Nieuw Nederland - New Netherland

The North American settlement was not the first concern of the Dutch West India Company. Holland was still at war with Spain, and the Company waged war against Spain. It privately conquered Curacao and other islands in the Caribbean, as well as vast stretches of Brazil then belonging to the Spanish throne. The combination of politics and business was an interesting one; in 1628 a single haul of a Spanish treasure flotilla off Cuba by the famous captain Piet Hein brought eleven million guilders' clear profit to the firm, an event commemorated in a tradional Dutch song which is still sung in socker stadiums at times when things are going fairly well.
New Netherland could not compete with such profits: the Indians' beaver skins paled next to the more impressive wealth of gold and silver.

In 1629, however, company officials put an idea across which was meant to give new life to the northern colony. Under this scheme, the West India Company promised `Liberties and Exemptions' to anyone who would ship fifty colonists to America at his own expense. Such a man --called a patroon -- could then buy a stretch of land along the Hudson from the Company, either four leagues (about twelve miles) along one side or two leagues on each side, and extending as far inland as he saw fit, with the understanding that the Company retained Manhattan island for itself. Parcels of land were granted in full ownership; no one bothered any more to try and convince the Indians to sell their land. The new owner of such land, the patroon, received complete jurisdiction over his domain as well as extensive trading privileges (but not in fur). He received those rights in perpetuity for himself and his heirs. In this way a form of feudalism, which had about vanished in the Dutch Republic, was introduced across the ocean. It may have been a good thing that this effort to boost the settlement soon proved futile. The patroonships failed to flourish.

The company officials of the West India Company were difficult men to deal with: petty bureaucrats more often than not, whose main interest was to get back home as quickly and with as much money as possible. Very few had the idea to stay in the new continent. And as the Company had retained its monopoly over the profitable fur trade, the patroon had to wait for the slower returns from other trades to make up the heavy intitial outlay. To that was added the losses from shipwrecks, then a not unusual occurence, and the losses from Indian raids. For the local tribes had now begun to realize that these men were not visitors but people set to take over their land, and thus their initial goodwill had vanished.

By 1635, the Company had bought back four of the five patroonships originally registered in Amsterdam. The only successful one was Rensselaerswyck, a patroonship taken out by Kiliaen van Rensselaer who himself never crossed the Atlantic. Rensselaerswyck straddled the Hudson near Fort Nassau. So independent did this territory consider itself that we find an incident recorded in which a ship was fired upon because it did not dip its colors in salute while passing the domain of this lord. Rensselaerswyck survived both the West India Company and New Netherland. Not until 1784 did the heirs of Kiliaen renounce their political right. And only in 1844, more than twohundred years after Kiliaen had received his grant, did the Tin Horn Rebellion put an end to the Van Rensselaer patroonship and free the leasehold tenants from their bond to the Van Rensselaer descendants.

When the original patroonships failed to put much new life into the New Netherland trade, the Company decided to free the dealing in fur. In 1639 it gave up its monopoly, and with that as a stimulus, new patroonships under a less feudal character were registered in the following year. Under these, settlements were started in the valley of the Hackensack River in what is now New Jersey, on Staten Island and in what is now The Bronx. They all suffered heavily in the course of the Indian war of 1643. But some of the bonded servants from the destroyed estates stayed on in the area as independent farmers.

Under pressure from both the States-General at home and the independent settlers in the New World, the Company gradually relaxed its grip on colonial trade. The opening up of the fur trade had been the first step. Shortly thereafter, trade between the colony and Holland was opened to indivuals. Further liberalization followed, but at all times trading had to be done either through Amsterdam or Nieuw Amsterdam, where duties and fees were collected by the Company.

Although the colonists thus succeeded in acquiring some economic rights, it was not until 1656 that the Company abandoned its passivity and made up its mind that it could even afford to give some active support to New Netherland. In that year it was decided that all mechanics and farmers who can prove their ability to earn a living here shall receive free passage for themselves, their wives and children.

This new attitude was clearly reflected in the Company's land policy. Van Rensselaer held that the Company made a great mistake in preferring many poor beggars to people of means, but actually the buying up of the best land by wealthy speculators had retarded settlement. By 1656 the reversal of attitude of the Company was so complete that it regarded the granting of patroonships as inadvisable and injurious to the increase of population. -Instead it declared that it was going to grant private individuals as much land as they were able to cultivate, without giving them privileges.

The result of all this was an increase in population from an estimated 2,000 in 1648 to 10,000 in 1660. During its last twenty years under Dutch rule, New Netherland changed from a trading post to a real colony. Even so, because the traditional incentives for leaving the mother country were lacking, the trickle from Holland never swelled to a stream. The British in New England and Virginia, on either side of New Netherland, continued to outnumber the Dutch at least four to one. Their day was bound to come.