The Other Fort Amsterdam: New Light on Aspects of Slavery in New Netherland

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The Other Fort Amsterdam: New Light on Aspects of Slavery in New Netherland

Recently published translations of documents in the New York State Archives concerning Dutch administration of Curacao drastically alters contours of historical perception and invokes a revision in historiography of slavery in New Netherland, later New York, two sister colonies of the Dutch West India Company (WIC). This new source is The Curacao Papers, 1640-1665. These documents were catalogued in E.B. O'Callaghan's Calendar of Historical Manuscripts in 1866 but remained untranslated for one-and-one-quarter centuries.(2) The Curacao Papers depict the international magnitude of the WIC operations in the New World. Directors of the colony at Fort Amsterdam, Curacao, received instructions from Holland that illuminate complex dimensions of social, religious and economic philosophy concerning administration of slaves, developed from pragmatic experience in Brazil and Guinea. Significantly, these instructions, as well as other guidelines and resolutions from the board of directors of the WIC also applied to the other Fort Amsterdam in New Netherland, where none have been discovered. Consequently, the Curacao Papers are a phenomenally rich resource for historians of that colony, for they explain many, certainly not all, aspects of slavery in New Netherland that, for want of resources, are perplexing and incomprehensible.

This paper, therefore, is an exposition and analysis of, among others, two principal documents: "Instructions for the Director" and "Freedoms and Exemptions for Company Servants." These, resolutions and other correspondence between the States-General and the directors of Curacao and New Netherland, directly and indirectly concern the administration and regulation of slaves and matters pertaining to slavery related to the latter. This evidence throws new light on slavery in New Netherland by elucidating such concepts as slave and civil status, church membership and land ownership that, lacking documentation, have prevailed in the literature as interpretation or unsubstantiated generalization. Revealed in these papers, another theme emerges is that, curiously, Petrus Stuyvesant, as second in command of Curacao, was responsible for administering these policies. He developed other ideas concerning slaves which were transmitted to New Netherland and adopted by other directors, principally his predecessor, William Kieft. This explains, albeit unsatisfactory, why virtually no deliberation nor alteration of policy concerning African slavery is forthcoming when Stuyvesant assumed directorship of New Netherland in 1647.

Curacao as an influence on New Netherland history has been overlooked by historians. Most have viewed New Netherland black history from a provincial, "region-centric" perspective, isolated from external or international forces and have written history predominantly from abbreviated abstracts of sources more than a century old. This history has been interpreted based on an English jurisprudence model or a nineteenth-century Northern abolitionist model, supplemented by comparative studies of Southern plantation systems. Consequently, due to absence of evidence and little historical criticism of extant sources, though insightfully more and more sophisticated, articles transmit presumption, speculation and faulty generalization. All book-length syntheses of slavery in New York, tragically, dispense with the Dutch period in but a few pages.(3)

Unfortunately, little historiography on Curacao exists.(4) But a brief overview of the history of that island and WIC operations in the Caribbean discloses fascinating aspects of that island related to New Netherland and Africans. Curacao, Bonaire and Aruba, known as "Las Tres Islas," were discovered in 1499 by Alonso de Ojeda, a captain under Christopher Columbus. Spain took possession but quickly lost interest in them since no gold nor other precious minerals were found. Known as the "islas inutilas," the Spanish maintained occupation and jurisdiction of these islands until Dutch interest in the West Indies. …