In the coming months, this blog-site will present novel and unconventional editorial views, and continued historical meanderings of Editor George Brown. Contributions will also be welcomed from all other seekers of truth,--in this world, and any others. Some levels of alternative health information will be offered to to readers; along with photos, poems, puzzles, found to be spiritually beneficial. WELCOME TO ALL; WE COME IN PEACE. GB

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

THE BLACK COMMUNITY OF THE OLD DUTCH NEW AMSTERDAM COLONY: HARLEM BEFORE SLAVERY by George Brown

The Black Community of the Old Dutch New Amsterdam Colony: Harlem before Slavery
By George Brown

In our present age, racial profiling, discriminatory economic planning, and disparaging—or patronizing attitudes from our ruling elite-- leave no question that Harlem is currently considered a Black neighborhood. However even those of us “educated” in this City were taught that the majority of Harlem Black folks arrived here after the second World War—reportedly, when upwardly mobile white Jews were no longer interested in the territory!

However, there are indications to the contrary.

In November of 1996, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani officiated at the groundbreaking ceremony of the newly commissioned Police Service Area #6, on 148th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, in Harlem.

Weeks after the Mayors’ ceremony, which also included William Bratton, at that time the City’s Police Chief and erstwhile Housing Commissioner Ruben Franco, bulldozers and steam shovels, continued to excavate the site. As the winter continued, it became obvious to Harlem pedestrians that the project was more extensive than the sinking of an ordinary foundation. Work crews became large and specialized, as pilings, poured concrete; and extensive wooden retaining structures, were set into the walls of this excavation. Continued sandbagging of work areas, and hurried elevation of equipment suggested that engineers for this project were not prepared for these conditions.

Despite their activity, however, moving water continued rising to fill the bottom, ebbing, and flowing, not surprisingly, in exact synchronicity with the tidal movement of the Harlem River, one hundred yards to the East of the structure.

Some initial library research showed this area had once been a wetland marsh adjacent to the river. The excavation itself exposed remnants of buildings, however, below the originally exposed terrain, with bricked and boarded up doors, and windows, sixty feet below ground level. These structures extended to the bottom of the excavation along its Eastern perimeter, where large diesel pumps, and earth-movers, were employed to put a definitive end to their brief restoration. Stratified retaining walls, made of flagstone, or slate, were also exposed on the northern edges of the construction area. These suggested watercourse spillways, and terraced land conservation techniques, common both in below-sea -level Holland, and in northwestern Africa, were implemented in this tiny community; about six miles above where we were taught the original Dutch Colonial settlers lived.

Westward from the Police Service Area site, moreover, across Frederick Douglass Boulevard, at 146th Street, the ongoing “upgrading” of old Bradhurst Avenue luxury tenements exposed more old brick structures, buried, or attached to contemporary foundations, all found below the present street levels. Notably, these small buildings, with squarely constructed brickwork walls, and arched doorframes, looked like the “Old Dutch” dwellings our grade-school teachers told us existed in New Amsterdam. However, we were also informed that these were clustered along the Old New Amsterdam Canal, which now serves as the large commercial street by this name, which divides both China Town, and Little Italy, from the Holland Tunnel Entry.

Returning to our research in Harlem, however, Historical and Geological information at the Donnel Library reported that excavated sand and mud from mid-eighteenth century College, and Subway Tunnel constructions, along the crest of the Morningside Heights palisade wall, caused massive soil erosion and displacement, at that time. Hence, the sandy submersion of old buildings along the bank of the Harlem River suggests that two hundred years ago, or more, these clustered buildings were a riverside “suburb” of the old Dutch West India Company Colony.

Notably, of course, the soft, sandy deposit over the current face of this area gave present-day residents little reason to suppose that any submerged “historical” architecture was to be found beneath the contemporary, storefronts and tenements known to be characteristic of this neighborhood. With the usual indifference to “the man’s” take on history, however, many older Harlemites will discuss manifestly documented, political, ethnic, and cultural events, and issues in their uptown neighborhood that well pre-date the post World War II exodus of clustered White European Jews from Upper Broadway, and Park side properties along the route of the M10 bus.

Most amazing about all this excavated history, however, was the fact that once the “hidden architecture” of Harlem was inadvertently EXPOSED, nobody cared. Not librarians, Politicians, nor even alleged historians. So I felt like the proverbial lone lunatic, trying to get someone’s attention, while bulldozers continued to smash and bury these incredible old remnants of a 17th Century Colonial City that supposedly had Canal Street as its northern border. Old ruins, a city within a city, old technology: No headlines, no archeologists! This lead me to my very extended personal investigation of the hidden, and the obvious!

Not surprisingly, at the time all this excavation proceeded, a trip to the Shomburg Library disclosed early colonial records, noting that the lowland area we now call Central Harlem, was, demonstrably inhabited when the Dutch lived here. Oddly, however, this material is not mentioned when we read about our City’s history in elementary school.

Records of the time show there were a number of transitional Dutch and English estates in the area. A comprehensive study of the area in pre-Revolutionary times by African-American history scholar Graham Russell Hodges, called Root and Branch of African Americans in New York & East Jersey, 1613-1863, records information that a “Black community had already been established north of “Fresh Water Pond” [presently in the northern end of Central Park] beginning in 1644.

However, there appears to be no other mention of this demographic information in any other textbook source. The Encyclopedia of Black America, a mainstream publication by McGraw Hill, notes, rather deliberately, in its 1981 edition, that “ no New York Blacks resided above 110th Street before 1900.” Similarly, the Encyclopedia of New York City, published in 1995 by the Yale University Press, attributes all Black interest in Harlem to the writings of homosexual nightlife enthusiast of the 1940’s, Carl Van Vechten!

Despite these obtuse determinations, however, an original post- Colonial map of the area by cartographer John Hills, drawn in 1778, and archived at the New York Historical Society, gives the contemporary localities of the hills, creeks, and roadways, in the area—some corresponding with present day Bradhurst, Seventh, and Amsterdam Avenues. Hills’ map notes that the generally wooded region was divided into the estates of prominent Colonial principals including Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant, and American entrepreneur, Lewis Morris.

According to classical Black historian Roi Ottley, author of The Negro in New York, (Oceana Publications N.Y; w. William J. Weatherby, 1967) there were Black crewmen sailing with New York “discoverer” Henry Hudson; and, there were eleven “free Negroes” recorded among the first group of Dutch settlers.

According to these authors, the changing character of Colonial ownership preceding the Revolutionary War, and the primitive nature of the northern territory, caused attempted uptown “plantations” to become marginal and impermanent enterprises. Hence the region, called “Haarlem” by Dutch Governor, Peter Stuyvesant, popularly named Northern Manhattan, was known to be sparsely populated by a handful maverick Settlers, likely to have been tenant farmers, freelance “Indian- fighters,” and mercenary laborers and adventurers.

Notably historians do not appear to have great disagreement about these facts, although the history of this part of the old settlement seems not to be broadly discussed. Noting that the area under consideration is, however, the place we now call Harlem, the ethnicity of these hardy non-conformists appears to be a subject that polite historians did not discuss at all!

Of course, it was not at all a secret that officially recorded documentation of the arrival, in 1621, of the chartered colonists of the Dutch West India Company, in New Amsterdam, included the embarkation of “eleven Black Africans,“ to “serve as the Company’s Negroes.” Public television now documents this abundantly. Interestingly too, this odd ethnic expression, albeit weird,, by present standards, did not state, or imply, chattel slavery, auctionable status, or bondage, -- as this sort of language applied to other colonies!

Therefore, leaving aside the linguistic riddle, of how a human being could “serve as” a Negro; documents of the time also suggest that status differences, which existed, in those days, between the Dutch Burghers, and other indentured participants in the Colonial enterprise, were ambiguously defined.

According to Mr. Ottley, the entire colony was defined as a “business entity,“ empowered by the West India Company for “profitable activities and trade.” Peter Minuet, the first Dutch Governor, was reported to have stated this proposition. Hence, everyone there was, in some degree, and employee of the Company. The concept of servitude, therefore, remained relative. On the one hand, however, it appeared, as it does in our own world, that some of the better jobs were reserved for white people. But on the other, historical material of the fourth and fifth decade of the Colony show Colonial individuals for example, named Anthony, to be serving as Constables, and Court officers.

Notably the lineage, and ethnic identities of these persons are not detailed. Within the original documents of the first arrived Colonials, however, tax records, marriage documents, etc, showed person of this surname to be descendants of Domingo Anthony , an original indentured “Negro.” Obviously, though, since there were not clearly designated “slaves,” in the Dutch Colony, records are simply not as specifically annotated in this regard, as they might be in Virginia. Most tantalizing, in this regard are reports of families, and individuals with relatively “Dutch” names, who are clearly described as free-holders, in some contexts, but in some generations, identified as “Negroes.” Particularly irritating, in this regard, for example, is an infrequently mentioned Black family alternately known as Mathias, Matys, and Matysen.

Given the possibly Semitic, or Biblical, derivation of this name, and the fact that these settlers were NOT on the original boat, for example, one could suppose that early mentions of Negro, Anthony Mathias, may have referred to a Moorish, (or Jewish) relative, or in-law, of the established Anthony family. Moreover, it was common for the Dutch suffix, “son,” or “sen,” to have referred to offspring, in the Colony. Hence we know that the judicially famous Emmanuel Pieterson was the biological offspring of another famous Black Colonial named Pieter, who may have been the Colony’s Hangman. Records support this.

As noted, however, these variable linguistic rules defy consistent application, or reliability. Moreover, the recording of detailed family histories became less relevant to Colonial records as time advanced. Hence, a recorded notation of the appointment of a “Nielis Matysen” to a significant Colonial position by the New Amsterdam Burghers on June on June 21, 1666, may or may not have had relevance to the annals of American Black History. Since Matysen was appointed as the “Overseer of Haarlem,” however, the ambiguity of this matter continues to be irremediably frustrating!

Explicitly, however, the Colony was stated to be “unconcerned” with legislating morality, racial attitudes, or long-term economic, or political prototypes. Judging by their actual acceptance of many known blacks in the colony, in fact, the Dutch people were generally humane. Considering themselves to be employees, and functionaries of the West India Company, moreover, they were not trying to organize a political state, or a broadly based economic system. Hence it is also widely reported that the Dutch Government, such as it was, and the Colonial courts, were distinguished by frivolity, disorganization, and on-site alcohol.

Having experienced relative freedom under the liberal, and judicially imprecise Dutch, however, land-owning Blacks, freed slaves, and unregistered runaways, in this city developed an M-O of well-organized insurrection, later on in the City’s history, against the repressive chattel slavery edicts of the British, and their newly enfranchised slave masters, between 1664, and the early 19th Century. As noted, this developed more intensely as the New Colonial Government to impose more uniform proprietary labor, and politically related, segregationist ideology!

During the Dutch period, however, many recorded transactions between the colonists, and their “Parent “ Company in Holland, related to the insufficiency of the Colonists’ organizational “procedures.’ Slavery was consequently among the “Management’s” frequently noted grievances concerning insufficiently addressed protocols! Hence, it is widely reported that “Africans” were initially privileged to negotiate their wages as carpenters, masons, road builders, and ship-builders, because many of them came to the Settlement with these from commercially active regions in the Homeland. (Ottley98, and Weatherby, Chaps., 1-3; Professor Hodges, Root, and Branch, etc., pg. 100-150) The material value of these services gained a consensus, moreover, in this Colony, that such workers needed to be paid equitably. Seemingly, pragmatic considerations ultimately fostered Dutch Colonial jurisprudence.

Similarly, landholding, or employed Africans-- who had purchased or litigated their freedom, under these “equitable” rules of indenture, were also able to argue against the Company’s determination that their offspring should revert to bondage. The final “ruling,” from the Burghers, in this matter, in 1644, was that “manumitted” or freed Africans, could retain their status as laborers, and freeholders-- in consideration of an annual tax-payment amounting to 22 ½ bushels of grain, and pork. (Ottley, Hodges, etc.)

Absurdly, however, the West India Company’s elders also ruled that only a representative “proportion” of free-born children would be included in this judgment. Typically, however, there is no recorded indication that any agency, or structure, was created to enforce this arbitrary determination.

CENSUS ACCOUNTS AND PROPERTY RECORDS OF THE ACTUAL NAMES AND NUMBERS, AND LOCALITIES OF COLONIAL BLACKS THEREFORE REMAINED INSUBSTANTIAL AND CONTROVERTABLE., DURING THIS ERA.

MOREOVER, THE OUTLYING “METROPOLITAN” BOROUGHS WERE NOT INCLUDED IN THE JURISDICTION OF THE DUTCH COLONY.

Hence, these localities REMAINED, politically independent of the later incorporated entity of “NEW YORK CITY” until late in the 19th Century. Some local neighborhoods, in fact were not absorbed into the New York City Metropolis until after the First World War. HENCE THE PASSAGE OF FREED, OR BONDED “NEGRO” FAMILIES IN ANY METROPOLITAN AREAS, AND/OR THEIR ACQUISITION OF RESIDENTIAL PROPERTY, AND/OR BUSINESS HOLDINGS, --REMAINED LARGELY UNDOCUMENTED.

It is recorded, however, that violent insurrections, absconded Africans, and seemingly racial disputes begin after this period of “freeholder” taxation. Schizophrenia being the operative mindset in Slave-Holding America, as it frequently remains today, it is also recorded that outstanding service by Blacks, as scientists, and Indian fighters,-- in warfare occurring between 1640 and 1656, brought individually mandated freedom to those who distinguished themselves.

The names of some of the original Black settlers are recorded, --although not necessarily all their family members. These were Paul D’ Angola, Simon Congo, Anthony Portuguese, and John Francisco, whose family properties are recorded in the traditional Greenwich Village area; Domingo Antony, and original land holder; and a family called D’Antonis, possibly his offspring, indentured to Martin Crieger-- often accused of “mismanagement” of his servants, and domestic “irresponsibility.”

Others we know of, include “Peter” the Colonial Hangman, “Charlie,” a popular musician, and the legendary Emanuel Pieterson, who was granted both legal adoptive status, and later, a legal marriage contract by the Colonial Court.

As the personality and style of the original settlement became larger and more organized, however, the connecting names, and situations, of known Blacks became less apparent. Forty -two years after the original settlers arrived, a colonial census of 1663 recorded the presence of 1500 Whites, and “several hundred” Blacks. In 1647, in two separate legal cases, the characteristic Dutch flair for ineptitude turned against Black Dutchmen with uniform vengeance.

Freeborn laborer Anthony Jansen Van de Vaes was consequently “exiled” from the colony, as the outcome of several linked court cases for non-payment of a debt. “Sentenced” to exclusion in Brooklyn, however, without the mandated vigilance of a coherent Police Force, or Probation Service, it was also reported that deVaes moved his family back to “Haarlem.” Providently, he was never apprehended. ( Hodges, pp. 10-13.) By the time the British demanded the Dutch surrender, in 1664, however, whatever affinity, or amnesty existed between Blacks, and white New Yorkers, was purely expedient!

Consequently, “Negroes” were accused of raiding Dutch supplies in the course of the final British invasion of Fort Amsterdam; Newspapers and magistrates appeared to refer to these allegations commonly. However it is not indicated that the Dutch “Authorities” ever made serious inquiries into these “determinations.!”

Having experienced relative freedom under the liberal, and judicially imprecise Dutch, however, land-owning Blacks, freed slaves, and unregistered runaways, in this city developed a history of well-organized insurrection against the repressive slavery edicts of the British, and their newly enfranchised slave masters between 1664, and the early 19th Century. Escalation continued, moreover, as the British Colonists sought to impose “plantation” type employment systems, along with lynchings, and the broad importation of unambiguously designated chattel slaves into less volatile districts of Manhattan, and New York City.

But notably, it is indicated that as this political strain continues to be suggested in the Colonial journals of this period, present-day analysts have also noted the increased mapping of clustered encampments of Black Dwellings at more Northerly reaches of the Colony, including localities at “Hog Island, North on the East River , near Roosevelt Island,” [sic.] (Hodges, p.13) and further North in New Jersey, Dobbs Ferry, and Pelham.

Post Revolutionary era maps of 1778, and later, also show clustered housing in all the uncharted regions of Northern Manhattan and Washington Heights. In addition, a 1626 census of the original Dutch Colony shows 306 Blacks-- 174 males, 132 females. Clearly, these many people were not violently enslaved by these lackadaisical Colonials only five years after their arrival; but unexplainably, the original eleven Black families are abundantly discussed in chronicles of the Sub-Canal Street region, but this booming throng of immigrants is virtually ignored.

Considered the noted role of Blacks in construction, trade, and military employment, however it seems highly unlikely that any significant majority of these people went off to Brooklyn, or disparate wooded areas outside the Colonial center of commerce and transportation within so short a time!

One story relates to a slave holder named Crieger, who was avenged for the murder of a “mulatto girl,” presumed to be Lysbet Antonis, a freed child of African Settlers, with whom he had a history of disputes. Another tells of a Miller name Van Gaetman, who was drowned tied to his own water wheel after some very abusive acts against his labor force became known.


Both legends relate to the insolubility of crimes against errant slave-masters in this vicinity. In both tales, Blacks obstructed investigations by taking collective “responsibility” for these events, so no legal determination could be made as to the specific “perpetrator!” In the case of Lysbet, moreover, there were prior court rulings on the servant-woman’s behalf, which were absurdly evidential in the congenial courts of the Dutch.

Old records, as noted, are very shadowy, but there are indications that one, if not both of these events occurred in the uptown lowlands-- particularly since this seems a highly likely place for a waterwheel than the winding cobblestone alleys of old Greenwich Village. Absolute veracity is not attainable over five hundred years of American History.

However, an additionally curious fact about this whole issue, is, that the U.S. census reports taken between 1935, and the Second World War, report that about 200,000 people lived in Harlem at that time. Given the claim that almost no one lived in this neighborhood one hundred years previously, and, the indisputable fact that five major Black churches, a few Black Mosques, shrines, and Synagogues, and any number of African American Fraternal Organizations arrived in Harlem, at the beginning of the 19th Century, moreover, why would this be the case if there WASN’T a substantial population here of residential Blacks, in the first place?

Copyright George Brown 12/03/00. All rights reserved.