In August 1664 four English frigates sailed into the harbor of New Amsterdam, demanding the surrender of New Netherland. The colony was provisionally ceded by Peter Stuyvesant. He subsequently sent a delegation to sign the Articles of Capitulation. New Amsterdam was reincorporated under English law as the city of New York. Soon after the Second Anglo-Dutch (Sea) War broke out in which Charles II unsuccessfully tried to end Dutch domination of world trade.
In 1650 William Willoughby, the English Governor of Barbados, furnished out a vessel at his own expense to establish a plantation near the mouth of the Surinam River. By 1663, the settlement of around 30,000 acres was protected by Fort Willoughby and consisted of some fifty plantations, cultivated by enslaved Indigenous and African people.
Four years later privateer Abraham Crijnssen, working on behalf of the Admiralty of Zeeland, engaged the English forces. The invaders captured Fort Willoughby and renamed it Fort Zeelandia. A valuable trophy of war was the frigate York. Its cargo included 1,000 pounds of elephant-teeth and 270 slaves.
Once hostilities were ended, England and the victorious United Provinces signed the Treaty of Breda in July 1667 by which the Dutch handed over New Amsterdam, while the English abandoned Surinam to the Netherlands. The terms were later confirmed in the Treaty of Westminster.
What motivated Dutch negotiators to agree to the exchange?
Sugar & Slavery
Since the turn of the seventeenth century, Dutch merchants were keen to obtain a share of the profitable sugar (“White Gold”) market that was dominated by Portuguese traders. The growing popularity of coffee and tea had caused a surge in demand for refined sugar. The conquest of northeast Brazil by the West India Company (WIC) during the 1630s turned Dutch dealers from transporters into producers. Having lost control over Brazil to the Portuguese, the Company refocused its attention to the Caribbean.
In 1662, there were over fifty refineries in Amsterdam alone. By 1752 over 150 factories in the Netherlands were involved in sugar production the raw material of which was provided by plantations in the West Indies. The Republic’s unrivaled economic power was associated with the import of sugar crystals to their local bakeries (‘suikerbakkerijen’). The nation provided more than half of the sugar consumed in sweet-toothed Europe.
The presence of so many sugar refineries was a tell-tale sign of participation in slavery. After exchanging New York for Surinam, settlers rapidly developed the colony’s plantations. Slaves were shipped from Africa to work on the sugar estates generating great wealth. Between 1682 and 1795 the colony was governed by the Chartered Society of Surinam which was owned by the City of Amsterdam, the WIC, and a family of private financiers. The colony was exploited as a plantation economy.
In 1796, a year after the collapse of the Society of Surinam, John Gabriel Stedman published an illustrated account of plantation slavery after serving a spell as Captain in the Dutch army in Surinam. His father Robert Stedman’s Scottish brigade had been stationed in the Low Countries. Young Stedman volunteered to travel to the colony because of debts and a ‘scandalous’ life style. Having returned to Britain he penned Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, painting a disturbing panorama of colonial life.
The book was published in London by Joseph Johnson, a radical bookseller who supported the French Revolution. In 1780 he had been the first to issue Benjamin Franklin’s political works in England at a time that the American colonies were in rebellion. During the 1790s he published a number of books and pamphlets that championed revolutionary causes.
For Stedman’s book, Johnson employed a number of artists to engrave eighty-one plates. William Blake was responsible for sixteen of those. His engraving ‘A Negro Hung by his Ribs from a Gallows’ became one of most reproduced images in the anti-slavery campaign.
Slavery in New England
Since its establishment in 1636, the colony of Rhode Island had been involved in slavery. By the eighteenth century it dominated the North American trade. Prior to 1696, the English Royal African Company monopolized the Atlantic slave routes. Once that holding was lifted by the English Parliament, the Islanders joined and expanded the trading system. Even though Rhode Island was the smallest of colonies, the majority of slave ships leaving British North America came from its ports.
Puritan involvement in slavery arose from a chronic labor shortage. Its introduction to the New England colonies created ambiguity between theology and economics. How could a slave be endowed with the promise of divine salvation and, at the same time, be traded as a tool to fulfill economic demands?
Recognition of slavery in New England implied a legal view of a slave’s status as property whilst recognizing his/her Christian rights and liberties. The attempt to merge economic and religious justifications was bound to fail and, in the end, would result in the abolition of slavery during the time of the American Revolution.
In the early eighteenth century rum replaced brandy in triangular trading. Rhode Island rum was exported to the coast of West Africa and exchanged for slaves who were transported to the Caribbean where they were traded for molasses (rum’s key ingredient). Within half a century there were some thirty distilleries at work in the colony.
By 1730, most of Rhode Island’s occupations were slavery related from shipbuilders, dock and warehouse workers, to distillers. Merchants paid high taxes that were spent on Rhode Island’s structural development. Its streets were paved with African blood.
Puritan Sailors in Paramaribo
The stereotype of Puritans as strict and pious individuals wearing black clothes and buckle shoes is a common one. The first settlers in Massachusetts may have been devout, but younger colonists pushed social and moral boundaries to create their own cultures.
With growing prosperity, the number of migrants holding different belief systems increased, diluting the unity of Puritan communities. New England courts were burdened with hundreds of “morality” cases that reported extramarital sex, pregnancy out of wedlock, sodomy, or even bestiality. Ports without brothels were unthinkable however unforgiving the law may have been.
Surinam was an important destination for merchants from Rhode Island. Of the nearly 5,000 ships that docked at the colony’s trading capital Paramaribo in the eighteenth century, no less than ninety percent sailed from New England.
The average layover for a ship lasted for ten weeks, offering crew members ample time to enjoy their stay. Wealthy merchants and planters lived in elegantly furnished and well-staffed houses. How did Puritan sailors behave in the midst of colonial decadence?
Carousing in Surinam
John Greenwood was born in December 1727 in Boston. Having served his apprenticeship, he started work as an itinerant portrait painter traveling along trade routes painting portraits of sea captains and merchants. In late 1752 he sailed to Surinam where he remained for five years producing 113 portraits. He also left a notebook with sketches about the country’s flora and fauna (the manuscript of which is held by the New York Historical Society).
In May 1758 he moved to Amsterdam where he continued his career as a portrait painter. In 1764 Greenwood settled in London. In the course of the following twenty years he became one of the city’s most prominent auctioneers. All that is of marginal interest in comparison to a single painting he produced whilst staying in Surinam.
Between 1755 and 1758 Greenwood produced Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, believed to be commissioned by Providence captain John Jenckes. The painting remained in the family until it was sold to the St Louis Art Museum, Missouri, in 1948. Once under the scrutiny of art historians, the painting changed some of our preconceived ideas about Puritan behavior.
The painting reveals the debauched goings-on in Paramaribo and points at respected Rhode Islanders partaking in the drunken revelry. They include Stephen Hopkins (signatory to the Declaration of Independence); Governor Joseph Wanton who has passed out in a chair with one prankster pouring rum over his head and another vomiting into his pocket; and Esek Hopkins who had made a fortune as a privateer and would become the first Commander in the Continental Navy. Dancing away are Nicholas Power and young Godfrey Malbone. Both families were major slave traders. Greenwood added a self-portrait, holding a candle by the doorway. The image also contains four enslaved Africans.
Philosophically, Puritanism discouraged all types of extravagance. Greenwood’s painting appears to reflect an alternative reality. It suggests that Puritan sailors and merchants had, in their own roguish manner, solved the riddle of reconciling a doctrine that despised earthly goods and (physical) pleasure with the actuality of celebrating the rich rewards of (slave) trade and commerce.
Apart from ownership of Surinam, the Dutch also brokered control over the Banda Islands, which included the tiny island of Run where nutmeg was grown. Holland gained monopoly over a spice that was literally worth its weight in gold.
Dutch colonials went out in the world to make money, not to solve the problems of a diverse urban population far from home. Negotiators were happy to sacrifice New Amsterdam for the riches of sugar and spice.
Illustrations, from above: Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, 1755/8 by John Greenwood (St Louis Art Museum, Missouri); the moment that New Amsterdam became New York (A 1914 picture book); Signing of the Treaty of Breda, 1667 Unknown Dutch artist (British Museum); Map of Nieuw Holland (Brazil), around 1641; Dirk Valkenburg, Plantation in Suriname, c. 1707 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam); lantation in Suriname, c. 1707, Dirk Valkenburg (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam); Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam by John Gabriel Stedman; A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to a Gallows, 1796 by William Blake; and The Friendly Mr John Greenwood, c. 1792 by William Pether (National Gallery of Art, Washington).