by Janet Crain
Black History Month is drawing to a close and I wanted to present this little known aspect of American History. Free and enslaved blacks played an important part in Dutch Manhattan. I am presently reading The Island in the Center of the World by Russell Shorto. The author has the amazing ability to make the teeming city of Manhattan disappear and enable the reader to see the meadows and hills, streams and waterfalls, all gone now and flattened into the foundation of the high rent district of the most powerful city in the world. He brings the people back to life also and the African Americans who were there from the first receive their due importance.
Free Blacks and Slaves In Dutch Manhattan
African American History of New York Before the British
Nov 19, 2009 Melissa Cooper
Slavery in New York
The early history of black life in New York City includes slaves, servants and free men, and dates back to the earliest days of the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam.
According to Leslie M. Harris, author of In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City 1626-1863, the first known European-based settler of Manhattan was a free black, or mixed race, sailor named Jan Rodrigues. In 1613, Rodrigues was marooned on the island of Manhattan, put ashore off a Dutch trader by his shipmates for unknown reasons. He appears to have adapted readily to Native American life, becoming fluent in several native languages and eventually marrying a woman of the Rockaway tribe. As the wave of European explorers and traders arrived on the island, Rodrigues thrived as a translator, negotiator and trader.
Changing European Rationale for Slavery
In 1625, a small group of persecuted Walloons settled on the green island that the Lenape Indians called Mannahatta, or Island of Many Hills. The following year, eleven African slaves, owned by the Dutch West India Company, joined them.
By the 1640s, New Amsterdam was home to black and Native American slaves, free blacks, and black and white indentured servants. Originally only non-Christians could be kept as slaves with the supposed goal of bringing them to God. Conversion would theoretically lead to freedom. But as the colony's dependence on slave labor increased, the rules and rationale would change. By the mid-1850s, the Dutch Church stopped converting blacks. Race, not religion, was becoming the distinguishing mark of the slave.
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Free Blacks and Property Rights Under the Dutch
Slavery under the Dutch was very different than it would be under the British or in the post revolutionary United States. Free blacks had the uncontested legal right to own property; that ownership was, according to Peter Stuyvesant, “true and free.” In 1647, records state that among a group of settlers who had gathered to await Stuyvesant’s return from Europe, were whites, slaves and free blacks, including Anna von Angola, an African widow who had recently been granted ownership of a farm on Manhattan.
Legal Rights of Slaves Under the Dutch
Slaves too had property rights, although they were prohibited from owning either real estate or human beings. Slaves, like free blacks, had legal rights and access to the court system. They regularly filed, and often won, suits against Europeans for damages, unpaid wages and other wrongs. Slave testimony was accepted in court, and slaves could work for wages.
Half-freedom and the Start of New York's Free Black Community
In 1644, slaves used the court system to petition for freedom. The Dutch responded by granting "half-freedom" to the original eleven slaves and their wives. Half-freedom was a newly created legal state that permitted these blacks to live as free, self-sufficient men and women on gifted land near the Fresh Water Pond. But half-freedom also imposed conditions: the newly freed blacks had to work, whenever called upon, for the Dutch West India Company and pay an annual tribute. If they did not meet these conditions, they could again be made slaves. The state of half-freedom could not be passed to their children, who remained slaves.
The land given to New Amsterdam's half-free blacks would develop into the center of Manhattan's free black community. Two hundred years later, the area would be known as the Five Points, a notorious slum of blacks and Irish immigrants.
Blacks in New Amsterdam's Final Days
In 1663, as they prepared to cede ownership of New Amsterdam to the British, the Dutch granted complete freedom to all half-free blacks. When the British took over the following year, Manhattan's black population included approximately three hundred slaves and 75 free blacks, thirty of whom were landowners.