By the summer of 1663, everyone in New Netherland knew they were in real danger of invasion by their English neighbors. With rumors swirling of a nearby English war fleet, director general Peter Stuyvesant called a general assembly or landdag for the first time in a decade. In fact, between July 1663 and April 1664, representatives from the villages of New Netherland met three times to discuss how to respond against the English threat. The assemblies revealed a colony divided in the face of danger. The villages of Long Island refused to help protect settlements west of the Hudson. Officials at Fort Orange likewise felt “compelled to secure our own house first” before helping others. Reluctant to shoulder taxes for improving New Netherland’s defenses, the assemblies instead wrote accusatory petitions to the West India Company. Complaining they had not received the “reasonable protection” they were promised, the colonists warned they would “seek, by submission to another government, better protection.”
All this posturing on the brink of war makes sense when we realize the New Netherlanders were less worried about violent invasion than the status of their property. “Most of us are now advanced in life,” explained one petition, and “we have invested all our means in the improvement of New Netherland.” Now they feared being “stripped of all our property and deprived of our land, to be forced to wander abroad with our wives and children in poverty.” The inhabitants of New Netherland had gambled on the institutions of Dutch empire as a solid foundation for their settlements; increasingly it seemed the English empire was a safer bet. And so, in the waning months of the Dutch colony, the landdag representatives tacitly prepared their justifications for capitulation to the English: if the West India Company could not protect their property, the English would.
New Direction: Not much has been written on the landdagen of 1663, perhaps because they were ultimately of little consequence in deciding the outcome of the English invasion of New Netherland. My research looks at the language of protection colonists used at these assemblies. Using the idea of a contract for protection between sovereign and subject, New Netherland’s inhabitants laid the legal groundwork for justifying their quick capitulation to the English. The preservation of property proved more compelling than the bonds of subjecthood. Examining how colonists thought about the obligations and functions of subjecthood helps us understand what it meant for people to be part of the Dutch Atlantic empire, and how they negotiated transitions between empires.
Timo McGregor is a Ph.D. candidate in Atlantic History at New York University. His forthcoming dissertation is entitled "Empire of Strangers: Mobility and Political Community in the Dutch Atlantic, 1645-1688."