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Slavery in New Netherlands according to its apologists

The United States Census of 1790 was the first census conducted in the United States. It recorded the population of the United States as of Census Day, August 2, 1790, as mandated by Article I, Section 2 of the United States Constitution and applicable laws.

District Free white males of 16 years and upward, including heads of families. Free white males under 16 years. Free white females, including heads of families. All other free persons. Slaves. Total.
Vermont 22,435 22,328 40,505 255 16a[›] 85,539 b[›]
New Hampshire 36,086 34,851 70,160 47 1 2
Maine 24,384 24,748 46,870 538 None 96,540
Massachusetts 95,453 87,289 190,582 5,463 None 378,787
Rhode Island 16,019 15,799 32,652 3,407 948 68,825
Connecticut 60,523 54,403 117,448 2,808 2,764 237,946
New York 83,700 78,122 152,320 4,654 21,324 340,120
New Jersey 45,251 41,416 83,287 2,762 11,423 184,139
Pennsylvania 110,788 106,948 206,363 6,537 3,737 434,373
Delaware 11,783 12,143 22,384 3,899 8,887 59,094c[›]
Maryland 55,915 51,339 101,395 8,043 103,036 319,728
Virginia 110,936 116,135 215,046 12,866 292,627 747,610
Kentucky 15,154 17,057 28,922 114 12,430 73,677
North Carolina 69,988 77,506 140,710 4,975 100,572 393,751
South Carolina 35,576 37,722 66,880 1,801 107,094 249,073
Georgia 13,103 14,044 25,739 398 29,264 82,548
Total 807,094 791,850 1,541,263 59,150 694,280 3,893,635


Based on these 1790 census figures it becomes apparent that the new nation had a range of slave holding patterns.  Slaves averaged 35% of the population in the southern states .  Kentucky and Delaware had 17% and 15% slaves respectively.  In New York and New Jersey 6% of the population were slaves.  Rhode Island, Connecticut and Pennsylvania averaged 1%.  And there were no slaves in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts:


South Carolina 43.00%
Virginia 39.14%
Georgia 35.45%
Maryland 32.23%
North Carolina 25.54%
Kentucky 16.87%
Delaware 15.04%
New York 6.27%
New Jersey 6.20%
Rhode Island 1.38%
Connecticut 1.16%
Pennsylvania 0.86%
Vermont 0.00%
New Hampshire 0.00%
Maine 0.00%
Massachusetts 0.00
 

Turning now to the particulars of my grandmother Dorothy Womack's ancestors:  among the Schermerhorns listed in the census of 1790 an initial search has found that the typical Schermerhorn family in the Schenectady, New York area held 6 black slaves with some having only one and one having 8.
[http://www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/decennial/1790.html]

Slavery was in force in the early times, practiced by the Dutch colonists as far back as 1626, when the first cargo of 11 Africans was unloaded by the Dutch West India Company. Slavery continued until 1824, when all slaves in New York were emancipated.

  • The company had been founded in 1621, and it "operated both as a commercial company and as a military institution with quasi-statelike powers." 
  • The company had tried its colonial experiment of New Netherland at first with agricultural laborers from Holland, but this plan went nowhere. Most of the Dutch who came to America sought to pile up money in the lucrative fur trade and then hurry back to the comforts of Holland to enjoy their wealth.
  • The company increasingly turned to slaves, which it already was importing in vast numbers to its Caribbean colonies.  From the 1630s to the 1650s, the WIC "was unquestionably the dominant European slave trader in Africa." 



Initially all slaves in New Netherland were company owned.  The policy was liberalized to allow colonists to own slaves in order to promote agricultural development.

  • Private settlers faced an acute shortage of agricultural labor that was retarding the colony. A company audit report noted that, "New Netherland would by slave labor be more extensively cultivated than it has hitherto been, because the agricultural laborers, who are conveyed thither at great expense to the colonists sooner or later apply themselves to trade, and neglect agriculture altogether." 
  • The company was willing to forego profit for the sake of spreading slavery in New Netherlands and getting the colony settled. It even allowed private owners to exchange slaves they were dissatisfied with for company slaves.
  • The West India Company had been subsidizing slavery in New Netherland roughly 10 percent over what they would have brought in the plantation colonies, to promote its economic progress. As a result, the steady flow from various sources allowed the colony to stabilize and, by 1640, to expand its agricultural output.
  • "Slavery helped to prepare the way for this transition by providing the labor which made farming attractive and profitable to the settlers. Slave labor was especially important in the agricultural development of the Hudson Valley, where an acute scarcity of free workers prevailed."   The Hudson Valley, where the land was monopolized in huge patroon estates that discouraged free immigration, especially relied on slaves.
    When compared to the chattel system of plantation labor in the south, it was not the Dutch colonists' habit to maintain large numbers of slaves. The wealthy landowners would hold ten to fifteen, though the most wealthy families, such as the Livingstons, held three or four times as many. 


Initially slaves were imported from Angola.  Soon, however, the trade shifted to the Southern Carribean.

  • When the West India Company initially relaxed its monopoly, they allowed New Netherlanders to trade their produce to Angola and "to convey Negroes back home to be employed in the cultivation of their lands."
  • Only a trickle of slaves flowed into New Netherland from Angola; the colonists found the Africans "proud and treacherous," and preferred to seek "seasoned" slaves from the West Indies, specifically Curaçao. In addition to those they bought from the West Indies, Dutch settlers bought slaves seized by privateers from Spanish ships


Slaves built the infrastructure of New York and were an important source of labor on Dutch farms.

The Dutch West India Company imported slaves to New Netherland to clear the forests, lay roads, build houses and public buildings, and grow food. It was company-owned slave labor that laid the foundations of modern New York, built its fortifications, and made agriculture flourish in the colony so that later white immigrants had an incentive to turn from fur trapping to farming. 

The apologists for Dutch slave-holding practices argue that the slaves were well taken care of, and, comparatively speaking, some even claim that slaves lived “as well as their masters”. 

  • The children of Dutch owned slaves were baptized in the churches just the same as those of the white people, and they were brought up “in good habits and with good care”. 
  • Free blacks in New Netherland were trusted to serve in the militias, and slaves, given arms, helped to defend the settlement during the desperate Indian war of 1641-44. 
  • Slaves were used to put down the Rensselaerswyck revolt of white tenants. 
  • Blacks and whites had coequal standing in the colonial courts, and free blacks were allowed to own property (Jews, however, were not). 
  • Blacks intermarried freely with whites and in some cases owned white indentured servants.ii
  • Slaves were always allowed to be present at weddings and festivities of like character.
  • Dutch slaves were deemed attached to the families they served, as a rule, and took pride in their
    names, which they adopted from their masters, and sometimes, as may be imagined these were of much length. It was not unusual in the 1900s for the Blacks in New York to have a Dutch name.


Slaves who had worked diligently for the company for a certain length of time were granted a "half-freedom". 

  • Half-freedom allowed slaves liberty in exchange for an annual tribute to the company and a promise to work at certain times on company projects such as fortifications or public works.
  • Individual slaveowners, such as Director General Peter Stuyvesant, adopted this system as well, and it enabled them to be free of the cost and nuisance of owning slaves year-round that they could only use in certain seasons.
  • For the slaves, half-freedom was better than none at all.  

The purely economic status of slaves in New Netherland contrasted with the malignant and sometimes bizarre racism of the religious British citizens who followed the Dutch into the north Atlantic colonies.

  • Under the English, enslaved Africans continued to be used as farm labor, although never to the extent as in the South. Ultimately, most slaves in the colony of New York lived in New York City where they worked as servants or for craftsmen.i
  • Whereas the Dutch had used slavery as part of their colonial policy, the British used the colony as a market for slaves. "The Duke's representatives in New York -- governors, councilors, and customs officials -- were instructed to promote the importation of slaves by every possible means."iii
     
  • After 1682, as the number of slaves rose (in many places more rapidly than the white population) fears of insurrection mounted, restrictions were applied, and public controls began to be enacted. It became illegal for more than three slaves to meet together on their own time and to ensure enforcement each town was required to appoint a "Negro Whipper" to flog violators.
  • Under English rule, Negroes were convicted in the New York colonial courts on nothing more than heresay.  Free blacks lived in New York at risk of enslavement. The colonial courts ruled that if a white person claimed his black employee was a slave, the burden was on the black person to prove he was. not. Local authorities had all but unlimited power in such cases.
     
  • In 1712, some slaves in New York City rose up in a crude rebellion that was led by African-born slaves, who decided death was preferable to life in bondage. A special court convened by the governor made short work of the rebels. The slaves were burned alive, racked and broken on the wheel, and gibbeted alive in chains. 


So while we have no record of Dorothy Womack’s Schermerhorn family perpetrating the types of abuses described above the fact that they practiced slave ownership and inheritance remain as facts.  The extent to which this applied to Dorothy’s direct forbearers remains to be discovered.  The extent to which we have mixed race cousins from this period also remains unknown, but clearly this would be plausible.  It becomes a matter of profound interest to examine how the family’s values migrated over time, from acceptance and practice of slavery to abolitionist views and then later an emphasis on civil rights and now a central value placed on social justice, celebrating diversity and practicing respect for all cultures, communities and people.

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