A Survey of the African American Presence in the History of the Downstate New York Area

Article excerpt

A Survey of the African American Presence in the History of the Downstate New York Area


People of African descent were among the earliest inhabitants of the Dutch colony of New Netherland.(2) Initiated in 1624, the colony's population also included English, French, German, and Swedish settlers. It is estimated that at least eighteen languages were spoken there. The colony was under the control of the Dutch West Indian Company. In the early years of the colony, Angola and the Gold Coast were the primary sources of Africans for the Dutch slave trade. Beginning around 1598 the Dutch established economic links to Africa which eventually would result in their becoming the primary force in the Atlantic slave trade by the middle of the 17th century.

Although the actual year of the earliest presence of persons of African descent in New Netherland is subject to debate, the first record of African slaves being brought to the colony was in 1626, just two years after it was founded. These first arrivals were referred to as a "parcel" and consisted of 11 males. The reason for the controversy over the initial presence of blacks in New Netherland is that there is a record of a Jan Rodrigues, a mulatto from San Domingo (Haiti)who in 1613 remained behind in the colony to arrange trade agreements with the Indians that involved Dutch ships.(3)

At present there is no means of determining the exact number of African slaves brought to New Netherland prior to 1664. However, the ships that were said to have brought the first slaves directly from Africa to New Netherland were the Tamandere in 1646 and the Whittepaert in 1654.(4) Despite the controversies, the fact remains that at the time of the English conquest of the colony in 1664, people of African descent formed a significant element of the colony's population.

Little is known about the internal lives of the early African residents of New Amsterdam. However, it is known that African women were introduced into the colony soon after African men, and that some eventually married. Records show that African couples were married in the New Amsterdam Dutch Reform Church as early as 1641. Christinna Emanuels and Swan Van Loange were married in the Dutch Reform Church in 1664.(5)

Although slavery was the status of most of the Africans who arrived in the early stages of the colony's development, it was not long before a free black population began to emerge. As slaves, they could marry, bear primary responsibility for child rearing, and hire themselves out for wages. While they could not own real property, they were permitted to raise their own crops and animals, bring suit in court and their testimony could be used to convict whites. An example of their right to go to court involved the following incident: In 1638, Anthony the Portuguese, a black, sued a white merchant, Anthony Jansen, and was awarded reparations for damages caused to his hog by the defendant's dog.(6) Interestingly, most slaves were owned by the Company rather than by individuals. Instances such as these have resulted in the conclusion that slavery in New Amsterdam was "mild."

Freed slaves, or the half-free as they called themselves, were sometimes given land by the Dutch West Indian Company. The typical grant included a house and garden lot of 1,000 by 1,500 feet and a section of farmland of from five to ten acres. Sometimes the attainment of freedom and the acquisition of land led to marriage. Peter Christopher, in his study of the freedmen of New Netherland, has summarized that the emancipation of slaves during the Dutch period was a frequent occurrence, and that manumission took place at an age when the slave was still young enough to start a family.(7) In addition, the freedmen of New Netherland, in contrast to those freed by the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, were provided a parcel of land upon which to support themselves and their families. Slavery under the Dutch appears to have been more like indentured bond service than the "peculiar institution" that emerged later in the southern part of the United States during the 19th century. …