Systematic use of black slaves in New Netherland began in 1626, when the first cargo of 11 Africans was unloaded by the Dutch West India Company.
The company had been founded in 1621, and it "operated both as a commercial company and as a military institution with quasi-statelike powers." The company had tried its colonial experiment of New Netherland at first with agricultural laborers from Holland, but this plan went nowhere. Most of the Dutch who came to America sought to pile up money in the lucrative fur trade and then hurry back to the comforts of Holland to enjoy their wealth. So the company increasingly turned to slaves, which it already was importing in vast numbers to its Caribbean colonies.
From the 1630s to the 1650s, the WIC "was unquestionably the dominant European slave trader in Africa." In 1644 alone, it bought 6,900 captives on the African coast. Most of these went to the company's colonies in the West Indies, but from its stations in Angola, the company imported slaves to New Netherland to clear the forests, lay roads, build houses and public buildings, and grow food. It was company-owned slave labor that laid the foundations of modern New York, built its fortifications, and made agriculture flourish in the colony so that later white immigrants had an incentive to turn from fur trapping to farming.
But private settlers still faced an acute shortage of agricultural labor that was retarding the colony. A company audit report noted that, "New Netherland would by slave labor be more extensively cultivated than it has hitherto been, because the agricultural laborers, who are conveyed thither at great expense to the colonists sooner or later apply themselves to trade, and neglect agriculture altogether."
As a result, the West India Company relaxed its monopoly and allowed New Netherlanders to trade their produce to Angola and "to convey Negroes back home to be employed in the cultivation of their lands." The company was willing to forego profit for the sake of spreading slavery in New Netherlands and getting the colony settled. It even allowed private owners to exchange slaves they were dissatisfied with for company slaves.
But only a trickle of slaves flowed into New Netherland from Angola; the colonists found the Africans "proud and treacherous," and preferred to seek "seasoned" slaves from the West Indies, specifically Curaçao. In addition to those they bought from the West Indies, Dutch settlers bought slaves seized by privateers from Spanish ships. The steady flow from various sources allowed the colony to stabilize and, by 1640, to expand its agricultural output. "Slavery helped to prepare the way for this transition by providing the labor which made farming attractive and profitable to the settlers. Slave labor was especially important in the agricultural development of the Hudson Valley, where an acute scarcity of free workers prevailed."
Between 1636 and 1646 the price of able-bodied men in New Netherland rose about 300 percent. By 1660, slaves from Angola were selling for 300 guilders and those from Curaçao for about 100 guilders more. By the time the British took over the colony in 1664, slaves sold in New Amsterdam for up to 600 guilders. This was still a discount of roughly 10 percent over what they would have brought in the plantation colonies, but the West India Company had been subsidizing slavery in New Netherland to promote its economic progress. The Hudson Valley, where the land was monopolized in huge patroon estates that discouraged free immigration, especially relied on slaves.
The purely economic status of slaves in New Netherland contrasted with the malignant and sometimes bizarre racism of the religious British citizens who followed the Dutch into the north Atlantic colonies. Free blacks in New Netherland were trusted to serve in the militias, and slaves, given arms, helped to defend the settlement during the desperate Indian war of 1641-44. They were even used to put down the Rensselaerswyck revolt of white tenants. Blacks and whites had coequal standing in the colonial courts, and free blacks were allowed to own property (Jews, however, were not). They intermarried freely with whites and in some cases owned white indentured servants.
Slaves who had worked diligently for the company for a certain length of time were granted a "half-freedom" that allowed them liberty in exchange for an annual tribute to the company and a promise to work at certain times on company projects such as fortifications or public works. Individual slaveowners, such as Director General Peter Stuyvesant, adopted this system as well, and it enabled them to be free of the cost and nuisance of owning slaves year-round that they could only use in certain seasons. For the slaves, half-freedom was better than none at all.
The British took over in 1664, and control of the colony passed to the Duke of York, who, with his cronies, held controlling interest in the Royal African Company. The change of name from New Netherland to New York brought a crucial shift in policy. Whereas the Dutch had used slavery as part of their colonial policy, the British used the colony as a market for slaves. "The Duke's representatives in New York -- governors, councilors, and customs officials -- were instructed to promote the importation of slaves by every possible means."
From 1701 to 1726, officially, some 1,570 slaves were imported from the West Indies and another 802 from Africa. As it had under the Dutch, the colony continued to import relatively few slaves from Africa directly, except occasional cargoes of children under 13. The actual numbers were much higher, because smugglers made liberal use of the long, convoluted coast of Long Island. In some years illegal shipment of slaves on a single vessel outnumbered the official imports to the whole colony.
As a result, New York soon had had the largest colonial slave population north of Maryland. From about 2,000 in 1698, the number of the colony's black slaves swelled to more than 9,000 adults by 1746 and 13,000 by 1756. Between 1732 and 1754, black slaves accounted for more than 35 percent of the total immigration through the port of New York. And that doesn't count the many illegal cargoes of Africans unloaded all along the convoluted coast of Long Island to avoid the tariff duties on slaves. In 1756, slaves made up about 25 percent of the populations of Kings, Queens, Richmond, New York, and Westchester counties.
Slaveholding concentrated in New York City, where by 1691 competition from slave labor had driven white porters out of the market houses and where by 1737 free coopers were complaining of "great numbers of Negroes" working in their trade.
The slave trade became a cornerstone of the New York economy. As with Boston and Newport, profits of the great slave traders, or of smaller merchants who specialized in small lots of skilled or seasoned slaves, radiated through a network of port agents, lawyers, clerks, scriveners, dockworkers, sailmakers, and carpenters.
The Dutch legacy left its mark on New York slavery, even after the British occupation. The British at first handled slaves in New York on the same relatively humane terms the Dutch had set. The population already was racially mixed, and slavery in New York at first was passed down not exactly by race, but by matrilineal inheritance: the child of a male slave and a free woman was free, the child of a female slave and a free man was a slave. By the 18th century, through this policy, New York had numerous visibly white persons held as slaves.
But after 1682, as the number of slaves rose (in many places more rapidly than the white population) fears of insurrection mounted, restrictions were applied, and public controls began to be enacted. By that year, it had become illegal for more than four slaves to meet together on their own time; in 1702 the number was reduced to three, and to ensure enforcement each town was required to appoint a "Negro Whipper" to flog violators. In a place where slaves were dispersed in ones and twos among city households, this law, if enforced, would have effectively prohibited slaves from social or family life.
Local ordinances restricted times or distance of travel. Slave runaways were tracked down rigorously, and ones bound for French Canada were especially feared, as they might carry information about the condition and defenses of the colony. The penalty for this was death. Slaves did run off, especially young men, but they tended to gravitate to New York city, rather than Canada. There many of them sought to escape the colony by taking passage on ships, whose captains often were not overly scrupulous about the backgrounds of their sailors.
"Others skulked along the waterfront, where they were drawn into gangs of criminal slaves infesting the docks. The most notorious gang was the Geneva Club, named after the Geneva gin its members were fond of imbibing. There were also groups known as the Free Masons, the Smith Fly Boys, the Long Bridge Boys, and many others whose names have not been recorded. Slaves belonging to such gangs were extremely clannish and often engaged in murderous feuds. Only rarely, however, did they attack white persons. The very existence of such groups nevertheless caused the whites much anxiety. The authorities regarded them as a much greater threat to the public safety than the deadlier gangs of white hoodlums on the waterfront."In 1712, some slaves in New York City rose up in a crude rebellion that could have been much more deadly, had it been better planned. As it was, it was among the most serious slave resistances in American history, and sparked a vicious backlash by the authorities. The revolt was led by African-born slaves, who decided death was preferable to life in bondage. They managed to collect a cache of muskets and other weapons and hide it in an orchard on the edge of town. On the night of April 6, twenty-four of the conspirators gathered, armed themselves, and set fire to a nearby building. They then hid among trees, and when white citizens rushed up to put out the blaze, the slaves opened fire on them, killing five and wounding six.The surviving citizens sounded the alarm. Every able-bodied man was pressed into service, and appeals were made to governors of surrounding colonies. The militia pinned down the rebels in the woods of northern Manhattan. The leaders of the uprising committed suicide, and the rest, starving, surrendered.
The death toll in the 1712 uprising doesn't seem high, but in a New York county that, at that time probably numbered some 4,800 whites, it was shocking. In considering the psychological impact on the survivors, imagine some sort of attack on modern New York, with its 8 million people, that would leave casualties of 10,000 dead.
A special court convened by the governor made short work of the rebels. Of the twenty-seven slaves brought to trial for complicity in the plot, twenty-one were convicted and put to death. Since the law authorized any degree of punishment in such cases, some unlucky slaves were executed with all the refinements of calculated barbarity. New Yorkers were treated to a round of grisly spectacles as Negroes were burned alive, racked and broken on the wheel, and gibbeted alive in chains. In his report of the affair to England, Governor Hunter praised the judges for inventing 'the most exemplary punishments that could be possibly thought of.' "As in other Northern colonies, blacks in New York faced special, severe penalties for certain crimes. An example from Poughkeepsie illustrates one of them:
A young slave, about twenty years of age, ... fired his master's barn and outbuildings, and thus destroyed much grain, together with live-stock. He was detected by the smoke issuing from his pocket, (into which he had thrust some combustibles,) imprisoned, tried, and on his confession, condemned to be burned to death. He was fastened to a stake, and when the pile was fired, the dense crowd excluded the air, so that the flames kindled but slowly, and the dreadful screams of the victim were heard at a distance of three miles. His master, who had been fond of him, wept aloud, and called to the Sheriff to put him out of his misery. This officer then drew his sword; but the master, still crying like a child, exclaimed, "Oh, don't run him through!" The Sheriff then caused the crowd to separate, so as to cause a current of air; and when the flame burst out fiercely he called to the sufferer to "swallow the blaze;" which he did, and immediately he sunk dead.Free blacks lived in New York at risk of enslavement. The colonial courts ruled that if a white person claimed his black employee was a slave, the burden was on the black person to prove he was not. Blacks on the street who could give no plausible account of their movements or proof of their freedom often were picked up by the authorities and jailed on suspicion of being runaway slaves. Local authorities had all but unlimited power in such cases. A black man was arrested in New York City in 1773 simply "because he had curious marks on his back." In such cases the suspected fugitives were held in local jails while advertisements ran in the newspapers seeking their owners. If a claimant arrived, and reimbursed the sheriff for the cost of the detention and the ads, he took the black person away after a few legal formalities. There was little incentive for the sheriff to challenge the claim of ownership in such cases. Even if no claimant came forth, the authorities sometimes then sold the black person into slavery, to cover the cost of detaining and advertising him.
2. Herbert S. Klein, The Atlantic Slave Trade, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p.76-7.
3. Board of Audit of the West India Company, May 27, 1647.
4. Edgar J. McManus, A History of Negro Slavery in New York, Syracuse University Press, 1966, p.7.
5. ibid., p.23.
6. ibid., p.105-6.
7. ibid., p.124.
8. William J. Allinson, Memoir of Quamino Buccau, A Pious Methodist, Philadelphia: Henry Longstreth, 1851, p.4.