Slavery in New Netherland

The Company will endeavor to supply the colonists with as many blacks as it possibly can, on the conditions hereafter to be made, without however being bound to do so to a greater extent or for a longer time than it shall see fit.
-- Article 30, Charter of Freedom and Exemptions, 7 June 1629

The director-general approves the request of the commonalty and promises to have the necessary forts cut and furnished by his own servants or Negroes, with the commonalty bearing the expenses of putting up the palisades enclosing [the fort].
-- Council Minutes, Court Proceedings, 12 February 1652

Unlike the plantation systems of the southern and Caribbean colonies, New Netherland's economy did not rely on a cash crop cultivated by unfree laborers. Nevertheless, the enslaved population proved very valuable to the colony's growth and development.

The colony's main slaveholder, the Dutch West India Company, used slave labor throughout the colony for various tasks. Company slaves built the colony's fortifications and infrastructure, helped develop its agriculture, tended to livestock, and protected Dutch settlements from Native American attacks. In the 1630s, for example, the Company slaves helped build Fort Amsterdam. An overseer supervised Company slaves who worked in gangs. During Kieft's war (1643-1645), when Dutch settlers fought local Indians, slaves took up arms to help secure New Amsterdam from Native American attacks. At times, the Company used slaves to help apprehend and return runaway servants and slaves. In 1657, the Company advised Stuyvesant to teach slaves certain trades, such as carpentry, brickmaking, and coopering, as was common practice in other Dutch colonies, though it is not clear if Stuyvesant took this advice.

Initially, the Company and the States General considered the importation of enslaved Africans as a way to supplement the colony's population, further promote Dutch immigration, and encourage agricultural production. However, the Company never developed a regular plan for importing slaves into New Netherland until the late 1650s. Thus, although the "Charter of Freedoms and Exemptions" promised to supply the patroonships with enslaved laborers, Rensselaerswijck, the colony's most successful patroonship, never received a significant number of enslaved Africans. Consequently, the slave population in the Upper Hudson region remained small. The majority of the colony's enslaved population could be found in New Amsterdam and its immediate surroundings.

Especially during the early years of colonization, free settlers did not make much use of slave labor or own many slaves, but they did rent or buy enslaved Africans from the Company when the Company did not need their labor. In 1644, for example, Nicolaes Coorn rented Maria, daughter of Groote Pieter (Big Pieter), from the Company for four consecutive years. [See sidebar for document] The Company even leased complete farms with its laborers to settlers. As individual settlers became more reliant on slave labor, they began to purchase their own slaves from the Company. Many of these slaves labored on farms, others worked in the docks, as house servants, or they assisted Dutch artisans in the workplace. For example, Egbert Van Borsum's slave assisted him with the ferry, Jeremias van Rensselaer's slave Andries took care of the horses, and Pieter Taelman had two slaves to help him cultivate tobacco.

The early development of New Netherland slavery was not carefully directed, and the institution of slavery itself was not clearly defined. As a result, enslaved people could own property, receive wages, and petition for their freedom. In 1639, Francisco Alvares Capitaino, Groote Anthonio, Anthonio Congo, Anthonio Angola, and Laurens de Porto Licho requested that the Company pay them the 8 guilders per month that they had earned but not yet received. Four years later, Manuel, "the commandant's servant," claimed that Hendric Fredericksen van Bunninck owed him 15 guilders in wages, and Pedro Negretto demanded payment from Jan Celes for taking care of his hogs: Celes was condemned to pay Negretto 2 schepels of maize. Although slave labor proved important to the colony's development, slavery in New Netherland did not resemble the plantation system with which slave labor is often associated.


About the New Netherland Institute

For over three decades, NNI has helped cast light on America's Dutch roots. In 2010, it partnered with the New York State Office of Cultural Education to establish the New Netherland Research Center, with matching funds from the State of the Netherlands. NNI is registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Contributions are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law. More

The New Netherland Research Center

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