‘All people shall continue free Denizons’: New Amsterdam becomes New York

22 August 2014

Empire and Globalism | History

A fanciful image of Peter Stuyvesant from the 19th century (though he did have a wooden leg). Image © The Gilder Lehrman Institute. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

 

Visiting New York a few years ago, I decided I wanted to see what remained of the very beginnings of the city: New Amsterdam, the Dutch settlement which was taken over by the English and rechristened after King Charles II’s brother, the Duke of York, in 1664. Sadly for my niche historical interest, the plain truth is that there is nothing to see. New Amsterdam was no more than a large village on the site of what is now Manhattan’s financial district; fires and rebuilding and time have erased it. Later I discovered that Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island have a Dutch farmhouse each.

But though the physical New Amsterdam might have gone, its written record remains. Our forthcoming collection American History, 1493-1945 features many documents relating to the Dutch in North America, among them the agreement under which their last governor, Peter Stuyvesant, surrendered his authority to the English without a shot being fired.

 

The text of the articles of surrender. Image © The Gilder Lehrman Institute. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

 

New Amsterdam was lightly defended, with no proper garrison, and had English settlements to its north and south. The two nations had recently been at war, and were fierce rivals in international trade. But despite the lack of cards in Dutch hands, the agreement under which the whole colony was surrendered is a model of munificence and fairness. In some ways it resembles the US constitution itself. Twenty-three clauses guarantee various rights of the Dutch and prohibit specific demands on them. All inhabitants ‘shall continue free Denizons and enjoy their lands, Houses, Goods, [and] Ships’; new settlers ‘may freely come from the Netherlands and plant in this Country’. Subjects may not be compelled to serve in war against any nation and may not (if they live in ‘Manhatoes’) have soldiers quartered on them without compensation. There is a guarantee of freedom of worship, which under Stuyvesant had been seriously eroded in various persecutions of Lutherans, Quakers and Jews. Most remarkably, any Dutch soldiers in the colony who wish to return home in order to continue to serve are guaranteed safe passage.

But, of course, the fact that a right is written down means nothing without a government willing to abide by its own prescriptions. Though the articles were respected in New Amsterdam, elsewhere English soldiers set to looting and burning Dutch towns and, in some cases, transporting the inhabitants to English Virginia to be sold into slavery. Although the Dutch retook New York in 1673 it was lost again, this time for good, early the following year. Peter Stuyvesant, the man who gave it away, has done fairly well out of posterity: an area of Brooklyn bears his name, as well as a street in ‘Manhatoes’ and one of the city’s largest housing developments.

About the Author

Nick Jackson

Nick Jackson

Since joining Adam Matthew my main field of work has been with British diplomatic documents, having edited several of our Archives Direct collections of material from The National Archives in London. But I've also helped build resources featuring everything from guides to London nightlife to records of American slaves' court appearances.