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Harlem and the Dutch debate over slavery in New Amsterdam

The anti-slavery theologians often referred to slavery as “theft of humans” and a violation of the eighth of the Ten Commandments. But the slavocrats gained more elite supporters than did the theologians of freedom.

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Debates over slavery in the Dutch parliament, the States-General, affected the lives of African slaves in New Harlem. Painting: Dirck van Delen, 1651, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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.

Wllem Usselincx argued that enslaving people rescued them from being killed.

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."

"Slavery is against nature." Hugo Grotius. Painting by Michiel Janszoon van Miervelt.

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.”

Everadus Bogardus was an orphan like these boys reading the Bible before supper at an orphanage in Oudewaer, Holland in 1651. He was "born again" before becoming a minister & strong advocate on behalf of the slaves in Harlem and elsewhere. Painting by H. van Ommen. Photo Willem Frykoff

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.

Slave market in Suriname, 19th Century


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.

Embarkation of Domine Everardus Bogardus, 17 August 1647. Uncertain title and authorship, between 1647-1687.


Next: Peter Stuyvesant’s relentless quest for order in New Amsterdam pushes Africans out of the church

Further reading:

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. [20120305_0700]


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  • Scott, Was your family very aware of Everardus Bogardus or had memory of him faded?

  • Thanks, Kate. Everardus Bogardus was my direct ancestor and I'm amazed at his strength and courage.

  • Thanks Kate for detective work!

  • Very nice blog entry but there is an actual painting or print of Bogardus' leaving Manhattan in a rowboat. It was part of the 2009 Amsterdam/New Amsterdam exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York. It is in private hands and not in the museum's collection from what I read.

  • Like this

  • Robert,

    I have visited the church but I am not sure that I knew about the window. Thanks for letting me know! Quite interesting.

  • TONY,

    An interesting left-over from the Dutch Reformed Church is the stained glass window in the south transept of the Fort Washington Collegiate Church. The window depicts Peter Minuit buying Manhattan Island from the Indians. While serving on the staff of that church I was told that Minuit was one of the elders in what has become the oldest continuous congregation in America.


  • hi
    That's a nice article.

  • Too many people replicate inviduous class distinctions and feel so moral in doing it.

  • I always appreciate the focus on the truth related to our founding that highlights causes of some of our current moral and ethical difficulties as a nation some of our current difficulties. I also gleaned a message that says that the church must be very careful not to align itself with a spirit of greed that often means aligning itself against the downtrodden, the stranger in the land, the poor, those with the least rights or ability to defend themselves in the name of increased profits.

  • a nice post.Thanks for sharing.

  • Hugo Grotius used in several places versions of the phrase "slavery is against nature. Mankind by nature is free."

    In his book On the Law of War and Peace Grotius starts chapter 7, "By nature, that is, in the primeval state of nature, and without the act of man, no men are slaves, as we have elsewhere said...that slavery is against nature." I refer you to this chapter because you will also see the ambiguities of Grotius' discussion that allowed readers to come to different conclusions. Grotius allowed that humans can act against nature to create slavery for a "good" purpose, i.e. to foreclose a worse alternative. A person can sell their liberty away. If a family is starving, the father can sell his child into slavery. A person under a judicial sentence of death has a better option if he is put into slavery. In war a nation can take slaves rather than killing the combatants, etc.

    The pro-slavery parties used these exceptions to justify slavery. The slogan seemed to be, "better that the Africans are slaves than that they are put to death."

    So, even in Grotius we see the double-impulse: toward freedom; and toward justifying enslavement. Likewise in Grotius' argument on the laws of war, it is natural to live in peace, but if we must have a war, let's have limits. Rousseau contradicts Grotius, explicitly I think, with his famous phrase: "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains."

    It seems that Grotius mindset was that of a reformer, not a revolutionary. Am I reading Grotius right?

    The anti-slavery Calvinists and Arminians argued that Grotius allowed slavery only as a voluntary option in the face of worse alternatives. He said that nations that didn't practice enslaving of prisoners of war shouldn't get into that practice but do prisoner exchanges, maybe with ransoms being paid. Some of the anti-slavery proponents argued that when Africans became Christians, they should experience a jubilee, a release from their slavery.

    There are many subtleties of Grotius' and others' works on slavery and freedom that the article didn't cover. Perhaps we can see Harlem as the place that the great sweep of the history of freedom touched down to make, eventually, a special place for African Americans. Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson observed in his book Freedom that out of the evil of slavery came some of the most eloquent defenses of freedom "in the making of Western culture." Out of Harlem too came some of the most wonderful cultural advancements toward freedom.

    I will send you a scholarly article that goes deeper than we can here. Thanks for following up and moving us along intellectually.

  • Oh, I see what you meant. I thought you were implying Grotius was a leader of anti-slavery Dutch Calvinists and thus one himself. If you are saying anti-slavery Dutch Calvinists followed the ideas of an exiled heretic and criminal (as far as the Dutch Calvinist establishment was concerned), that is a really interesting situation. I had no idea that was the case.

    Where can I learn more about this, and what is the source of Grotius statement that "Slavery is against nature. Mankind by nature is free"? I'm familiar with the history around the Remonstrant controversy, Dort and Barnevelt -- it was a big deal to the English and there was a play written about it that includes Grotius as a character -- but I know little about Grotius and nothing about how the slave trade issue. Thanks for writing about this.

  • Hi Dan, Thank you for your observations on Grotius and the Arminians.

    I didn't say that Grotius was a "Dutch Calvinist," did I? I think I wrote that anti-slavery Dutch Calvinists followed Grotius' reasoning on several points in regard to slavery.

    Grotius acted as attorney general for the state in a dispute between the Arminians who wrote about their objections (i.e their "remonstrances" to some elements of Calvinist theology) and the conservative Calvinists who were called Counter-Remonstrants. He unsuccessfully tried to broker a peace and toleration between the two parties. He wrote that the state should tolerate both the Remonstrants and the Counter-Remonstrants as long as they believed in God and His providence.

    The conflict also involved the royal family's attempt to gain back power from the democratic institutions, something Grotius opposed. As a result of this complex conflict, the Prince of Orange put Grotius in jail and executed Oldenbarnevelt. After the Prince died, Grotius planned to come back to teach at the new theological seminary set up by the Arminians. But because he refused that he did anything wrong in his actions as attorney general, he couldn't come back.

    Generally speaking, the Arminians were more often opposed to slavery than the conservative Calvinists. But there were debates about slavery and Africans in both camps.

    I could certainly learn more about this history about which I know too little. Thank you for deepening my and our understanding.

  • P.S. It's interesting to consider that the Arminians, like Grotius, were an exiled and persecuted religious minority whose religious positions were far more generous in their view of humanity than their Calvinist oppressors. Perhaps that had something to do with their opposition to slavery. See:

  • Calling Grotius a "Dutch Calvinist" is misleading if not incorrect. He was an Arminian or Remonstrant who was imprisoned by the Calvinists/Anti-Remonstrants after the Synod of Dordt dogmatized Calvinism as a set of Anti-Arminian principles, making Arminianism a heresy and a capital crime. As a result of this history, Calvinism came to mean the anti-Arminian Reformed position, and Arminians are identified as Arminians, not Calvinists. It also meant that Grotius lost his citizenship. He narrowly avoided the execution that befell his allies, such as Jan Van Oldenbarnnevelt. He lived in exile outside the Netherlands until religious toleration was extended to Arminians, but since he would not admit any guilt and seek a pardon for his "crimes," he was not allowed to repatriate and had to go into exile again.

  • Thanks to Journey thru NYC Religions, for this valuable and intriguing short history lesson on the 17th century debate over slavery between Dutch theologians and Dutch businessmen in what would become New York City. Yet again, a piece of American history totally unknown to me.

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