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Henry Hudson and New Netherland

           Today most people know the Netherlands (or Holland, as the country is incorrectly called) by a few stereotypes. If wooden shoes or tulips are mentioned, an association with the Dutch usually comes to mind. However, 400 years ago it was a different matter. In 1607 the United Provinces of the Netherlands were engaged in a brutal war of independence with the mighty Spanish Empire. The war would last for 80 years. When peace with Spain was finally declared in 1648, the Dutch had become citizens of the first republic to gain its independence from a monarchy. This accomplishment would serve as an example to both the American colonies and France 150 years later. But how could it happen that a country of only one and a half million people would challenge an empire ten times its size? How could it happen that this small land would develop a commercial empire upon which the sun never set?

           The story begins at the mouth of three great European river systems: the Rhine, the Maas, and the Scheldt. It’s here that various Germanic tribes would learn to prosper using the only natural resource available to them—water. By the sixteenth century the Low Countries (as this region was called) had become the warehouse of Europe. Goods flowed down the rivers from remote places in Europe to urban centers such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Antwerp, where they would be distributed throughout the region. The people of the Low Countries had become the middlemen or commercial carriers of Europe. Shipbuilding flourished and sailors would gain experience aboard Spanish ships around the world. In addition to being the delta of a major European watershed, it also had the advantage of proximity to England and the Baltic region. At the same time as the various states or provinces comprising the Low Countries were developing into a commercial dynamo, they were being acquired by the Habsburg Empire either through marriage or war. When the northern provinces revolted, they cut themselves off from all of the advantages of Spanish global trade; in fact, any attempt to establish their own commercial routes meant sailing in hostile waters.

           In spite of this danger, the Dutch were able to establish a trading presence in the Far East. Pepper, nutmeg, and cinnamon, among other exotic spices, flowed back to the fatherland, providing huge profits for investors. Competition grew so fierce that the States General—the governing body of the United Provinces—chartered the East India Company, known as the VOC. Instead of private investors competing with one another for the riches of the Far East, they would all profit on an equal basis as shareholders in a stock company. However, it was still expensive to arm ships or travel in convoy in waters shared with the Spanish enemy. Armed ships reduced the cargo space available while convoys required the protection of warships—both ate into profits and increased the premiums of marine insurance. The ideal solution would be to find new commercial routes not used by the Spanish. If Spanish shipping dominated the route south around Africa, why not sail north around Siberia?

           Although global warming may make this possible someday, 400 years ago it was just a theory based on the ancient notion of symmetry in nature: if the world’s land masses allowed passage to the south, there should also be a comparable passage to the north. All Dutch mariners, including Willem Baretsz and Jacob van Heemskerck failed to find this passage north of Siberia. However, the Dutch were not alone in the pursuit of this legendary route. As England also shared Spain as a common enemy, it was in its interest to find a safe and less expensive passage to the exotic resources of China, Japan, India, Malaysia, and the Indonesian archipelago. English mariners such as Sir Martin Frobisher and John Davis also failed to break through to the east. The final English attempt was made by a navigator who would fail twice sailing for England’s Muscovy Company and once for the Dutch East India; his name was Henry Hudson.

           When a 12 years’ truce with Spain was declared in 1609, the VOC took advantage of the promise of exploring in “peaceful” waters to search for a mariner who could find the fabled northeastern passage to China. Hudson appeared to be the man. Although he had failed twice with the English Muscovy Company, his experience of navigating in northern waters won him the contract. His instructions stated that if he was unsuccessful in finding the northeastern passage, he was to return to Amsterdam. When the VOC ship Halve Maen (Half Moon) encountered heavy ice floes and a nearly mutinous crew, Hudson turned the ship west, contrary to orders.

           Hudson eventually touched land along the coast of Nova Scotia and Cape Cod but was blown south in a storm as far as Chesapeake Bay. As he sailed up the coast, he entered Delaware Bay but decided it was too dangerous to explore and not a passage to China. Continuing up the coast, he finally entered a large tidal basin supplied by a significant waterway heading due north. Hudson was drawn 120 miles up this river, which now carries his name, before concluding that it was merely a watershed. Although Hudson failed to discover the elusive northern passage, he did inadvertently succeed in opening an area of North America to the Dutch. On the basis of his explorations along the coast, the States General of the United Provinces of the Netherlands could lay claim to a vast region between what was to become New England and the tobacco colonies of Maryland and Virginia.

           Most important for future commercial development was the very watershed that had disappointed Hudson. For almost 150 years the configuration of the Hudson and Mohawk river systems would be the only access to the interior of the country below the St. Lawrence River. The Dutch, who knew how to turn water into an asset, would exploit this geological feature for most of the seventeenth century. Shortly after Hudson’s explorations, the States General licensed various commercial operations to trade with the Indians. Soon private traders were competing with one another for the most profitable resource of the region: animal furs. Although raccoon, otter, and martin skins were making their way back to the fatherland, the most prized fur was that of the beaver. In order to prevent bloodshed in the fur trade, the States General licensed the New Netherland Company in 1614. On October 11 of this year the name appears in an administrative document for the first time. A trading post called Fort Nassau (present-day port of Albany) was established on the upper Hudson at this time, giving the Dutch a presence in the New World six years before the arrival of the Pilgrims.

           When the 12 years’ truce expired in 1621, the Dutch resumed war with Spain. Coinciding with the renewal of hostilities, the States General chartered the West India Company (WIC). It was based on the structure of the highly successful VOC. However, rather than serving merely as a trading company, its primary mission was to carry on the war with Spain in the Atlantic theater of operations. The WIC replaced Fort Nassau with Fort Orange (in present-day Albany) and began sending over settlers to support the various trading posts. In 1626 Peter Minuit purchased Manhattan Island from the Indians, and it soon became the administrative center and main port of New Netherland.

           Although New Netherland is of major interest to New Yorkers, it must be remembered that this corner of the New World was but of minor interest to the WIC. Trading posts and settlements in Africa, the Caribbean Islands, and Brazil were attracting much more of the Company’s human and financial resources. Profits from gold and ivory in Africa and salt in the Caribbean far exceeded the income from the furs of New Netherland; however, nothing compared to the profit derived from the sugar industry of Brazil. Since capturing Brazil north of the Rio Francisco from the Portuguese in 1632, the Dutch had been consolidating their position as a supplier of sugar to Europe. In 1654 this all changed when Portugal recaptured its lost territories in Brazil.

           As traumatic as this event was for the WIC and its interests in South America, it was a boon to New Netherland. The New World “province” (the Dutch never called it a colony) centered at New Amsterdam on Manhattan soon began attracting increased financial resources and more able administrators; colonists who would normally go to Brazil to support the sugar production were now coming to New Netherland. By 1660 the settlements with local benches of justice from the upper Hudson to Delaware Bay numbered 17. Dark days, however, were on the horizon. In 1664, just when New Netherland appeared to be gaining strength as an independent overseas possession of the WIC, the English mounted a surprise attack.

           Commercial competition around the world between England and the United Provinces had turned allies that had previously united against Spain into common enemies. In 1664 New Netherland’s growing success had attracted the attention of Charles II of England. Soon after granting his brother James, duke of York and Albany, proprietary interest in the region from Maine to Delaware Bay (including the Dutch possession), an English naval squadron appeared before Manhattan. Petrus Stuyvesant, the director of New Netherland, was caught totally by surprise as the Dutch were at peace with England. However, if it isn’t a military maxim it should be one that a well-planned surprise attack in time of peace usually succeeds. New Netherland became New York; Beverwijck became Albany and so on. It should be mentioned that nine years later, during the third Anglo-Dutch war, the Dutch reestablished control of their former possession. New York became New Orange; Albany became Willemstad and so on. In 1674 New Netherland was returned to the English as part of the settlement of the Treaty of Westminster ending the war. It would remain in English hands until the outcome of the American Revolution over 100 years later.

           However, this is not the end of the story. Dutch institutions, traditions, and language had cast such deep roots in the land that the English presence formed but a thin veneer. Unlike the homogenous makeup of New France and New England, New Netherland was heterogeneous. The WIC had brought over people from all parts of Europe, as well as black slaves from Africa. By the time the English gained control of New Netherland, it was rapidly becoming a melting pot. Hudson’s explorations had made it possible for the United Provinces of the Netherlands to leave a deep footprint in the New World. Without Hudson’s claim to the region and Dutch settlement, the footprint if not completely English in manner may well have been French.

Charles Gehring
New Netherland Project
August 27, 2007

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