3/11/11 - new york surrenders

In today's excerpt - in 1664, four English ships led by Colonel Richard Nicolls sailed into Manhattan's harbor and took the city of New Amsterdam from Pieter Stuyvesant and the Dutch without firing a single shot. This was in spite of the fact that the Netherlands had among the most benevolent governments on earth towards its citizens, and in spite of the fact that the English were the bitter enemies of the Dutch. The reason? New Amsterdam was governed by the Dutch West India Company, not the government of the Netherlands. And that company, through the unyielding hand of Stuyvesant, ran New Amsterdam like the company outpost they intended it to be—allowing little freedom, no property rights, no representation in government and no freedom of religion. And so the people of New Amsterdam turned on their governor and welcomed the English:

"Stuyvesant then met with an English representative [of the invading army] at a popular local tavern and, after quietly reading the terms of surrender presented to him, tore the paper to shreds. This outraged the gathered [Dutch] crowd—onlookers who demanded that Stuyvesant relay the English offer to them. But that would have been too undignified for the man who had been in a struggle with these very people for years over the government of the settlements and colony. He refused to show the generous terms of surrender either to his subordinates or to the leading citizens of the settlement, knowing they would argue for surrender if he did—many of the terms on offer were the very things the people of New Netherland had been seeking for years: freedom of religion, property rights, inheritance laws, continued trade with Holland, 'every man in his Estate, life, and liberty.'

"Stuyvesant slowly collected the ripped pieces of the letter and offered the crumpled pieces to the mob. Many hands grabbed the pieces and glued them back together. Many eyes then squinted at the damaged handwriting, and some people read the words aloud. Stuyvesant stalked away on his stump leg, mounted the battlements of his fort and stared across the water at the ships that were waiting with their guns trained on the settlement. He let the wind ruffle his long hair and contemplated ordering one of his cannons to fire. The long-standing and accepted rules of war allowed that if a stronghold surrendered when presented with a formal demand, the civilians would be spared and the town too; but, if even a single shot were fired in aggression, the community would be open for plunder and destruction. One shot from Stuyvesant's cannon, and the people would have to defend themselves—he could unleash a great torrent of violence that would surely result in the destruction of the town and the death of many people. ...

"The next morning, on September 5, 1664, ninety-three of the leading citizens of New Amsterdam presented Stuyvesant with a petition, signed by his own son, demanding that he surrender to prevent the inevitable 'misery, sorrow, conflagration, the dishonour of women, murder of children in their cradles, and, in a word, the absolute ruin and destruction of about fifteen hundred innocent souls.' Stuyvesant knew he had lost their loyalty.

The terms of surrender that Nicolls offered were shrewdly calculated to deflate any opposition to the foreign power. They were something the citizens had lacked under the West India Company's administration and feared they would never gain. The hated foreigners—enemies of Holland through several recent wars—offered the people of New Amsterdam if not a better life, at least a life of greater freedom. ... The citizens of Holland's premiere North American colony preferred conquest by a foreign nation, a nation with which they had been at war for decades, to fighting for their own country."


Stephen R. Bown


Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600-1900


St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2009 by Stephen R. Bown


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