New York City’s ‘Birth Certificate’: $24 and All That
Beginning Sunday, not far from where the saltwater of the sea and the freshwater of the river bearing Henry Hudson’s name intermingle in an estuary that nestles along the island of Manhattan, the documents that began it all will be on display: meticulously preserved ledgers with ornate scripts, delicately colored maps and drawings, an official government pronouncements that gave birth to New Amsterdam and led ultimately to the creation of the City of New York.
A new exhibition at the South Street Seaport Museum, “New Amsterdam: The Island at the Center of the World,” is being mounted in conjunction with the Dutch curator Martine Gosselink and the National Archives of the Netherlands, which lent the museum some extraordinarily well-preserved artifacts as part of the 400th anniversary celebrations of Hudson’s arrival.
In the midst of the festivities (which also include a fine exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York), on Saturday Prince Willem-Alexander and Princess Máxima of the Netherlands will take a preview tour of the Seaport show.
The exhibition has problems: the design (by Urban A&O and Thinc) is awkward, the chronology often hard to trace and the commentary and contexts too cursory. But these rarely seen documents are landmarks, mapping out early New York history. There is an open, oversize book in which, in elaborate script, the Dutch East India Company prepared a contract with Henry Hudson (misnamed Tomas Hutson), ultimately charging him, in 1609, with discovering a route to Asia via a northeast passage over Russia. Instead, of course, that venture led to the beginnings of Dutch colonization in North America.
From 1626 there is a letter that was once folded to form its own envelope; it is now torn and stained by the fingers that must have handled it, addressed to “High and Mighty Lords.” It is a dispatch from Pieter Schaghen to the directors of the recently formed Dutch West India Company, whose title implicitly recognized that the way east lay elsewhere. The letter disclosed the latest news about New Amsterdam from a Dutch ship that had arrived home: reports that “our people are in good spirits and live in peace,” that they have sowed and reaped their grain, that the cargo contained 7,246 beaver skins and 48 mink skins. And that, oh yes, the settlers had “purchased the Island Manhattes from the Indians for the value of 60 guilders.”
That casual pronouncement is one of the sources of the Dutch claim to the colony and has been referred to as New York City’s “birth certificate.” In a public-relations conceit the Dutch National Archives had the document send Twitter reports about its American journey (twitter.com/schaghenletter). But, as the show reminds us, the American Indians’ notion of purchase differed from that of the settlers. During the 19th century those 60 guilders were translated into dollars at an exchange rate that yielded the famous figure of $24, but the guilders were, the exhibition points out, really a collection of bartered items worth about 30 beaver pelts: cauldrons, perhaps, or knives, wampum or cloth.
There is also material that demonstrates how the trading monopoly of the Dutch West India Company gave way to a free market, stimulating immigration to the New Netherland colonies by establishing agricultural enterprises. A document recognizes the formal beginnings of a court (the “bank of justice”) in 1653. And after we view the original portentous 1645 announcement that Peter Stuyvesant was to become the director-general of New Netherland, there is a collection of letters of complaint generated by Stuyvesant’s cranky rule, with phrases of condemnation (“his false tongue,” “profit became loss,” “threatened, vexed, hindered”) inscribed on the display case.
Finally there are the high-toned formal treaties marking the end of Dutch rule, the transfer of power and the beginnings of English governance, including a 1667 copy of the Treaty of Breda, in which Charles II of England made peace with the Dutch Republic.
There is much more here as well, material that expands the history outward, outlining the Dutch empire development. Startlingly vivid watercolors show the harbor of Batavia festooned with the Dutch tricolor in 1620 (a city now known as Jakarta, Indonesia), and the fortified harbor of Puerto Rico from 1665, a location that the Dutch, French and English all failed to capture from the Spanish. But it must have been with some satisfaction that the owner of two books on display here had images of the City Hall of New Amsterdam and the storehouse of the Dutch West India Company in old Amsterdam painted on the exposed front edges of the books’ bound paper.
There are also documents that expand the history to the level of groups and individuals. In the 1650s the population of New Amsterdam was estimated at 500 to 700, but Stuyvesant called the city’s inhabitants “a rabble gathered from all manner of countries,” including Belgium, France, Germany, England, and Eastern European and African nations. Accounts of some of these groups in the show allude to the influx of Pilgrims, Jews and Quakers, wars with the Indians, and the development of religious institutions.
Audio kiosks offer imagined recollections by various New Amsterdam settlers, told in the voices of contemporary Dutch immigrants to New York and created from period documents. These include, for example, the story of Jan Rodrigues, who worked in the Caribbean, joined a Dutch sea captain in 1613 and lived in northern Manhattan as a trader. He was, perhaps, the first immigrant resident on the island and is now memorialized on a plaque in Riverside Park.
The colony’s combination of extraordinary competition, diverse populations and intense bartering helped define the early character of New Amsterdam, even if the Dutch chapter in the city’s history was relatively brief. The problem, though, is that from just these kiosks and documents the history does not cohere: the texts and background are just too slight. For a better understanding, read the lively exhibition catalog written by Ms. Gosselink, who is head of the history department at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and published by the Dutch National Archives.
But if the short-lived Dutch venture in North American colonialism would not have been judged an unambiguous success at the time, it still shaped a different culture than those created by the British immigration to colonial outposts like Plymouth and Jamestown. New Amsterdam was marked not just by the diversity of its inhabitants, but by the shifting layers of experience over this brief period, encompassing free-market bustle and controlled trade, Dutch rule and misrule (followed by British versions of the same). There were even distinctive aspects to African enslavement. Dutch cruelty elsewhere was answered, perhaps, by a different approach here, the catalog suggests, one in which slaves had ownership rights, and slave testimonies had legal standing.
The complexity of this short history and its lasting impact on the character of New York suggest that the way we analyze more recent colonial and imperial ventures by various nations tends to be somewhat crude. Between the pages of these documents, and even between their lines, are intricacies worthy of deeper understanding.
“New Amsterdam: The Island at the Center of the World” opens Sunday and runs through Jan. 3 at the South Street Seaport Museum, 12 Fulton Street, Lower Manhattan; (212) 748-8600.
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
Entry filed under: Get Wet, Manhattan, Maritime. Tags: 400th anniversary, Dutch, Dutch East India Company, exhibit, free market, New Amsterdam, South Street Seaport Museum, The Island at the Center of the World.