Tuesday, November 24, 2009
A rose among thorns: The legacy of Dutch rule in America
The First Church in Albany was founded in 1642. The chancel of that church contains the seventeenth century pulpit and the hour glass that the pastors, who were called “Dominies” used to time their sermons. On the wall there appears a seal with these words: “Like a rose among thorns is my love among the daughters.” Those words, from what seventeenth century Calvinists called the book of Canticles, were chosen as a motto because Albany, in those days, was a tiny enclave of European civilization in what was perceived as a vast wilderness. The words, of course, are not in English, but in Dutch, a reminder that Albany was part of a Dutch colony, which made New York different in important ways from the other twelve original colonies. That fact had consequences for the state, and even for the nation that it became a part of. My purpose tonight is to explore those differences and how they came about.
The first step in understanding this is to review the history of England and the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. The political and religious aspects of that history were so deeply intertwined as to be almost the same thing. Elizabeth I, who had restored the Anglican church in England, died in 1603, and her successor, James I continued this tradition. The Anglican church in those days followed most of the rite and ritual of the Roman Catholic church, rejecting only the authority of the pope.
The Netherlands, along with a good deal of the rest of western Europe, were a part of the Hapsburg empire in the sixteenth century, ruled from Spain. In 1568, a revolt led by William of Orange broke out, and by 1579, the seven northern provinces, of which Holland was the largest, formed a union called the United Provinces of the Netherlands. The government of this new nation was a republic, an unusual form in the sixteenth century. This republic, while nominally Roman Catholic was tolerant of all religions, and this resulted in a huge influx of Calvinist and Lutheran believers, who were generally not welcome in those provinces that remained under Spanish rule.
Foreign trade was beginning to be an immense source of wealth in this era. Often, it was undertaken by private companies who received extremely valuable monopoly rights from the government. In the Netherlands, the Dutch East India Company owned the exclusive right to Asian trade, including the Dutch outpost of Batavia, as it was then called (Jakarta today). Fur trading was important to the English, and they had chartered the Muscovy Company, with exclusive rights to Russian trade.
Henry Hudson was an English gentleman adventurer who fancied that he might add his name to those of Magellan, DaGama and Columbus. With that thought in mind, he approached the Muscovy Company about the possibility of an exploratory voyage to find an easier sea route to Asia than the long voyage around the Cape of Good Hope. Residents of northern Scandinavia were certainly aware that the climate became colder as one went farther north, but a theory existed in those days that the north pole, since it received six solid months of sunlight, must be quite tropical in late summer. Thus, there were those who believed that after a certain point, the weather got warmer in late summer as you sailed North. In 1607, Hudson was successful in convincing the Muscovy Company to back a voyage around Scandinavia and Russia to the east using their ship, the Hopewell. He actually got within 600 miles of the north pole before he (wisely) turned back. He even convinced the Company to back a second voyage in the Hopewell the following summer. This trip too was, of course, unsuccessful.
The Muscovy Company did not allow Hudson a third voyage. Almost as soon as he was refused a third voyage by that company, he was approached by the Dutch East India Company to undertake a voyage on their behalf. (Apparently, adventurers willing to do such things were in short supply. Besides, Hudson had more experience than anyone else they could have approached.) So Hudson sailed for Amsterdam in the late autumn of 1608 to meet with the directors of the Dutch East India Company.
In the spring of 1609, Hudson set sail again in a new ship, the 85-foot Halve Maen (Half Moon), purchased and owned by the Dutch East India Company. His instructions from the Company were to once again explore the route around Scandinavia. Having failed twice at that, Hudson probably urged them to try the route to the west, but they were insistent. Fortunately for posterity, Hudson completely ignored instructions and set out to the west. In those days, the coast of what is today the United States was largely unexplored, and of course the full size of the North American continent was unknown. Hudson actually believed that there might be a route to Asia through what we now know is a 3000 mile wide continent. Therefore, he sailed directly for Newfoundland and turned south.
He got as far south as Chesapeake Bay, which he recognized as the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, headed by his friend John Smith. But since he was sailing for a Dutch concern, he did not think it appropriate to visit an English settlement, and headed back north, where he became the first European to sail into Delaware Bay. Here he encountered shoals and sand bars, and decided this could not possibly be the way to Asia. So he headed north again.
This time, he found a more promising spot. Entering New York Harbor, he anchored and went ashore. People appeared. The story entered the legend of the Delaware Indians that “something like a house” had appeared on the water, with men in it. Hudson recorded that this was “a fair harbor for all winds”. This passage was deep and navigable. Could this be the passage to Asia? The Hudson River is level and tidal to about ten miles above Albany, and offers a deep channel all the way. Hudson sailed as far north as he could, and sent out scouts to explore the area. But it was October, and time to turn back. Unfortunately, he did not return directly to Amsterdam, but put in to Dartmouth, England. There, his ship was seized by the maritime authority.
We can only imagine how this news was received by the Dutch East India Company. Not only had he ignored their instructions to sail northeast, but he had managed to place their ship in the hands of a foreign government. But they made the best of it. They had been hoping for some time to secure some rights to the fur trade on the North American continent, and this placed it in their hands. They began planning how to exploit this opportunity. (By the way, they got their ship back, a year later. In that year, Hudson sailed again in a different ship, this time with English sponsors, and lost his life when abandoned by his crew in the bay that bears his name in Northern Canada.)
The Netherlands, in the early seventeenth century, had a form of government that was unique to Europe. It was a republic. There was no king, no dictator. There were nobility, but they held no governing power. Power was vested in the States-General, a sort of congress where each state held one vote. It is hard to say whether the feelings of the Dutch at the time led to this form of government, or vice versa, but nevertheless Dutch society in general, and Amsterdam in particular, was very open and liberal at the time. It became a haven for all the religious refugees of the continent, especially the Calvinist Walloons, who were welcomed neither in Catholic France or Lutheran Germany. It was no coincidence that the Puritans who settled in Plymouth came there from the Netherlands. It was the only country allowing anything close to religious freedom.
In 1610, the year after Hudson’s discovery, a small band of Dutch adventurers, led by Captain Adrian Block crossed the Atlantic to establish fur trading with the Indians in the area that came to be known as New Netherland. This wasn’t so much a colony as a beachhead, since none of them expected to stay permanently, but it was a beginning. This was strictly a business enterprise. The closest modern comparison would be the offshore oil drilling rigs.
In 1614, the States-General chartered the New Netherland Company, primarily to exploit the fur trade, which was becoming lucrative, and in 1623 this was replaced by the well capitalized Dutch West India Company. The Dutch West India Company actually began colonization of New Netherland, but it wasn’t easy to find colonists. Amsterdam, and the Netherlands in general was a wonderful place to live in those days, and there was not a lot of appeal to living on the other side of a great ocean, far from civilization. The Dutch West India Company finally rounded up thirty families – mostly French speaking Belgians known as “Walloons”, who were willing to undertake colonization. Eight of the families stayed at the southern end of the Dutch settlement (i. e. in Manhattan) and the others traveled up the river to the beaver trading post at Fort Orange. (today called Albany)
The directors of the Dutch West India Company were really not satisfied with this first group of colonists. They weren’t Dutch, and they wanted this to be a Dutch colony. So in 1628, they decided to offer an incentive to anyone willing to start a colony of at least 50 people – naming them a patroon, beneficiary of huge land grants to be known as “patroonships”. .
The first to step forward was Kiliaen van Rensselaer, one of the directors of the Company. In fact, he may have been the one proposing the land grants. He certainly was a strong supporter. Van Rensselaer had been born in 1580, and by 1628 was a well established diamond and pearl merchant in Amsterdam. He was also a very civic minded individual. He chose for his land the area around the northern fur trading outpost and then set out to enlarge his holding by treaties with the Indians. He wound up with most of what is today Albany and Rensselaer counties – a total of about 700,000 acres. The beaver trading post established on the Hudson had been known as Beverwyck, and the Patroonship was called Rensselaerwyck. Protecting both was the Dutch military out post Fort Orange
Kiliaen was the first patroon, and the only patroon of Rensselaerwyck who never visited the new world, relying instead on agents to exercise control of his patroonship. While most of the directors of the company were focused on short term profits from the fur trade, van Rensselaer quite rightly realized that there was much more potential for profit in a strong farming economy in the new colony, and set to work to establish that. Recruiting colonists was difficult. Each potential colonist was offered a contract. In return for agreeing to stay at least three years, he and his family were given passage to America, and rights to land for which he would pay a rent based on the amount produced.
But recruiting went slowly, and even when families could be found who were willing to give colonization a try, many did not stay past the required three years. Fewer than two hundred people had settled in Rensselaerwyck in its first fourteen years, and by 1641, only about one hundred remained. Several things took place about this time that had a material effect on the colony.
The first thing that happened in 1640 was that the directors of the Dutch West India Company decided to relinquish their trade monopoly in the port of New Amsterdam, and declared it a free port. The effect was electric. Anyone in Amsterdam who was willing to brave an ocean voyage could become a trader. This vastly increased the traffic to the New Netherland colony, and not just among the Dutch. Ships of all nations were free to trade.
The second important event of 1640 resulted from a letter that Adrian van der Donck, a young lawyer in Leiden sent to van Rensselaer inquiring about an administrative post in Rensselaerwyck. Leiden at the time was perhaps the most cosmopolitan and tolerant city in Europe. We New Englanders recall that it was home for many years to the English Puritans who later settled in Plymouth. Van Rensselaer appointed van der Donck to the post of “Schout”, an office that combined the duties of sheriff and administrator.
Any jurisdiction profits immensely from having law enforcement that is fair, diligent and intelligent, and van der Donk was all of these. Colonists began to pour into Rensselaerwyck, and among them was Reverend Johannes Megapolensis, who became dominie of the First Church of Albany. Megapolensis was at first tolerant of all religions, and even helped Roman Catholic priests escape from the Mohawks. Later, he was persuaded by Peter Stuyvesant, governor of the New Amsterdam colony, to allow no public worship except Dutch Calvinist, but by then the settlement had substantial numbers of German Lutherans, Anglicans, and even Roman Catholics.
All of this fit well with van der Donck’s views. He had absorbed the spirit of Leiden during his years there, and he found that he loved the new world. Unfortunately, he became so enamored of the area that he began attempting to acquire large tracts of land for himself. This did not fit well with van Rensselaer’s ideas of best behavior for his Schout. He was fired, but did eventually succeed in acquiring a very large tract of land a few miles north of Manhattan. He had become known as “The Yonker” which translates as the young squire, and of course his land holdings were referred to as Yonkers.
Historians sometimes make their points by emphasizing only those events that fit their thesis. I would prefer not to do that. It’s true the Dutch colonies were more diverse than some of the others. And they had a mother country that was a republic in government, and tolerant of different religions. But, it was the seventeenth century. No one had yet even had the thought, let alone expressed it, that all men were created equal, or endowed with any rights other than what they could seize on their own. The Dutch colonies tolerated slavery, as well as indentured servitude, because it was accepted in the seventeenth century.
In analyzing the events in the European outposts in the new world during the seventeenth century, we need to keep in mind what was going on in the old. In England, the monarchy had been overthrown, and the country was ruled by parliament. This led to an enormous growth in the English colonies, as political and religious refugees poured in. And England was suddenly in the hands of the Calvinist Puritans who had been outlawed only a few years before.
We who live in a culture where religious tolerance is both law and custom may find it difficult to realize what a rare thing this is in human history. Most cultures permit (at most) only freedom of conscience, that is, allowing individuals to believe as they wish, but not advocate for their non-conforming religion. The book of Deuteronomy prescribes the death penalty to Israelites who advocate other gods.
It would also be wrong to say that only in the Dutch colonies was there religious tolerance. After all, the Rhode Island colony was founded by religious dissidents. Roger Williams felt free to follow his Baptist beliefs in Providence, and William Codington and my own ancestor Nicholas Easton practiced as Quakers in Newport. Anne Hutchinson had her own religious views that fit no organized church. And it is no coincidence that first Jewish congregation on this continent was located in Newport.
As most of us know, Dutch rule ceased in 1664, accomplished by the arrival of four battleships in New Amsterdam harbor. This was effective because Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch Governor, thought England and the Netherlands were at peace at the time. But the English rule that replaced it was much different than that under which the earlier English colonies had been founded, and not all that different from the Dutch rule that preceded it. Charles II had been restored to the throne, but realized he had to listen to the will of Parliament. And he walked a narrow tightrope on the religious issue, tolerating much more diversity than some earlier monarchs. Also, it would have been all but impossible to enforce the Anglican Church in the colony, since only a tiny minority were adherents to that faith. Most of the colony still spoke Dutch in 1664, and over half followed the Calvinist Dutch Reformed tradition, with German and Scandinavian Lutherans a close second.
King Charles assigned the newly seized colonies to his brother James (who later became King James II) who was Duke of York and Albany, and New Amsterdam and Beverwyck were renamed after his British Duchy. Unfortunately, James II did not prove to be as able at compromise as his brother, and was deposed in 1689 by William of Orange (a Dutchman whose mother was the sister of James II, and whose wife was his daughter).
In the new world, the Dutch customs and even some of the laws remained in place. Dutch inheritance laws were followed well into the eighteenth century, not English, and the great Manor of Rensselaerwyck remained in the hands of the van Rensselaer patroons even after the colonies became independent. The great saga of the anti-rent wars that took place in Albany and Rensselaer counties during the 1840’s could form the basis of another paper. And the tradition of religious tolerance that grew out of the Dutch heritage helped to light the sparks that inspired the founders of our nation.