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Slavery in New York City

by Adrienne Cousineau

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, racial lines were not as clearly drawn as the eighteenth. These porous racial lines could be seen in relationship to New York. For example, one of the first captains to lead an exploration of the lower Hudson Valley in 1525 was Esteban Gmez, a free Afro-Portuguese man. Later, the first resident of Manhattan that established a permanent trade between the Dutch and the Native Americans was a black man by the name of Jan Rodriquez.

This relatively porous racial mindset of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries carried over into the type of slavery that formed in the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam. The Dutch West India Company brought around a dozen slaves to New Netherlands in May 1625. These slaves created the necessary infrastructure for a permanent settlement first on Notten Island (present day Governor's Island) and later New Amsterdam; they cleared land, laid out farms, constructed mills, roads and houses, and most importantly built Fort Amsterdam to protect the settlers from the Native Americans. It is almost fair to say that without slaves there would never have been a New Amsterdam, and thus no South Street Seaport.

These first slaves came from all corners of the Atlantic and had knowledge of European religion, legal codes, trade, and languages. Because of their ability to speak many European tongues, they could facilitate trade at the waterfront. Later, long after the English had taken over, the slaves were the ones to maintain the Dutch and many other European languages, meaning that their presence at the New York port aided international trade.

When the Company director Peter Minuit arrived in 1626, he "purchased" Manhattan from the Native Americans for $24. By doing this, the Dutch acquired large areas of forest that could supply a great amount of timber. The Dutch then decided in 1628 to add shipbuilding to their already established fur trade. Because of this the slaves went to work in the forest, collecting timber. By this time, the slaves had begun to provide the essential labor for trade, infrastructure and consequently the survival of the Dutch settlers. Again, without the slaves bringing in the fur and timber for trade, New Amsterdam would have had little importance as a port, and thus, would make it unlikely that a port with the importance of South Street would have developed.

Because the Dutch relied so much on slaves, to further develop the Company's settlement, Minuit had to import more slaves. Minuit could count very little on any of the European born settlers. They had come to New Amsterdam to get rich, not work. As the Dutch attracted new settlers with their new policy of 1629 that gave manors to anyone who could bring another fifty white settlers with him, the Company needed more slaves, because these new settlers were not going to do any work. This opened up New Amsterdam to the slave trade in a great way. Soon New Amsterdam became one of the most important of the network of slave trading ports. New Amsterdam's significance in the slave trade increased the significance of New Amsterdam as a port in general.

However, even with a strong share in the slave trade, blacks' legal status was still ambiguous in the Dutch settlement. The Company had not defined chattel or identified slavery specifically with blacks. There was also no constitutionally written document that declared that blacks had to be captive. This meant that in 1635, black slaves were able to petition for the same wages are whites. Their request was granted. These slaves had access to the courts and used them to petition for relief, bring suits, and testify before the law. Although treated roughly at times, they normally received a fair hearing. In addition to the slaves' legal access, when Dominie Everardus Bogardus became the clergy man of the settlement in 1636, he included the slave children in education as well as baptized and married black slaves. However, it is important to point out that not everyone treated the black slaves as well as Bogardus. Many people equated blackness with slavery, and when in 1642 a French sailor landed with a few black women, they were sold into slavery despite their claims to freedom. In addition, laws forbade whites from having any sexual relationships with blacks.

Yet, in New Amsterdam, the slaves were incorporated more into the society than they were in the other colonies; they could even become free men. During the 1640s, the Dutch began warring with the Native Americans. The new Company director, William Kieft decided to grant slaves their freedom for defense of the settlement and laudable service. These newly freed slaves were granted land above present day Wall Street to create about a 130 acre buffer zone between the Native Americans and the Dutch. They became farmers, professionals and craftsmen, and developed their own Afro-Dutch culture. They were the first to truly develop the area that later became South Street Seaport, and on the waterfront, they played an integral part in the oyster trade. However, these slaves were in a sense only half-free. They still had to make annual payments to the Dutch by giving them a portion of their crops. In addition, although their wives were freed with them, their children were not. These freed slaves then had to buy their children's freedom for a very expensive price, or smuggle them in a newly emerging, small-scale underground railroad. These descendents of these free blacks would actually play a large role in the Underground Railroad in the nineteenth century. This Underground Railroad involved the port, because it was through the port that fugitive slaves reached the safety of New York or departed for even safer Canada.

In Sept 8, 1664, the English took over. The English, who clearly equated blackness with slavery, questioned the freedom of the blacks north of the Wall. Stuyvesant wrote a letter to the new English leadership to protect the black families land and freedom. Although the English do allow these blacks to keep their land and freedom, they end any of the legal ambiguity left from the Dutch period. Blacks were now slaves, mere property without any legal rights.

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