We, Willem Kieft, director general, and the council of New Netherland, having considered the petition of the Negroes named Paulo Angola, Big Manuel, Little Manuel, Manuel de Gerrit de Reus, Simon Congo, Antony Portuguese, Gracia, Piter Santomee, Jan Francisco, Little Antony and Jan Fort Orange, who have served the Company for 18 or 19 years, that they may be released from their servitude and be made free.
-- Council Minutes, Manumission of Manuel de Gerrit et al, 25 February 1644
On February 25, 1644, the Dutch West India Company granted conditional freedom, also know as half-freedom, to Paulo Angola, Groot Manuel, Cleijn Manuel, Manuel Gerrit de Reus, Sijmon Congo, Antonij Portugies, Gracia, Piter Santomee, Jan Francisco, Cleijn Antonij, Jan Fort Orange, and their wives. These men received half-freedom after they petitioned the Council to be freed from their bondage after having served the Company for 18 or 19 years. In their petitions, they claimed that the Company had promised them their freedom, indicating that they had always considered their enslavement temporary. They also suggested that they needed their freedom so that they could provide for their families.1
The Company granted these men their freedom under the following conditions: they would have to pay yearly dues to the Company, assist the Company whenever it needed them, and their children, including those who were not yet born, would remain enslaved. The Council proclaimed that if these former Company slaves acted in accordance with these conditions they would be "free and at liberty on the same footing as other free people here in New Netherland." But, if they failed to pay their yearly dues of "30 skepels of maize, wheat, peas or beans, and one fat hog," they would be re-enslaved. The company provided them with plots of land north of New Amsterdam so that they could take care of their families and pay these yearly dues.
Although these freed men continued to be obligated to the Dutch West India Company, several of the conditions did not differ that much from the obligations of the city's free, white population. Landholders often had to contribute a tenth of their yearly harvest, and, like the half-free men, New Amsterdam's free men were required to assist the Company when it needed them. In 1647, for example, the Council requested that all men help restore Fort New Amsterdam: "Every male person, from 16 to 60 years, shall each for himself work 12 days in the year at the said fort." They could be relieved from these services only if they would pay a fee.
The most devastating condition of their half-freedom was the continued bondage of their children. When Dutch authorities challenged this continued enslavement, the Company defended the practice by explaining that only three of the children actually remained enslaved. One of these children--Maria the daughter of Groote Pieter--was sent to the upriver settlement of Rensselaerwijck for a four-year period where she was to serve Nicolaes Coorn. Most of the children, however, lived with their parents even if they were legally not free. Several parents and caretakers successfully petitioned for the freedom of these children. Emanuel Pietersen petitioned the Council in 1661 to grant freedom to Anthony, son of half-free parents, and in December of 1663, Domingo Angola petitioned the court for the freedom of Christina, the daughter of his deceased wife, Anthonya, and her first husband, Manuel Trompetter.
Soon after these first eleven men obtained half-freedom, several other enslaved Africans received various forms of conditional or half-freedom from the Company as well as from individual slaveholders. In 1646, Johannes Megapolensis requested manumission for Jan Francisco under the condition that Francisco would pay yearly dues, and Philip Jansz. Ringo granted freedom to Manuel de Hispanien as long as Hispanien paid an annual fee of 100 guilders for three consecutive years.2 In 1662, the Company granted conditional freedom to three women under the condition that they would return weekly to clean the Director General's house. While the conditions differed each time, the Company and the colony's individual settlers granted conditional freedom or half-freedom on several other occasions.
Some half-free people had difficulty abiding by the conditions of their freedom. Only a few months after she received half-freedom, Mayken, one of the three Company slaves who received freedom under the condition that they weekly clean the director general's house, petitioned for full freedom: She explained that the other women had since passed away, which left the weekly cleaning tasks to her. In her petition, she explained that she had trouble keeping this obligation since she was old and weak. She also pointed out that she had been a slave since 1628 and really wanted to live the final part of her life as a free woman. The Council granted her request, finally giving her full freedom.
Like Mayken, New Netherland's half-free men and women continued to long for full manumission. Some of them realized that their half-free status was unique to the Dutch colony, and feared that they might be re-enslaved if the colony changed hands. On September 4, 1664, when English ships were stationed in New Amsterdam's harbor, such concern caused eight men who had received conditional freedom earlier that year to request that New Netherland's Council grant them full freedom. The men received their full freedom, and they maintained this status as freedmen in English New York. These freedmen, women, and their descendants formed a community in early New York City that Jasper Dankaerts described as close-knit.