Pedro Negretto, plaintiff, vs. Jan Celes, defendant. Plaintiff demands payment for the trouble he has taken in tending the defendant's hogs. The defendant is condemned to pay the plaintiff 2 schepels of maize.
-- Council Minutes, Court Proceedings, 21 July 1639
Therefore, we hereby ordain, decree and enact, agreeably to the ordinance made last year in Holland by the High and Mighty Lords the States General, that no one shall presume to draw a knife, much less to wound any person, under penalty of fl. 50, to be paid immediately, or, in default thereof, of working for three months with the Negroes in a chain gang; [said penalty to be inflicted] without respect of persons. Let everyone guard himself against damage and take heed. Thus done in council and published on the day above written.
-- Council Minutes, Ordinance, 11 July 1642
New Netherland's Council never codified slavery into law, which meant that the colony never established clear parameters to human bondage. The colony's laws did not include slave codes, nor did the courts limit slaves' participation in the judicial system, thus allowing enslaved Africans to own property, receive wages, use the courts, and legally marry.
Enslaved Africans often received treatment equal to their free white counterparts in the colony's courtrooms. As a result, they did not hesitate to use the courts to settle complaints, even if these were complaints against free white settlers. In fact, enslaved men often won the cases they initiated against free New Netherlanders. In 1639, for example, the court agreed with a Company slave that Dutch settler Henric Fredericksen van Bunninck owed him 15 guilders for his labor.1 Four years later, the court found English colonist Jan Celes guilty of striking Cleijn Manuel's cow with a knife and chasing away other animals. Celes had to pay Cleijn Manuel, a Company slave, for the damages he had done.
Enslaved Africans also petitioned the council in an effort to improve their circumstances. In 1644, eleven Company slaves petitioned the Council for their freedom. In response to their request, the Director General and Council granted these men and their wives their freedom--although they did so under certain conditions. This conditional freedom became known as half-freedom. Many others followed their example as they petitioned the courts for their own freedom or for the freedom of their dependents.
In spite of the ability of New Netherland's slaves to exercise certain legal rights similar to white settlers, some of the colony's laws and court actions showed a clear distinction between the enslaved and free populations. For example, the Council introduced the punishment of working alongside the Company's slaves.2 Several settlers received this punishment for various crimes: Nicholas Albertsen, for instance, was sentenced to work with the Company slaves for two years because he had deserted his ship and abandoned his fiancée.
Court records showed that the lives of enslaved Africans were vulnerable. In a 1639 case, Gysbert Opdyck, then commissary at Fort Hope, was found not guilty in the death of his slave Lewis Barbese, who died under questionable circumstances.3 Nevertheless, enslaved men and women were not always easily victimized. The widow Morris, for example, was prosecuted for falsely accusing an enslaved man of theft. Initially, the court issued a warrant for the man's arrest, but after investigation, they discovered that he had not stolen the goods; instead, Morris had forgotten them at the house of another settler.
Legal ambiguities may have reflected an uncertainty about slavery as it developed over time. Nevertheless, before 1664, New Netherland's enslaved population often successfully navigated the colony's judicial system. Because the law did not restrict the enslaved population, they were able to participate in the colony's courts--often on an equal footing to their free counterparts. At the same time, the colony's judicial system adjusted to the slave presence and dealt with slavery-related issues. After the English conquered the Dutch colony in 1664, free and enslaved Africans slowly began to disappear from the colony's court records as petitioners, plaintiffs, and defendants. By the late seventeenth century, the courts no longer recognized slave testimonies unless they testified against other enslaved people. Several ordinances of the late seventeenth century limited the freedom of movement of the enslaved population, and they were no longer allowed to engage in trade. New York authorities enforced additional restrictions on the movement of New York's free and enslaved Africans throughout the early eighteenth century. Opportunities of freedom and legal equality that had been available to slaves in Dutch New Netherland would become unattainable in English New York.