Source: Dutch New York
In 1609 when Henry Hudson, an English captain working for the Dutch, took a voyage on his ship, the Half Moon, he was seeking the most efficient route from Europe to Asia. While finding a trade route to the exotic markets of India and China was his goal, he instead discovered what would later be known as the bay of New York, the Hudson River and modern day Albany, laying the foundation for one of the most important settlements of early America.
Setting the stage for Henry Hudson’s expeditions in North America was an earlier movement in Europe known as the Age of Exploration. The Age of Exploration spanned the 15th to the 17th centuries and bridged two dramatic periods in European history: the feudal medieval era of the 15th century and the rise of the modern European nation-states of the 16th century. The emergence of European nation-states marked a shift from the deep-rooted feudal system where peasants paid tithes to nobles who in turn paid tithes to princes and kings. This system laid the groundwork for a centralization of power around royal monarchies. Well-defined geographical borders further identified emerging nation-states as well as language, culture and religious affiliation.
Key to the power of the emerging nation-states was the acquisition of wealth; a seemingly endless source of wealth was found in the viable trade routes to India, China and throughout Asia also referred to as the “East Indies.” These long established and highly guarded routes provided nations with access to gold, silver and the lucrative spice trade. Spices in the medieval world did not only flavor food; they were used in perfumes, in preserving meats, making medicines and embalming the dead. The trade in spices, alone, brought tremendous wealth to Spain, Portugal and later the Netherlands.
During the 1500’s, Portugal dominated the seas setting up the first oceanic trade routes to Asia. Although adept at defending these routes, the Portuguese could not keep up with the increasing demand for spices. Portugal and Spain were allies at the time; but the Dutch had been at war with Spain for 40 years. The route’s value as well as its strategic importance to the Spanish, their rivals, led the Dutch to set sail. In 1596, four Dutch ships traveled to Indonesia, clashed with the Portuguese but returned to the Netherlands with a profitable bounty of spices. In 1599, 22 ships sailed to the Spice Islands of Maluku, returning with a 400% profit. In 1602, in an unprecedented decision, the Dutch government established the quasi-military Dutch East India Company (DEIC). For the first time a commercial company would function much like a nation-state. DEIC was given the right to monopolize trade in Asia and with company created armies, they had the authority to fight for it.
During the Age of Exploration, European explorers, spawned by competition, curiosity and advancements in navigational technology, ventured beyond charted waters to map unknown territories around the globe. Often, the ambitions of explorers intertwined with the goals of monarchies and trading corporations as in the case of the DEIC and Henry Hudson. Hudson believed there was a shorter more efficient sea route from Europe to Asia through the Northern hemisphere and the DEIC hired Hudson to find it. After the voyage of 1609, Hudson returned with news of a “highly cultivatable” land, perfect for fur trading. Although Hudson’s explorations to make the DEIC more competitive in Asia were not successful, his discovery of the area that is modern-day New York State inevitably lead to an alternative source of revenue, the highly profitable New Netherland colony of North America.
BARRY LEWIS: Who was Henry Hudson? Actually, we don’t know much about him. There is a famous portrait with his name on it, but we know that’s not him. So we don’t even know what he looks like. But we do know he was a native of London, he was a family man and he was an explorer for hire.
CHIP REYNOLDS: Hudson maintained a very strict discipline aboard ships, as did all the explorers of that period -- every 30 minutes you would find them taking measurements of everything in the world around them.
In fact, what we point out is they operated like natural scientists. They had a hypothesis that they were testing, that hypothesis was that there was an alternate route to the Indies. And Hudson set out very systematically to test this, in his four voyages of exploration.
LEWIS: In the early 1600s, an English company hired him to explore a Northeast passage to Asia, across the top of Russia. Well that didn’t work out. Henry was certain that passage was on the top of North America.
REYNOLDS: When Hudson set forth on his third voyage of exploration he really had two ways to make a Northwest passage. The whole coast of North and South America was known, in detail, from Tierra Del Fuego, at the tip of South America, all the way to the coast of Laborador, with two exceptions, a little area between the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, and Cape Cod, that was virtually unknown and in the area north of Laborador.
When Hudson landed, he landed on the Coast of Maine. That put him well positioned to either sail to the North or to the South, as needed. He chose to sail to the south and he went off shore and sailed specifically to the latitude of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, and only then did he sail very carefully up the Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware Coast Line.
And then he came up the New Jersey Coast, and entered behind Sandy Hook. And there they lay for several days exploring lower New York Harbor. And on September 11, he entered what we know as the Hudson today, and followed it all the way to the height of navigation, approximately modern day Albany, by September 19th.
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