Before 1620… Before 1619…: “The Epic Story” of Dutch Manhattan — the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America.”

A brief overview with some questions for American historians, African historians, art historians, and — more generally — the humanities.

The Dutch period of settlement, trade and control in colonial America is still not well known to most American citizens, but documentary discoveries and professional historical research has gone a long way to dispel this ignorance.  In a landmark work of popular history, journalist Russell Shorto presents information on the founding of European North America and reveals in riveting detail the role of the Dutch in making America what it is today.

In the late 1960s, an archivist in the New York State Library made an important discovery: 12,000 pages of centuries-old correspondence, court cases, legal contracts, and reports from a forgotten society: the Dutch colony centered on Manhattan, which predated the thirteen “original” American colonies.   For the past thirty years scholar and archivist Charles Gehring has been translating this trove, which was recently declared a national treasure.   Now, Russell Shorto has made use of this vital material to construct a sweeping narrative of Manhattan’s founding that gives a startling, fresh perspective on how America began.

In an account that blends a novelist’s grasp of storytelling with cutting-edge scholarship, The Island at the Center of the World strips Manhattan of its asphalt, bringing us back to a wilderness island—a hunting ground for Indians, populated by wolves and bears—that became a prize in the global power struggle between the English and the Dutch. Indeed, Russell Shorto shows that America’s founding was not the work of English settlers alone but a result of the clashing of these two seventeenth century powers.

In fact, it was Amsterdam—Europe’s most liberal city, with an unusual policy of tolerance and a polyglot society dedicated to free trade—that became the model for the city of New Amsterdam on Manhattan. While the Puritans of New England were founding a society based on intolerance, on Manhattan the Dutch created a free-trade, upwardly-mobile melting pot that would help shape not only New York, but America.

The story moves from the halls of power in London and The Hague to bloody naval encounters on the high seas. The characters in the saga—the men and women who played a part in Manhattan’s founding—range from the philosopher Rene Descartes to James, the Duke of York, to prostitutes and smugglers. At the heart of the story is a bitter power struggle between two men: Peter Stuyvesant, the autocratic director of the Dutch colony, and a forgotten American hero named Adriaen van der Donck, a maverick, liberal-minded lawyer whose brilliant political gamesmanship, commitment to individual freedom, and exuberant love of his new country would have a lasting impact on the history of this nation.

To understand American history and African-American history, then, we need to appreciate that well before the Plimouth Plantation was founded in Massachusetts Bay in 1620 and the Jamestown colony obtained its first slaves in 1619 there were several other well established settlements and commercial installations along coastal areas in the “New World.” The Spanish had created the enclave fort of Saint Augustine in the present state of Florida in 1565.  Moreover, the Dutch established a fortified settlement which they named “New Amsterdam” on the southern tip of an island we now call Manhattan.  Beyond the fort itself they built houses, established gardens and built a wall to defend themselves from the indigenous inhabitants.


Early map of “Nieuw Amsterdam” with its fort and protective wall.

The question of who was the “they” that built Nieuw Amsterdam is an intriguing one and one that has been the focus of Russell Shorto in his recent fascinating study of early New York.

An equally interesting and related problem is that of reconstructing a broader understanding of the trading nexus of 16th and 17th century Dutch global exchange that made the New Amsterdam colony possible.   The Dutch East India Company, officially the United East India Company (Dutch: Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie; VOC) established in 1602 was the first joint-stock company in the entire world.  Its initial focus was upon the spice trade with the East Indies but its scope would rapidly become global.   What is not fully understood is how this company — the United East India Company (VOC) — became engaged in trade with the Western hemisphere — to North America, South America and the Caribbean.


Henry Hudson was hired by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to find a new route to the Asian spice islands. His efforts to find a “northeast passage” proved unsuccessful so he turned instead to try to find a “northwest passage” to India and the Spice Islands.

On the surface, it seems that the connection to the western Atlantic was initially the result of what historian Charles Gehring has called “…probably one of the best accidents in exploration history.”  In the early 17th century the English navigator, Henry Hudson, was employed by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to discover a new sea route to the Spice Islands in Asia.  His initial attempt was to sail northwards along the coast of Norway to find a “northeast passage” to the Asian ocean islands.  The ice flows and difficulty navigation around the arctic proved to be more difficult than initially imagined, however, so he turned westwards instead in search of a “northwest passage” to India and Asia.

It was in the course of Hudson’s navigation along the coast of north America that he came upon the estuary of a river that was wide enough to navigate with a sailing vessel well to the interior of the continent.  He  sailed northwards on this river — which was later to bear his name — as far as the present day city of Albany, New York.  Subsequently the Dutch laid claim to the territory he explored, calling it “New Netherland,” and establishing their jurisdiction over the lands along the coast from what had  become known as “New England” to the north right down to the tobacco colonies of Maryland and Virginia in the South.


Further research in Dutch contemporary sources would be of help here because it was clear that by 1621 interest in the Western trade became sufficient enough to enable the creation of a new company known as the Dutch West India Company (Dutch: Verenigde Westindische Compagnie, or Dutch: WIC; English: Chartered West India Company) whose intent was to focus upon the trans-Atlantic trade.   Nevertheless, even prior to 1621 with the formal incorporation of the Dutch West India Company it was well known that Dutch traders could be a source of slaves to other European settlers seeking labor to assist their enterprises in the New World.  In August of 1619, John Smith recorded obtaining slaves from a “Dutchman” to be landed in the Virginia colony for slave labor there.

This “purchase” by John Smith in 1619 is marked and commemorated by some historians to mark the first instance of the slavery of those of African descent in North America, but this is only partially true because prior to the Virginia colony there had been slaves present in both the Dutch and Spanish North American settlements. More accurately, then, as one recent commemoration phrased it: “In 1619, the first enslaved Africans arrived in English North America.”

To date, little is know about the circumstances, living conditions or legal status of residents of African descent in the Dutch colony, but it appears that there were both “free” Africans and enslaved Africans present in “Nieuw Amsterdam”.  The maps and prints of the period contain representations of Africans in conditions depicting manual labor.  Consider, for example, the depiction of African figures in the lower background of the print representing Dutch citizens of “Nieu Amsterdam:”


Further, in some of the ornate cartouches present on the published maps of the era there are similar representations of African figures:


Are these representations on maps and printed views simply allegorical? or do they reflect any underlying reality concerning the status of African born populations in “Nieu Amsterdam” that can be documented elsewhere in manumission papers or court records of the time?  A great deal more can probably be learned from Charles Gehring’s work, upon whom Russell Shorto depends heavily for his account of the early years of New Amsterdam history.  Deciphering 17th century Dutch records is by no means a trivial task, as Charles Gehring has underscored in his own work.  Nevertheless, with his help and perhaps with the assistance of Dutch scholars from the Netherlands there may be fruitful insights to be obtained from this early documentation.

For example, in September 1626, when Colonel Richard Nichols took control of Niew Amsterdam from Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch director-general of the colony of New Netherland, his troops took possession of 48 leather-bound books of records containing the administrative information about court cases, wills, correspondence, council minutes and other items that provide a glimpse of the official activity of the Dutch colony over the period from 1626 to 1664.  Further material can be examined for evidence on these topics in the early New Amsterdam manuscripts preserved and cataloged in the New Netherland Institute

In addition, scholars knowledgeable in other aspects of the Dutch maritime empire and its naval history should be able to point to important maps and printed scenes that could be of interest to historians of Africa, European overseas empire and the African diaspora throughout the world.

The connection between the the so called “Golden Age” of Dutch art and culture and the emergence of the Atlantic slave trade deserves further research.  After a protracted war between Spain and the Netherlands reached a temporary truce in 1609, the Dutch began a period of remarkable commercial prosperity.  The discoveries of Henry Hudson and the establishment of the Dutch settlements from 1609 forward were paralleled by the growing importance of the Dutch Chartered West India Company (Dutch: Verenigde Westindische Compagnie, or Dutch: WIC).   Established initially in 1621, it was authorized from 1630 onward to deploy its military force and economic resources to engage in the trans-Atlantic slave trade between the Dutch fortified enclaves in West Africa and the western hemisphere.

Several questions occur:

  • What were the links between the expansion of the Dutch slave trade and the flowering  of the Dutch “Golden Age” in the arts and culture in Amsterdam and other major Dutch cities?   Art historians have asserted that:  “the Dutch Republic in the 17th century was home to one of the greatest flowerings of painting in the history of Western art.”  Was it simply a coincidence that this occurred at roughly the same time as the ascendancy of the Dutch in the Atlantic slave trade?

Some of the well-to-do Dutch citizens depicted in paintings — like that of Jan Rijcksen and his Wife, Griet Jans (The Shipbuilder and his Wife) painted by Rembrandt in 1633 — were directly linked to the expanded maritime empire of the Dutch.


Jan Rijcksen and his Wife, Griet Jans (The Shipbuilder and his Wife) Rembrandt van Rijn, 1633.

What is known about the subject of the many other portraits that were painted in the Dutch “Golden Age,” like “the Astronomer” (1668) by Johannes Vermeer?  More broadly, what is known about what can be called the “structure of patronage” for the painters of the Dutch Golden Age — not only the portraits but the exceptional naval paintings and seascapes?


The Astronomer, Johannes Vermeer, 1668,

What is known about the Dutch painters who who painted scenes from or about Brazil during this period like Albert Eckhout and Frans Post? Much could be learned, perhaps if professional art historians could begin to share their understanding with Brazilian and African historians about “sweetness and light” in the Dutch “Golden Age” and the European “enlightenment.”

More immediately,

  • What role did the Chartered West India Company (Dutch: Verenigde Westindische Compagnie, or Dutch: WIC) play in the economic development of the “Nieu Amsterdam” settlement?
  • Were there any documented tensions between the Chartered West India Company (WIC) and other prominent Dutch citizens like Adriaan van der Donck who seemed to have a alternate visions for the economic and political development of the “Nieuw Amsterdam” settlement?
  • What impact in practice did the English take-over of “Nieuw Amsterdam” and its conversion to “New York” in 1664 have upon the populations of African descent in this colonial outpost?

It is expected that sources from The New York Public Library’s Picture Collection Online – PCO as well as those included in Henry Lovejoy’s Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora can be of assistance in pursuing some of these historical questions.   In addition, historical maps from Dutch, English, and French publishers shared by scholars through the Africa Map Circle  can help to understand these questions as well.  In effect, all of these materials should assist current day historians in reconstructing a more complete understanding of trans-Atlantic slave institutions and practices in North America before 1619.

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