Slavery…not just a southern affair

Most of us realize that slavery was in all of the colonies before the American Revolution, but we don’t think about how it differed between places. We may not think about how not all colonies started out British. The Swedish created a settlement in what is now Wilmington, Delaware in 1638, and the Dutch had a ball in what they called New Netherlands, or what we now know of as the state of New York. Eventually, the British would come along and make their mark, if you will throughout the colonies, but one place that had an interesting history of slavery is New York.

I’m reading Slavery in New York, an amazing companion book published in conjunction with the New-York Historical Society’s exhibit that ran about 6 years ago, and by reading these essays about the changing tide of slavery from its early days in Dutch New Amsterdam to what black life was like in Civil War New York, I’m getting an incredible picture of just how different slavery was when compared to say, South Carolina.

A lot of my research has been focused on slavery in the South because there are plenty of resources available and that’s where I live, it’s where I was born, a lot of my family history is based in the South. I knew that slavery was by no means limited to Alabama, the Carolinas, Georgia & Mississippi but there was a cultural difference that I think I missed. The Dutch seemed to handle slavery a lot differently than the British.

After 5 black workers petitioned the courts for the same wages white laborers were getting in 1635 (and won), those who were enslaved to the Company found themselves petitioning the court more often for various things. Under Dutch rule, the children were allowed to be educated, and they were encouraged to participate in Dutch religious traditions. Granted, it wasn’t all bells and whistles, fairies and butterflies. There were whites in the Company who opposed such liberties that the slaves as well as freed blacks enjoyed, but the restrictions weren’t as tight. William Kieft, who was the Company’s director in 1644, was handing out land to blacks, over 130 acres. His reasoning was not just your run of the mill benevolence. He did have a motive. During this time Kieft felt that New Amsterdam needed some added protections from Native Americans. So he would free slaves who had fought for the colony and then give them land, creating a border that protected white colonists.  Now while the free population grew, freedom was still not an easy task. Those who were free had to make annual payments, children of freed parents remained slaves and the methods that could free a child (by baptism in the Christian faith) suddenly disappeared. Kieft wanted to make sure that while there was a sense of liberty about, he still had control of the leash.

Along comes Captain Jan DeVries, who was a little more extreme than his friend William Kieft. When reading about DeVries, I came up with this modern slang that best described him. DeVries had a hood pass. He was very engaging with free blacks and slaves, & he MARRIES a black woman. He was beyond cordial, he defended and loved the black population. Kieft didn’t like that too much and made sure DeVries saw the door. But what these two men were to the black population in New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant was not. He wanted to expand slavery in the Company and he did. He started to see the slaves as dollar signs, where it seems like his predecessors may have seen individuals who labored hard. Under his rule, you begin to see the privatization of slave trading, the expansion of the colony (made possible with the additional slaves that were brought in) and the construction of a wall that ran from one river to the next across the island of Manhattan. Today we know this area as Wall Street.

Eventually, the Dutch would surrender New Amsterdam to the British who would rename it New York. Under British rule, the lives and liberties of the enslaved and free now faced change. Would the British honor the arrangements that the Dutch and the Africans worked out?

The British enacted stricter slave codes, started importing slaves directly from Africa instead of the Caribbean. The response to these actions and many more caused unrest for those who were enslaved. That unrest led to the slave conspiracy in 1741 where 13 Africans were burned at the stake (they actually did that!), 17 were hanged, 70 were sold into slavery in the Caribbean where they would meet a harsher form of slavery, and the 4 whites that were conspirators with the Africans were hanged as well. This sudden tightening of the reigns and lack of social justice that the black community, both free and enslaved, had become accustom to under Dutch rule caused a few raised eyebrows and for some, a call to action.

So I know I talked at length about the Dutch in their role, but I’ll be honest and tell you I found that piece of the history far more interesting as a lot of that information was new to me. What I do think is ironic is how the British saw the usefulness of not only the freed Africans, but also the enslaved as well when they were looking for help in their failed attempt to defeat the Patriots in the American Revolution. If there is one thing that was consistent between the two, it would be that both  the Dutch and the British could not survive without the labor and eventually protection that those whom they owned provided for them. The Dutch offered freedom and land, while the British offered freedom abroad. For a price.

And what’s more is that these events took place not South in Charleston, not even in Virginia. These events took place up North. It may not have been cotton fields and sugar cane, but slavery, in its various forms did exist in the North as well as the South and it does us some good every now and then to remember that. This is a topic that I am most certainly going to keep looking into. If you have recommendations, bring them!! I always want to know more!

Now, if you don’t mind, I have a book to finish reading!

Want the book? Find it at “Slavery in New York: Edited with an Introduction by Ira Berlin and Leslie M. Harris”

You may also like...

1 Response

  1. Joseph McGill, Jr. says:

    Thank you. In 2012, the Slave Dwelling Project will include a dwelling in Connecticut. This will be a nice follow-up to the stay I did in Philadelphia earlier this year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *