Slavery in New Netherland

Johannes Vingboon, Manatus Gelegen op de Noot Rivier (1639)

Detail from above map

The arrow indicates the location of the slave quarters.

Early 17th-century Kongo crucifix (Nkangi Kiditu)

"pomp and splendor of the king of the Congo when he gives an audience to foreigners"

5 May. Anthonÿ van Angola, Widower Of Van Catalina van Angola, and Lúcie D'Angola, Widow of Laurens van Angola

24 Nov. Jan Fort Orangien, Widower Of Magdalena Van Angola, and Marie Grande, Widow Of Jan Premier

— African Marriages in New Amsterdam's Dutch Reformed Church, 1641

New Netherland’s enslaved population consisted of a diverse group of people who came from various parts of Africa and the Americas. Some of them were born in the Americas, most likely the Caribbean or Brazil, while others came from parts of Africa, like the Senegambia, Guinea, and West Central Africa. Over time, the colony also had a locally born enslaved population. Enslaved men and women recreated their cultures based on their African backgrounds as well as on their shared experiences living a life in bondage.

Although the enslaved population was diverse, the majority of New Netherland’s enslaved people came from West Central Africa, the region that includes present-day Angola, the Republic of the Congo, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their names—e.g. Isabel Angola, Anthony Angola, Symon Congo—reveal these West Central African origins as well as their Christian background. In 1491, the King of Kongo, Nzinga Knuwu (or João I), received baptism, and other elites in the area soon followed his example. His son Afonso I made Catholicism Kongo’s state religion. Over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many Kongolese as well as people in neighboring regions became Christian. They fused their Christianity with pre-Christian religious beliefs and traditions, and by doing so they created a distinctively West Central African Catholic tradition.

Because most of New Netherland’s enslaved Africans came from West Central Africa, their cultural background played an important role in the formation of the enslaved population’s culture. In the colony, these West Central Africans often fused the traditions, practices, and beliefs of their homelands with Dutch ways of lives. For instance, many of New Netherland’s enslaved men and women married and baptized their children in New Amsterdam’s Dutch Reformed Church. As early as 1641, Anthony van Angola and Lúcie D’Angola married in this church, though they were probably not the first ones to do so. These men and women also had their children baptized in the Dutch Reformed Church. Between 1639 and 1645 at least 30 children of African descent received baptism in New Amsterdam’s church. When considering the fact that many of these enslaved men and women came from West Central Africa, and thus they had been Christian before they arrived in New Netherland, it is not surprising that so many of them would marry and baptize their children the colony’s only Christian institution.

At least during the first decades, the Dutch Reformed Church accepted these enslaved families in the church, and the Dutch West India Company generally supported their participation in the church. In fact, Director General Peter Stuyvesant promoted Christian instruction of his slaves. He directed the building of a chapel for the people who labored on his bowery, including slaves, and invited ministers to instruct them. His wife Judith supported the baptism of enslaved children.1

The integration of Dutch and West Central African practices was also evident in the naming patterns of the enslaved population. Enslaved West Central Africans commonly carried Catholic, Portuguese first names, such as Isabella, Anthony, and Emanuel. Their last names often indicated their place of origin: Angola, Congo, Santome. In New Netherland, African descendants generally derived their last name from their father’s first name; for example, Nicholaes Emanuels was the son of Manuel Van Angola. This naming pattern was common practice in both the Dutch Republic and in parts of West Central Africa. Over time, many of the colony’s enslaved people gave their children born in the Dutch colony more common Dutch names like Peter, Nicholaes, or Mayken.

Johannes Vingboons’s map suggests that at some point the Company slaves lived in independent houses in the woods, north of New Amsterdam. If they did indeed live in this far-removed area around present-day 74th street, they must have enjoyed relative privacy, which would have helped them maintain some control over their lives and cultures. Land deeds reveal, however, that by the 1640s Company slaves lived in a house on the Slijcksteeg in New Amsterdam. Although this location would have allowed them less privacy, they still shared this home and the surrounding garden in what was a sparsely inhabited part of New Amsterdam in most of the 1640s.

Enslaved people who belonged to individual masters did not have such access to privacy or community. They often lived in their master’s home under close supervision, or on remote plantations or farms that would have caused them to become socially and culturally isolated. Enslaved Africans in New Amsterdam, where the majority of enslaved Africans lived, would still be able interact with fellow Africans who lived in the town, but those enslaved men and women who lived in rural areas did not have those opportunities.

Leisure time provided an important opportunity to meet with fellow New Netherlanders, both free and enslaved. In New Amsterdam, black and white New Netherlanders met in the town’s taverns, church, and marketplace. Enslaved Africans also used these moments of leisure to practice the traditions of their homelands or to connect with fellow enslaved people. 

Even though they lived their lives in bondage, enslaved Africans in New Netherland found ways to sustain certain African traditions or to create new ones. 

Documents

1. 15 November 1664. Letter. "Vice-director Beck to Stuyvesant; negro children whom Mrs. Stuyvesant had baptized, sent to Curaçao and then sold through mistake to the Spaniards from Carthegena" 

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