Right of Occupancy in North America

Armed with a sizable fleet of its own, the newly-independent Dutch were consolidating their power and turning Amsterdam into the financial capital of Europe. The Dutch proved themselves to be a creative and energetic people, pioneering in the businesses of insurance and banking, and also acquiring a leadership role in shipbuilding. In the Americas, the Dutch established themselves by remanning the abandoned French fort near Albany and building a new fortification on Manhattan Island, from which they engaged in a lively trade with the indigenous tribes. By 1626 the Dutch population in the Americas had grown to around 200 under the leadership of Peter Minuet. Dutch territorial claims had no basis in earlier explorations or Papal declarations, so Minuet initiated the practice of legitimizing Dutch territorial holdings by purchasing title to the land from the natives. According to Alfred Chandler, the popularized view of this episode and its significance differs considerably from what actually occurred:

Minuet gave the Indians some miscellaneous merchandise, valued at sixty guilders (about $24), for the right to occupy the island, which contains twenty-two thousand acres. This transaction, which was made fifty-six years before the widely proclaimed purchase of land of the Indians by William Penn, has been repeatedly publicized as a purchase by the Dutch of all Manhattan Island for $24. Early travelers and settlers in America have repeatedly stated that the Indians had no conception of private ownership, or purchase and sale, of land. It is thus inconceivable that they were, by that transaction, selling their birthright to the land in perpetuity. The prevailing belief that Manhattan Island was bought for $24 is fallacious, and the later occupancy of it by the white race was an assumption consummated by force. All existing land titles in New York run back to that force.

One should ask, to be consistent, under what tenet of just principles did the tribes then occupying this territory charge the newly-arriving Dutch anything at all, even for the mere right of occupancy? Other than their legitimate title to whatever improvements (i.e., wealth) had been created by their labor, the indigenous tribes had no more and no less right than the Europeans of access to the natural resources found in the Americas. To be sure, the Europeans monopolistically exercised what John Locke called licence by their own claims to sovereignty for land already inhabited or used by the indigenous people for game hunting; and yet, the indigenous tribes attempted to enforce similar territorial control. The primary difference between these two systems of land tenure was in administration. The widespread communal ownership practiced by the indigenous American tribes had nearly disappeared among the European societies when feudalistic arrangements were discarded in favor of awarding private titleholdings to individuals and groups. The agricultural and pastoral practices of European commercial farmers were land extensive and required the recording of boundaries and construction of fences to protect food crops and keep domestic animals from wandering off. What had not yet emerged, however, was a theory of property declaring that such titleholdings involved a privilege sanctioned by society as a whole and for which compensation to all others in society was justly due. These issues would only enter the socio-political debate when a human rights doctrine finally emerged in the eighteenth century.

Participatory government in any sense that would take human rights into consideration as part of the policy debates of the State was undreamed of during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The expansion of empire was being directed by the kings and queens of Europe in conjunction with wealthy landed and mercantile interests. To be sure, in Britain and the Netherlands that power was already under siege, and the Spanish empire was failing under the weight of its oppressive and corrupt internal conditions. In comparison, the British empire was being forged out of a gradual if begrudging sharing of power with the landed and merchant classes.