The Story of New Netherland/Chapter 15

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The Story of New Netherland by William Elliot Griffis
Chapter XV: The Fall of New Netherland

NEITHER legitimate trade nor colonization was necessarily the first idea with “John Company.” War, devastation of the Spanish possessions, capture of silver and gold, and traffic in slaves wore their primal objects. Against the pleading of Usselinx, who protested against slavery, these notions, economically false and in the end disastrous, were embodied in the charter. On the seas, and in the West Indies and South America,, this corporation secured its loot and made its greatest conquests. New Netherland was only a by-product. Indeed, if this northern colony had not been at first looked upon chiefly as a station on the way home from Brazil and the Caribbean Sea, it alight never have started.

On the expiration of the Twelve Years’ Truce, before one ship of colonists was dispatched to Manhattan, the first fleet had been sent to South America. The second expedition, in 1624, consisting of twenty-six ships, with five hundred cannon, sixteen hundred sailors and seventeen hundred soldiers, captured Bahia, or San Salvador, the seat of the Portuguese Government. In two years, eighty ships, with fifteen hundred cannon and nine thousand sailors and soldiers, had crossed the Atlantic. Although the Portuguese regained Bahia in 1625, yet in 1627 the Dutch took fifty-five vessels from the enemy, and in 1628 dispatched three great squadrons westward.

One of these, under Piet Heyn, with thirty-one ships, seven hundred cannon, and four thousand men, captured the Spanish “plate” or silver fleet on September 8. The cargo of pearls, gold, silver (140,000 lbs.), indigo, sugar, aromatic woods, and furs was sold at auction for fifteen million guilders, over $15,000,000 in our values, and the West India Company declared a dividend of fifty per cent. Compared with such a prize, New Netherland was more like forgotten Ishmael in the desert than princely Moses exalted among courtiers. Other fleets of privateers brought to the Company’s wharves the next year, 1629, one hundred and four prizes, or what would now be worth $8,000,000, so that dividends of fifty and twenty-five per cent were declared. In 1630 Brazil was taken and occupied. John Maurice, Count of Nassau, whose splendid old home on the Viver, at the Hague, is now a great picture gallery, was Governor-General of Brazil for eight years (1636-44). He brought home a fortune. Compared with the magnificent burglary of war, the settlement of the Hudson River region seemed but a trifle.

All this fighting and robbing, permissible according to the ethos of war, differed from true colonization, which means permanence. Planting a colony with roots was quieter but nobler work. The contrast between “a river of silver a yard deep” flowing into the Company’s coffers from South America and the West Indies, and the slow returns from the colder climates of North America, in furs, fish, and grain, explains why it was that immigrants were hard to obtain for the new colony, and also why the Company neglected New Netherland, and even allowed official oppression. Yet all the more clearly shines the true story of the Dutch in America, which is not that of official figure-heads, but of the “Commonality.” Probably it reveals the reason why the first use of the phrase “the people,” in an American document, occurred in New York State.

This was the trans-Atlantic side of the matter, explaining why New Netherland fell. On American soil troubles were thickening. In 1663, two years after receiving its charter, Wiltwijk suffered the massacre by the Indians, and this seemed the signal for misfortunes to come on the gallop; yet while “John Company” was falling on grief, “Farmer John” was rising to his own. The people’s rights and representatives won. Under the combined pressure of a costly Indian war, invasion by Connecticut trespassers, the revolt of the English villages on Long Island, and an exhausted treasury, the principle of popular representation, despite the arbitrary Stuyvesant, was for the first time fully recognized in the province. The Assembly, elected by plurality vote of the inhabitants of twelve Dutch villages in New Netherland, gathered on Manhattan, April 12, 1664.

It was too late to save either corporation or nationality. The exasperation and weariness induced by the long struggle for their rights had already prepared the people to yield to English rule; but little or nothing was gained in the way of self-government. Within five months the flag of England floated over all New Netherland. Then the people of New York had to wait twenty years before they won back from England, or rather from the Dutch King William III, what they had gained under Stuyvesant.

From the South River, in 1663, the Director hurried back on call to Manhattan, for another Indian outbreak threatened the very existence of the colony. A Dutchman had shot a squaw while she was stealing some peaches in his orchard, and her own tribe quickly roused to vengeance the savages of the New Jersey, Hudson River, and Connecticut regions, to the number of nearly two thousand. From sixty-two war canoes, they landed at night on the nearly defenseless Manhattan, pretending to be looking for Iroquois. After looting several houses, they were persuaded to leave the next night, but not until they had killed the squaw’s murderer and another man. Driven off by the burgher guard from the fort, the paddled over to Pavonia and Hoboken, and began a carnival of murder and fire. Thence going to Staten Island, they ravaged the farms and tomahawked the people, about ninety in number. In three days, five hundred and fifty Dutch settlers wore corpses or captives, or, ruined in estate, were fugitives suffering hunger. The terror-stricken people of Long Island and Esopus crowded into Manhattan, and cowered behind the palisades below what is now Wall Street.

This was the situation when Stuyvesant returned, on October 12. He cheered up the people, strengthened the wooden wall with a platform for soldiers to stand upon while repelling assailants, and impressed all able-bodied men on the ships as guards and soldiers. The Indians felt Stuyvesant’s firm hand, and understood at once with whom they were dealing. The captives were for the most part ransomed, and gradually peace settled down. Stuyvesant laid the blame of this Indian uprising oil a few foolish men, and insisted that the people were too scattered, and that henceforth they should live concentrated in villages.

This Indian calamity, following upon the enormous expense of the South River expedition against the Swedes, helped to seal the fate of New Netherland, which could no longer pay its expenses, while at home the Company was wabbling towards bankruptcy. The Delaware River lands were sold to the city of Amsterdam for seven hundred thousand guilders, or $3,500,000 in present values. This transaction helped a little, but the end was not far off. Peace with Spain in 1648 had crippled the fighting corporation. There were no more Spanish fleets to rob or towns to ravage, and “John Company” was not educated to make money by mere honest trade and peaceful, plodding business.

The deceitfulness and uncertainty as well as the danger of sudden wealth, especially the sort gained in the legalized robbery of war, were never more signally illustrated than in Spain first, and later in Holland. It meant bankruptcy for the West India Company, and for the Low Countries economic anæmia, poverty, and distress, until better ideas prevailed.

Commercial rivalry between the Dutch and English, strained to the breaking point, eventuated in a war for markets and selfish monopoly. The question of ship transportation ruptured the long and close friendship of centuries between Holland and England. The desire for pounds, shillings, and pence being stronger than sentiment, the men that were once brothers in their love of freedom began the slaughter of one another on the seas. The special prize was the Orient and its commerce, New Netherland being only an appendix. Doubtless the affair at Amboyna, in 1623, in which the Dutch and Japanese shed British blood, furnished the pretext. As a rule when war-makers begin their business, ethics is invoked to create enthusiasm, and patriotism is fired by appeals to other motives, even those as low as the market. The Navigation Act of 1651 built a Chinese Wall around England. It required that all merchandise brought into England must be in English ships. This was a severe blow struck at Dutch commerce, for the Dutch were then the common carriers of the world. It was not only the cause of the naval wars of the Dutch (1652-74), but the chief provocation to the American War of Independence in 1775. It created also a spirit of insolence that remained unbroken until the American ship-duels of 1812 tamed the British pride.

The untruthful King, Charles II, was an adept at deception. He knew the weakness of New Netherland, and made ready to swoop upon it. In 1664 he hoodwinked the ambassador of the Dutch Republic in London as to his true purpose .of sending the British warships, in time of peace, on a buccaneering raid upon New Netherland. He did not even keep faith with his brother James, the Duke of York, notwithstanding the adage of “Honor among thieves.” While the fleet was at sea, in order to raise money for his needs, he gave away part of New Netherland, “the Jerseys,” to two of his favorites, Carteret and Berkeley. Charles violated the doctrine laid down by Queen Elizabeth in her theory of title to new lands, that occupation after discovery secures possession.

New Amsterdam was taken at a time when utterly defenseless. There were so few men in it, that even if it had been well fortified, and powder had been plentiful, the defenders would have had to stand twenty-two feet apart in order to man the line of defense. On board several hundred privateers were New Englanders, who had already offered their services freely against the Dutch, while crowds were flocking near on horse and foot ready for loot. The four large royal men-of-war, manned with soldiers and marines, landed their infantry at Gravesend on August 26, 1664. These marched up Long Island, and camped near the ferry opposite the little town which lay below Wall Street on Manhattan Island. On September 4 the frigates, under full sail, moved up and ranged themselves opposite the fort. As many as possible of the cannon on deck were moved over to one side, facing the town, the men “having orders, and intending, if any resistance were offered, to fire a full broadside into this open place, and so to take the city by force, and give up everything to plunder and a blood bath.” So wrote Domine Drisius, eye-witness at the time.

Stuyvesant, in spite of his rage as a soldier, was overruled by cool-headed men. He had to look between the gabions and see the English frigates move up the river, and he yielded. One of the greatest glories of England is her generous treatment of conquered foes. The Dutch secured excellent terms of surrender, and there was no loot. They were to continue free denizens, to keep their private property, and to dispose of it at pleasure. Especially were they to enjoy their own customs concerning inheritances, which were those of a republic, in which all the children received an equal share, and not those of a monarchy, in which the eldest son obtained the entailed property. As yet in New Netherland there was no “aristocratic party,” such as cursed the land in later times; nor, despite Stuyvesant schemes, were class distinctions recognized. In religious matters, Article VIII of the capitulation read, “The Dutch shall enjoy the liberty of their consciences in Divine worship and in Church government.” Men of all creeds had equal rights. In spite of Stuyvesant of mediæval mind, and of English political Churchmen who strove to fasten a state church upon the province, the Dutch were determined to keep religious liberty as sacred as in Holland, and they did. They safeguarded free religion until, in 1777, the Constitution of New York State permitted “the free exercise of religious profession and worship without discrimination or preference of all mankind.”

The morality of the raid of 1664 is forever clear. The revenge of the Dutch came in de Ruyter’s defeat of the English fleet and his foray into the Thames. The Dutch descent upon Chatham gave to England her greatest national humiliation, to be followed a century later by the surrender of two British armies on American soil. In less than four generations of unrest under British rule, the sons of New Netherlanders again dwelt under the old striped flag of the Republic of the United Netherlands, with the stars of new and old statehood, — “Old Glory” epitomizing history and containing prophecy. Of those Dutch who refused to live under such government as the Stuarts were likely to furnish, hundreds of the better sort returned to Patria, or tried new ventures of life and fortune in the West or East Indies, or scattered to other colonies. Not a few emigrated to Virginia and the Carolinas, where in later days we find, besides the names of many able men associated with Lord Baltimore and William Penn, not a few of eminence, like those of van Bibber and van Noppen. Others appear, often in greatly altered forms, which shine in the annals of war and peace.