Wednesday, July 6, 2011

New York Slave Laws

Ships flying the Dutch West India flag.

The Dutch West India Company introduced slavery to New York (known then as New Netherland) in 1625 with the importation of eleven black slaves. These early slaves were put to work as farmers, fur traders, and builders. Some were used to build a wall to protect white settlers from the Native American population at the site of today's Wall Street in downtown Manhattan. Although enslaved, the Africans owned by the Dutch enjoyed a few basic rights.
They could be admitted to the Dutch Reformed Church and married by its ministers. Their children could be baptized, and slave families were usually kept intact. Slaves could testify in court, sign legal documents, and bring civil actions against whites. Some slaves were permitted to work after hours earning wages equal to those paid to white workers. When the colony fell to the British in 1864, the Company freed all its slaves-thus establishing early on a nucleus of free African Americans in New York.
English slave laws in the colony were much harsher in comparison to Dutch slave laws. For one thing, slaves were considered chattel or property, and their enslavement ended only with their death or manumission. The earliest slave codes passed in 1664 defined slavery as an inherited racial status-meaning that the children of slaves were also slaves. New York slaveholders could inflict any punishment short of mutilation and death on their human property. Freed blacks were also denied most civil rights under English rule. Any crime committed by a black against a white was severely punished, while white crimes against blacks were largely ignored.

According to the first U.S. Census, the slave population in New York grew to 21,324 by 1790, making New York the largest slave-owning state north of the Mason Dixon line, a distinction it held throughout the two centuries the state practiced slavery. In New York City, a large percentage of the blacks were free-some 33 percent or 1,482 inhabitants by 1820. In the nearby rural area of King County, in what is present day Brooklyn, most of the blacks that lived there were slaves and worked as farm laborers.
In New York City, on the other hand, one third of the black population worked as skilled artisans. Not only did many enslaved Africans live and work in New York prior to the American Revolution, New York City prospered as a thriving center of the slave trade. New York slaving ships made over 150 trips to Africa between 1715 and 1776. Most of the enslaved people brought to Manhattan were transported from New York after a brief time in port to the Caribbean or else to Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia.

The English sweet tooth and the New York slave trade, 1690 - 1725

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