Source: Dutch New York
With the goal of establishing a successful fur trading operation, the Dutch West India Company provided some of the earliest settlers of New Netherland with company-owned land to farm and grow food. They reasoned that an agricultural base was necessary for the fur trade to flourish, but there were never enough settlers to do the work. As a solution, in 1626 the Dutch West India Company brought eleven African men who had been pirated from Spanish slave ships to the colony. So began the institution of slavery in New Netherland.
In the early 1600s the Dutch West India Corporation dominated the slave trade. From 1626-1664, the company supplied New Netherland with a steady stream of company-owned African slaves. These Africans were crucial not only to the development of agricultural life in the Hudson Valley but also to the developing infrastructure of New Amsterdam, the forerunner of modern day New York City. In the early days of New Netherland, slaves cleared forests and grew food. In New Amsterdam, slaves built the fort and the wall around it to protect the colony from native people and rival English colonies. They also built houses, public buildings, roads, and the shipping docks. By the end of Dutch rule, slavery had become intrinsic to the colonial economy. While many residents in New Amsterdam owned a household slave, others earned profit from businesses that imported and exported slaves or from products produced by slave labor such as sugar, tobacco, indigo, coffee and later cotton.
Slaves had modest rights under the Dutch West India Company. Slave families were allowed to stay together. They could join, be married and have their children baptized in the Dutch Reformed Church. Slaves could make a criminal charge against whites, testify in court and sign legal documents. They could not own land but were allowed movable property, such as livestock. Many chose to raise crops and animals on company owned land.
In the 1640s, the Dutch West India Company was looking for ways to reduce company costs. They instituted the system of “half-freedom” which granted slaves liberty in exchange for an annual payment and the promise to return to work on company projects when needed. Occasionally slaves were granted freedom based on the notion that servitude was not perpetual; the longer they served the company, the more deserving they were of freedom and land ownership. This eventually created a small population of free Africans. Free Africans served in militias, intermarried with whites and owned other indentured servants. They also provided material support to the enslaved and hope that freedom was attainable. When the colony fell to the English in 1664, the Dutch West India Company freed all remaining slaves, but the tradition of slavery in the colony continued with harsh laws and brutal punishments for slaves under English rule. Slavery in New York continued until it was abolished in 1827.
BARRY LEWIS: Slaves were present in New Amsterdam almost from the beginning. The first arrived in the late 1620s and they still were arriving in 1664.
From its very beginnings the Dutch West India Company was a major slave trading corporation. They set up forts on the west coast of Africa where they procured the slaves, then they shipped them across the Atlantic, to the New World, to colonies like Brazil and even the English colony of Virginia.
Professor JOYCE GOODFRIEND: Most of the slaves in New Netherlands are located in New Amsterdam. But you begin to get some out on Western Long Island, what’s now, Brooklyn working on farms, but most of the slaves were working in the city in a variety of applications associated with life of the port.
It’s estimated that in 1664, nearly 20 percent of the New Amsterdam population was African.
Essentially New York was a biracial society from the beginning in New Amsterdam. And conventionally narratives of New York’s history do not recognize that. They do not tell, essentially, an integrated story in which blacks and whites are together players in that story.
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