In studying the rich history of Dutch North America, we sometimes lose sight of the important context of naval warfare and confrontation that characterized the era. The Dutch West India Company (WIC), often considered the armed wing of the States General (the governing body of the Dutch Republic), was charged with challenging the Republic’s Spanish and Portuguese enemies in the Atlantic; managing the New Netherland colony was a secondary role. One of the company’s first tasks was to prey on Iberian ships crossing the Atlantic, with the best-known example of such a raid being Piet Hein’s capture of the ‘Silver Fleet’ in the Bay of Matanzas (Cuba) in 1628. Other attacks on Iberian ships were often carried out by private ships whose captains were given authority to do so by the WIC. But how did this practice impact New Netherland and its capital, New Amsterdam? The almost unlimited information contained in the Amsterdam Notarial Archives provides unique insights into how privateers and their captured prizes of war contributed to the subsistence and survival of the colony.
Skippers living in the colony of New Amsterdam may have participated in such raids, acting in their own name or that of the merchants who hired them, and brought special cargoes to Manhattan. Their actions also reveal the complex business arrangements involved in privateering. On September 19, 1652, for example, a group of powerful Amsterdam merchants – Gilles and Seth Verbruggen (father and son) and Gerrit Arentss Zuyck, all of whom were partners of Govert van der Liphorst, an important businessman in Haarlem – claimed responsibility, in the presence of an Amsterdam notary, for hiring Pieter Dircxss Waterhondt, a resident of both Amsterdam and New Amsterdam, to sail to North America on their behalf. While crossing the Atlantic, at roughly the latitude of the Azores archipelago, the skipper of De Waterhondt spotted the Portuguese ship Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, loaded with sugar, returning from Bahia (Brazil) to Lisbon. After conferring with the crew, Waterhondt decided to take the Portuguese ship as a prize and to sail to New Amsterdam, where the sugar was auctioned with the WIC authorities’ support. When this news reached Amsterdam, however, the WIC directors at that city’s chamber were worried about the consequences of such endeavor, certainly in view of the ‘Cold War’ status characterizing diplomatic relations between the Dutch Republic and Portugal at the time. Cornelis Witsen, Albert Pater, Johan Rijckaerts and the powerful Isaac van Beeck agreed, therefore, to foot the bill if the Portuguese ambassador decided to sue the merchants, but only on condition that they (it is unclear whether this meant the merchants personally or the company) received 20% of the profits from auctioning the sugar, ship and crew in New Amsterdam. As the auction was reported to have made a total profit of about 14,493.11 florins, this represented a very substantial sum of capital.
It is difficult to assess the extent to which residents of New Amsterdam were involved in or profited from the prizes taken to their colony. However, if we can believe the statement made some twenty years earlier by pastor Jonas Michaelius, Abraham Pieterss and Franchoys Veseart, mill owners and residents of New Netherland, such prizes benefited a broad segment of the colony’s population. Indeed, the amounts that Michaelius, Pieterss and Veseart earned in 1631 from prize money, and which they later invested in their own mills, were sufficient to prompt the WIC director Pieter Minuit to send his secretary, Jan van Romund, to blackmail the mill owners into giving part of their profits to the director. When Pieterss and Veseart refused, Van Romund enticed their apprentices, Symon Pieterss Pas and Jacob Gerrits, to speak ill of the two. This they did, possibly after being tortured, with the result that Pieterss and Veseart lost the contract to supply the company and its men with flour and biscuit. The mill owners subsequently complained to the WIC directors in Amsterdam not only about Van Romund’s rude, violent and disproportional behavior and the ignoble conduct displayed by director Minuit, but also, and foremost, about the fact that, so they claimed, earning prize money from ships was commonplace and simply represented a little bit of extra income for most of the colony’s poorer residents.
Contrary to Abraham Pieterss and Franchoys Veseart’s claim that prizes of war were a means to gather a bit more of income for poor residents, the tale of Gerrit Hendricksz demonstrates that prizes were a crucial economic activity in the daily life of the colony. Gerrit Hendricksz from Molkwerum miraculously survived the shipwreck of De Princes, which sank close to the Welsh coast in 1647. Upon return to Amsterdam, Hendricksz told a tale of adventure and misery. He had left Amsterdam in 1643 on De Witte Hoop under a contract to serve the WIC in Brazil. Between 1643 and 1645 he served on two different ships in Brazil, De Tuinslijper and De Vergulde Ree. In late 1645, the captain of De Vergulde Ree captured a Portuguese ship, the Tamarim, a well-known slaving ship involved in regular trade between Angola and the Loango coast in West Africa, and Bahia (under Portuguese control). In order to maximize their profits from this capture, the men of De Vergulde Ree disembarked the enslaved Africans in Brazil for a few days. After the crew had been selected, the Tamarim and its human cargo then sailed first to Barbados and from there to New Netherland. Upon arrival, the slaves and the ship were auctioned. Hendricksz returned to Europe on De Princes in 1647, barely surviving the last leg of the journey and the shipwreck off the coast of Wales. In return for all his services to the company, on various ships but mostly on De Vergulde Ree and the Tamarim, he claimed his well-deserved earnings, even though his missions on these two vessels had not been part of his initial contract.
More research is needed to assess the precise role that New Amsterdam played as a harbor for auctioning ships captured in the Atlantic. Bearing in mind, however, the intra-American trade that developed later in the 17th century and continued well into the 19th century, it would be no surprise if New Amsterdam and New York were indeed found to be important safe havens for auctioning prizes captured in Atlantic and Caribbean waters alike.
Stadsarchief Amsterdam, Notarieel Archief, 943, s.f.
Stadsarchief Amsterdam, Notarieel Archief, 1347, fol. 77v.
Stadsarchief Amsterdam, Notarieel Archief, 2278II, fol. 63-64.
Cátia Antunes is professor of Global Economic Networks: Merchants, Entrepreneurs and Empires at Leiden University, The Netherlands, where she has taught since 2000. Her current research interests include the study of Dutch private firms exploiting the empires of other countries, particularly in the exploitation of raw materials (cash crops), natural resources, allocation of labour (especially enslaved labour) and tax farming.