A Dutch debate over slavery engulfed the futures of the eleven African slaves in New Amsterdam that were purchased from pirates between 1625 and 1627. As the New Harlem area became farmland, the resolution of the debate in the Dutch Republic and New Amsterdam would also affect the slaves that came with the farmers.
Dutch opinion was sharply divided about the morality of slavery. At first some theologians convinced the West India Company to avoid the slave trade. However, the commercial and political leaders in Holland fretted over the theological restrictions. The issue was raised in the States-General, the Dutch parliament that had granted the West India Company its charter. Willem Usselincx (1567-1647), one of the founders of the West India Company and a merchant from Antwerp, dreamed of creating a new and better society in the New World that would include slavery. In Octroy ofte Privilege (1627), he advanced the classic pro-slavery argument as an alternate punishment to imprisonment or death. His morbid slogan seemed to be, better to enslave them than kill them. The administrator had the support of gossip coming from New Amsterdam against the slaves.
The first pastor of the church in New Amsterdam was given to harsh, intemperate remarks on people who crossed him, including Director Minuit and African slaves. He called the colony’s leader “a slippery man” made up of “a compound of all iniquity and wickedness.” He lambasted Angolan slave women as “thieving, lazy and useless trash.”
By contrast, the anti-slavery Dutch Calvinists followed the founder of modern international law Hugo Grotius who in 1625 said, “Slavery is against nature. Mankind by nature is free.”
Dutch minister Jacobus Hondius (1629--1691) considered slavery a sin and itemized it as No. 810 in his book, Black Register of a Thousand Sins (1724). He wrote, "Church members who buy and sell slaves and trade in such miserable people commit a sin. For these are people of the same nature as them rather than mere animals. Even though such slave trade is conducted by not only Jews, Turks, and Pagans, but so-called Christians, indeed, Dutchmen, as well. Reformed members should not taint themselves with such uncompassionate trade. Rather, they should act fully in fear of the Lord, in order that the money they make will be a blessing rather than a curse."
The anti-slavery theologians often referred to slavery as “theft of humans” and a violation of the eighth of the Ten Commandments ("thou shall not steal;" the following section is taken from a paper by Markus Vink). Festus Hommius (1576-1642) used the Reformed pedagogy of the Heidelberg Catechism to argue that slavery was a form of theft to be punished by the government. Citing Deuteronomy 24:7 and 1Timothy 1:10 he believed that enslaving a human being was “depriving them of their most precious possession, which is freedom." Hommius was pretty severe against slavocrats. He said that God had ordained (Exodus 21:16) that "Whoever steals a man, whether he sells him or is found in possession of him, shall be put to death."
Cornelis Poudroyen (d. 1662) denied parents the right to sell their children into slavery. Children of war captives could also not be kept as slaves, he argued, while impoverished people offering themselves for sale should be assisted through charity or compassion rather than enslavement. The argument that slave labor was necessary in tropical conditions was invalid, since free men could and should also perform heavy labor. Slaves were not to be given tasks deemed unfit for oneself and others, for "they are your equals and fellow human beings." The overriding principle for Poudroyen was Christian compassion, concluding that:
"It is unbefitting for Christians to engage in this rough, insecure, confusing, dangerous, and unreasonable trade, adding to a person's troubles and being an executor of his torments. Instead, if one desires to bring forth good from that evil, one should purchase him [the slave] in order to be manumitted and freed from such great servitude to cruel tyrants, and, if possible, instruct him in the Christian religion."
Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676), an orthodox Calvinist, emphasized the natural equality of humans and rejected the theft of humans, i.e., slavery, based on the Law given by Moses and other Biblical references (for instance, Matthew 6:26; 10:24-31; Luke 15; Deuteronomy 24:7; 1 Timothy 1:10; Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:11).
Church leaders were also influenced by the emphasis on inward reformation that was preached by Pietists who also wrote tracts attacking slavery.
Although debates over slavery continued, the slavocrats gained more elite supporters than did the theologians of freedom. By 1635 the West India Company noted that it had hired an “overseer over the negroes belonging to the Company.”
However, the second pastor of New Amsterdam’s church, Everadus Bogardus (1607-1647), continued to argue on behalf of the Africans. He seemed to have developed this sympathy while he was living in Guinea, West Africa before coming to New Amsterdam.
Bogardus routinely married African men and women and baptized their children. He also served as godparent for an African infant.
In 1636, he pleaded with the West India Company to provide a schoolmaster “to teach and train the youth of both Dutch and blacks in the knowledge of Jesus Christ.” He threw open the church to Africans. He justified his policies to company headquarters in Amsterdam with the argument that “good hopes exist for the conversion of the Negroes.” His elders and deacons supported their pastor, writing that “the negroes living among the colonists come nearer” to the right knowledge of God than the Indians.
Although slavery was never legalized in the Dutch republic, the Dutch promoted the slave trade after they went looking to make up the revenues from losing their colony of Brazil. At the same time the Dutch conquest of areas in Africa with a slave trade seemed to offer them a solution. The result for the Netherlands and its colonies was grim.
In 1637 the West India Company decided to formally enter the slave trade. The market for slaves in New Amsterdam sometimes auctioned off hundreds of human beings at a time. Pretty soon, the population of the settlement was 20% enslaved and free Africans. Other Dutch colonies like Suriname instituted some of the harshest conditions for slaves in the Atlantic world. The Netherlands was one of the last European countries to abolish slavery in 1863. In the end, the Dutch transported about 550,000 enslaved Africans to the Americas, roughly 5 percent of the total transatlantic slave trade.
Political turmoil in Amsterdam helps African slaves on New Harlem farms
In the meantime New Amsterdam was being mismanaged by a schemer intent on enriching his own pockets. Willem Kieft, a new director of New Netherland, arrived in 1638. He arrived amidst a swarm of negative rumors. One said he had stolen the money raised to ransom Christians imprisoned by the Turks.
Kieft lived up to fears by his mismanagement of the colony. He created an overly aggressive policy to handle disputes with local Indians resulting in a unity of the tribes and all out war in 1643. Fiery religious leader Anne Hutchinson and some of her follower were killed in the backlash on the Hudson River. Settlers and slaves in north Manhattan also felt the full fury of the Indians. They fled back to the fortified town of New Amsterdam. From the pulpit the pastor friendly to the African slaves, Everardus Bogardus, launched withering criticisms of Kieft. In March 1643 some New Amsterdamers ploted to assassinate the director. The brutal war had left the settlers dazed with blood on their hands. The economic losses were enormous.
Kieft started creating buffers with the Indians by resettling farmers including freed slaves back into the areas of northern Manhattan and elsewhere. Kieft was forced to soften the pro-slavery policy of New Netherland. He also allowed English Presbyterians to hold church meetings during the period of 1644-1645.
On February 25, 1644 a New Netherland policy on slaves gave them a number of civil rights and granted them the ability to gain “half-freedom” which meant that they were legally free but had to pay an annual tribute and that their children remained slaves. Half-free Africans created “the Negroes’ Farms” on the outskirts of town. Some drifted up to the New Harlem area.
By 1647 the situation in New Amsterdam was almost a civil war. The church authorities summoned Bogardus back to Amsterdam to answer charges made against him by Director Kieft. Simultaneously, the West India Company summoned Kieft back to defend his disastrous policies and handling of finances. The two men sailed on the same ship, the Princess Amalia, and both perished in a shipwreck off the English coast.
With Bogardus’ death the Africans lost their strongest advocate.
Wllem Frijhoff. 2007. Fulfilling God's mission: The two worlds of Dominie Everardus Bogardus, 1607-1647. Amsterdam: Brill.
Leslie M. Harris. 2003. In the shadow of slavery. African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Markus P. M. Vink. 2003. A work of compassion? Dutch slavery and slave trade in the Indian Ocean in the seventeenth century.
Unless otherwise noted, illustrations are from New York Public Library.