Cornelio vander Hoykens, fiscal, plaintiff, vs. little Antonio Paulo d'Angola, Gracia d'Angols, Jan of Port Orange, Manuel of Gerrit de Reus, Anthony the Portuguese, Manuel Mlnuit, Simon Conge and big Manuel, all Negroes, defendants, charged with homicide of Jan Premero, also a Negro. The plaintiff charges the defendants with manslaughter committed in killing Jan Premero and demands that Justice be administered in the case, as this is directly contrary to the laws of God and man, since they have committed crime of lese majesty against God, their prince and their masters by robbing the same of their subject and servant.
-- Council Minutes, Court Proceedings, 17 January 1641
On January 24th 1641 something remarkable happened in New Amsterdam. Manuel de Gerrit de Reus was to be executed for killing fellow Company slave Jan Premero. Although nine enslaved men had confessed to the murder, De Reus drew the lot that determined that he should be the one punished by public execution. Several settlers gathered on this cold January day to witness the hanging of De Reus. The executioner put two nooses around his neck to ensure that the hanging would be successful and removed the ladder that De Reus was standing on. De Reus's body fell, both nooses broke, and De Reus survived. Spectators responded with amazement and asked the Council to pardon De Reus, arguing that this turn of events was evidence of divine intervention. They were successful, as the Council decided to spare his life.1
It is these events that De Reus is best known for, but it is certainly not the only time that his name appears in New Amsterdam's records. As his name indicates, Manuel de Gerrit de Reus van Angola came from Angola. As such, he was one of the many West Central African slaves to end up in New Netherland and thus was probably Catholic and Portuguese-speaking. His exact time of arrival is not known, but he was among the very first enslaved men in the colony, serving the Company as early as 1625/1626. He probably became known as Manuel de Gerrit de Reus because at some point he served the settler Gerrit Teussen de Reus, or Reux. During his long life in New Netherland, he married, had several children, and established himself as a farmer on Manhattan after he received half-freedom.
De Reus appeared in a New Netherland court as early as 1639 when he won a case against Dutch settler Henric Fredericksen van Bunninck for the 15 guilders that he had earned but had not yet received.2 Four years later, Manuel de Gerrit de Reus and Groot Manuel appeared in court to testify on behalf of Cleijn Manuel, a fellow Company slave. De Reus and Manuel stated that Jan Selis (also spelled Celes), a free colonist, had struck Cleijn Manuel's cow with a knife and chased away other animals. Their testimony must have been convincing because the court resolved that Selis pay Cleijn Manuel for the damages he had done.
Although De Reus appears in the colonial records on several occasions, he is best known for that fateful day in January of 1641 when he survived public execution. Nine Company slaves--Cleijn Antonio, Paulo d'Angola, Gracia d'Angola, Jan de Fort Orange, Manuel de Gerrit de Reus, Antonij Portugues, Manuel Minuit, Simon Conge, and Manuel de Groote--admitted that they had killed Jan Premero together, though they did not elaborate why they had beaten their fellow Company slave to death. The Council decided that in order to resolve this case the men were to draw lots to determine who should be held responsible for Premero's death, and the lot fell to Manuel Gerrit de Reus.
De Reus did not only survive the hanging; he continued to be a well-respected member of New Amsterdam's enslaved community. In fact, he was one of the first slaves to receive half-freedom in 1644. After having served the Company for 18 or 19 years, the Company manumitted De Reus and 10 other Company slaves together with their wives (See Section 7 on Half Freedom).3 De Reus and the other half-free men and women received plots of land north of Manhattan's Dutch settlement by the Fresh Water pond and close to Peter Stuyvesant's bowery.4
De Reus continued to be a respected member of the now (half) free African community on Manhattan. He owned land and baptized his son Michiel in Manhattan's Dutch Reformed Collegiate Church. A testimony by Domingo Angola in December of 1663 indicates that De Reus was deemed trustworthy in New Amsterdam's community. When Angola petitioned the court for the freedom of his stepdaughter, Christina, he claimed that Groot Manuel, Simon Congo, and Emanuel Reus had overheard Director General Kieft say that the children of half-free parents who were born after 1644 would be free. Clearly, Angola believed that this testimony of these African men would strengthen his case.
In 1674, Manuel de Gerrit de Reus was mentioned once more. He was listed as one of the Africans who lived between the Fresh Water Pond and Harlem. At that point, he must have been at least 65 years old. It is not clear how or when De Reus died. What is certain is that he lived a long life, and that he made the best out of the circumstances that had brought him to New Netherland as an enslaved young man. De Reus's life reveals that there were opportunities for New Netherland's enslaved population to obtain freedom and build a life in the colony as free people. But it is important to keep in mind that not all of the colony's enslaved people were able to achieve the same kind of independence.