New Netherlands: America's First Multicultural Society
Digital History ID 99
Adriaen Van Der Donck
In 1648, after an eighty-year struggle, the Dutch Republic won its independence from Spanish rule. The seventeenth century was the Netherlands's golden age, during which the Dutch produced some of the world's greatest painters, like Rembrandt, great philosophers, like Spinoza, and great mathematicians and astronomers, like Christian Huygens. During the golden age, the Netherlands also developed a colonial empire with bases stretching from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Brazil to Aruba, the Antilles, and the southern tip of Africa. It was also the only western country permitted to trade with Japan. A major sea power, the Dutch in 1650 owned 16,000 of the 20,000 ships engaged in European commerce.
In an effort to find a sea route around the Americas to Asia, the Dutch East India Company sent Henry Hudson and a crew of 20 to search for a westward passage. On his third voyage, in 1611, Hudson sailed into the harbor of present-day New York City and journeyed up the river named after him as far as Albany, thereby establishing Dutch claims to the region. In 1621, the Dutch West India Company (which had been founded to trade in West Africa and the Americas) began to colonize New Netherlands, which encompassed parts of present-day New York, Delaware, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
From the outset, New Netherlands was a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. Only about half the population was Dutch; the remainder included French, Germans, and Scandinavians, as well as a small number of Jews from Brazil. The Dutch considered New Netherlands a minor part of their colonial empire, valuable primarily as a source of furs. But many merchants were attracted by the colony's promise of freedom of worship, local self-government, and free land that would remain tax exempt for ten years.
Even before an English fleet captured New Amsterdam in 1664, many of the colony's residents had been alienated by corruption, trade monopolies, and arbitrary taxation and on-going conflict with neighbor Indian nations. In this selection, Adriaen Van Der Donck (1620-1655) lays out the residents' grievances.
As we shall speak of the reasons and causes which have brought New Netherlands into the ruinous condition in which it is now found to be, we deem it necessary to state the very first difficulties and for this purpose, regard it as we see and find it in our daily experience. As far as our understanding goes, to describe it in one word (and none other better presents itself), it is bad government, with its attendants and consequences, that is the true and only foundation stone of the decay and ruin of New Netherlands....
Trade, without which, when it is legitimate, no country is prosperous, is by their acts so decayed that the like is nowhere else. It is more suited for slaves than freemen, in consequences of the restrictions upon it and the annoyances which accompany the exercise of the right of inspection....
In the meantime, the Christians are treated almost like Indians in the purchase of the necessaries with which they cannot dispense. This causes great complaint, distress, and poverty; as, for example, the merchants sell those goods which are liable to little depreciation at 100 percent and more profit, when there is no particular demand or scarcity of them....
There are, also, various other Negroes in this country, some of whom have been made free for their long service, but their children have remained slaves, though it is contrary to the laws of every people that anyone born of a Christian mother should be a slave and be compelled to remain in servitude.
Collections of the New-York Historical Society, 2nd series, Vol. II, NY, 1849, 288-321
Source: Collections of the New York Historical Society, 2nd series, (New York: Macmillan, 1849) Vol. II, pp. 288-321.
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