the colony whom he apparently had taken from a Spanish ship. Other enslaved people arrived in small groups on board West India Company ships that, along with the enslaved, transported various commodities from the Dutch Caribbean and Brazil to New Netherland. Only two ships—Witte Paert (1655) and Gideon (1664)—brought large numbers of African captives into the colony at once.​
The enslaved men, women, and children who arrived in New Netherland came from a variety of African backgrounds, but a large majority of them were of Central African origins. Dutch merchants had established trade relations along the West Central African coasts, and Dutch control of Luanda (in present-day Angola) from 1641 to 1648 further promoted Dutch trade with this Central African region. Enslaved Africans who had been captured from Portuguese ships by Dutch or French privateers often came from Central Africa, which further solidified the West Central African majority in New Netherland. In addition to West Central Africa, the Dutch purchased African captives from several West African regions, like the Senegambia and the Gold and Slave Coasts. Especially in the second half of the seventeenth century these West Africans became more prominent in the Dutch colony.​
New Netherland's slave trade changed significantly in the mid 1650s with the end of the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652–1654) and the Dutch loss of Brazil to Portugal (1654). The Dutch island of Curaçao soon became the Company's slave entrepot in the Caribbean, supplying slaves to the Spanish colonies in Central and South America. Several small cargoes of slaves not sent to the Spanish were sent from Curaçao to Manhattan. The slaves who arrived in the colony would become Company slaves or they were sold to local farmers or merchants. At times, some slaves would be transported to other colonies like Virginia or Maryland. On a number of occasions, the Company sold slaves at public auction. These auctions usually occurred in New Amsterdam, but in 1659 a public slave sale took place in Beverwijck (present-day Albany). New Netherland’s slaveholders often resold their slaves outside of the public auctions, which led to additional exchanges of enslaved people in the colony.​
The value of enslaved people varied widely. The prices settlers paid for enslaved Africans depended on their age, health, and sex. In May of 1664, for example, the Company sold thirty enslaved Africans at a public auction in New Amsterdam.1 At this auction, Jacob Leyseler (Leisler) paid as much as 615 guilders for an enslaved man, and Adriaen Vincent purchased an enslaved woman for 255 guilders, which was the lowest amount paid for a slave at this auction. A mother and child were sold together to Nicolas Verleth (Verlett) for the sum of 360 guilders. Enslaved people were also sold for produce and other goods. The enslaved Africans who in 1646 arrived on board the ship Tamandare, for instance, “were sold for pork and peas.”2​
Most enslaved Africans who ended up in New Netherland had experienced the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas at some point during their travels from their homelands to the Dutch colony. Dutch slave ships traveled from Africa to Brazil (under Dutch control from 1630 to 1654) or the Dutch Caribbean, and Curaçao in particular. Many of the enslaved men, women, and children who were brought aboard these slave ships would not survive the transatlantic passage. On average between 12.5 and 14% of the slaves on board seventeenth-century Dutch slave ships died during the infamous Middle Passage. In addition to the poor conditions on board these ships, including a lack of food, crowded spaces, and unsanitary conditions, slave ships could fall victim to slave resistance, privateering, or natural disasters. The Dutch slaver St. Jan, for example, shipwrecked on the Reef of Rocus in 1659. Initially, the ship crew fled the sinking ship, leaving the enslaved men, women, and children to drown. When they returned to the ship to fetch those enslaved people who were still alive, they could not prevent a privateer from capturing eighty-four of the surviving enslaved Africans.3 But even before the ship stranded on the reef, 110 of the African captives who boarded St. Jan in Africa had already died. Of these 110 people, four children had died due to the poor conditions on the ship, and an enslaved man had jumped overboard as an act of resistance.​
The Gideon experienced no natural disasters or slave resistance. Still, of the approximately 421 African captives that boarded the ship in Loango, only 348 were still alive when the ship arrived in Curaçao on July 8, 1664, and many of them suffered from scurvy. In fact, their poor health led Vice-Director Beck to exchange some of these people with healthier captives who were already in Curaçao for the final passage to New Amsterdam. During that final journey from Curaçao to New Amsterdam, ten more enslaved people lost their lives on board the Gideon. The stories of the Gideonand St. Jan, as well as the public auctions at which men, women, and children were sold, reveal that although the number of slaves traded in New Netherland was relatively low, the human cost was very high.​

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