early new york – 12/6/21

Today's selection -- from Merchant Kings by Stephen R. Bown. The Dutch resisted requests of the residents of New Amsterdam--soon to be New York--for services such as schoolteachers, church ministers, a legal system and military defense, because of the cost:

"Some [residents of New Amsterdam] began farming on Manhattan, 'a convenient place abounding with grass.' Cattle roamed the fields while windmills, sawmills and rough wooden barracks rounded out the settlement of New Amsterdam. 'Had we cows, hogs, and other cattle fit for food (which we daily expect on the first ships),' wrote one enthusiastic colonist, 'we would not wish to return to Holland, for whatever we desire in the paradise of Holland, is here to be found.'

"The company's directors did not share this settler's enthu­siasm for the land. The new settlement was supposed to be a trading outpost, not a beachhead of Dutch colonial expansion. The provisional orders governing the actions of the employ­ees firmly placed the company's interests first: the settlements would be run as trading posts, ruled by a governor appointed by the directors; decisions would come from head office, not from the ground up. The settler/employees were 'to obey and to carry out without any contradiction the orders of the Com­pany then or still to be given, as well as all regulations received from the said Company in regard to matters of administration and justice.' They would fulfill the needs of the company by living where they were directed to live; planting crops as dic­tated by the company; providing labour on the fortifications and other essential buildings, such as the governor's house, as needed; and performing military service when required. After six years, these adventurous pioneers might be given some land to do with as they chose, so long as they obeyed company direc­tives. It would not be quite the idyllic plantation on the edge of paradise that many longed for: labourers in the primary set­tlement on the southern tip of Manhattan Island, called New Amsterdam, as one of their first tasks were directed to construct a rudimentary star-shaped earthen and palisade fort. They gave it the thematically appropriate, if uninspired, name of Fort Amsterdam.

New Amsterdam about 1650

"The citizens of this peculiar company town on the edge of the North American wilderness were a rough lot. They were fed 'hard stale food, such as men are used to on board ship,' and took shelter in run-down hovels where they 'huddled rather than dwelt.' Drunkenness, fighting, theft, assault, murder and rape were frequent crimes reported among the mostly male population. One in four establishments in New Amsterdam was a grog house or beer and tobacco emporium. Considering that the population consisted mostly of indentured servants, employees and slaves owned by the company, the chaotic and immoral behaviour of the citizens had only one source: the com­pany, which, despite its apparent disgust with the settlement and its people, made a hefty profit from its monopoly on the sale of beer and liquor to them -- a profit that was second only to its profit from furs. Squalor, filth and disorder reigned supreme.

"Under a series of mostly incompetent and corrupt gover­nors, and as a result of the company's subtle pressure to restrict development, the colony was slow to flourish. Company direc­tors in the Netherlands feared that settlement might actually be bad for business, as settlers would demand services such as schoolteachers, church ministers, a legal system and military defense -- all of which cost money. Farming and conflict with the natives over land might disrupt the flow of valuable furs. The company instead preferred the population to be kept low in numbers and directly employed by them. A few indepen­dent people might operate a small farm or engage in their own personal trade, so long as they sold their furs or produce to the company and bought all their goods at the company store. One early governor, Peter Minuit, who became famous for allegedly buying all of Manhattan for sixty guilders' worth of trade goods, was recalled to Amsterdam because he was not effective enough in curbing the growing private trade in furs. This was a trade that nearly all the settlers participated in to augment their mea­gre wages, despite the company's best efforts to put a stop to it.

"By late 1630 New Amsterdam had a population of only four hundred. It was run down and dilapidated, the fortifications were in disrepair and the five company farms were 'vacant and fallen into decay; there was not a living animal on hand belong­ing to the Company on said Bouweries.' The town had already been eclipsed by the younger community of Boston, in New England; it had failed to thrive under the neglect and parsimony of the company, and many feared the entire enterprise would be lost to the English, whose North American colonies of Vir­ginia and New England were vital and expanding. (Because of the English Civil War, Puritans had fled to America to found their ideal society, swelling the English population dramatically within a handful of years) Reluctantly, the company loosened its restrictions on the number of new settlers while keeping a firm grip on their civil liberties and freedoms. New arrivals, though ostensibly free citizens, had to acknowledge the sover­eignty of the Dutch West India Company by paying yearly fee or taxes."

 | www.delanceyplace.com


Stephen R. Bown


Merchant Kings


Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2009 Stephen R. Bown


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