Slavery has been a part of the human culture for over 2000 years. According to Britannica, “Slavery is a condition in which one human being was owned by another. A slave was considered by law as property, or chattel, and was deprived of most of the rights ordinarily held by free persons.”
In this series, we will look at the roots of slavery, particularly among the Dutch who settled with their slaves in Blawenburg and most of Central Jersey. We will follow the migration of slaves from New Netherland, which later became New York, to Central Jersey, and we will explore what information we have about the slaves who were owned by the Blaw, Nevius/Van Zandt, and Covenhoven farm families in the early years of Blawenburg.
Nothing Nice about Slavery
By the time the plantations surrounding what became Blawenburg village were sold to Dutch farmers, slavery as an institution had been in New Netherland for almost a century. For the Dutch immigrants, it was the way business was done. Virtually every Dutch farm had slaves.
Slavery was a way for farmers to get extra help with the manual labor for their farms. With slaves, farmers could produce more crops and thus make more money. If slavery was labor for pay and laborers were free to live their lives as they wished, there would be few issues. But that’s not the way it was. Slaves were property owned by the plantation master. They were considered more as objects than as humans. They received no pay, only a place to live and food to eat. Slaves had no rights and few choices in their lives.
People were usually placed into slavery involuntarily. Sometimes they were on the wrong side of a war and were sold into slavery by the victors. Others were enslaved because they had been convicted of a crime. It’s hard to believe, but some young people were sold to slave traders by their parents. In some places in Africa, individuals were rounded up and sold into slavery by their own people who made deals with European slave traders. In this case, traders might pay three pounds for slaves and end up reselling them for 25 pounds at the destination.
To have the slave system work, a society had to have a hierarchy of power. That is, some people would have more power and money than others. This would mean that some people would have more rights than others, making the disenfranchised vulnerable to the wishes of the powerful.
It isn’t clear when slavery began, but it has been around for as long as people have wielded power over others. It was less likely to have existed in the earliest days of civilization than when people organized into societies and established hierarchies of power.
It follows that the wealthier and more established nations were leading the way with slave trading. The English, Dutch, French, and Spanish all engaged in slave trading. These nations were in competition with each other for products that could be readily obtained and sold at a profit. They would fight wars to secure trading posts on the emerging trade routes brought about by increased shipbuilding.
Since it was the Dutch who established the early farms in what is now New York and Central New Jersey, we will look at how they conducted slave trading to propagate these farms with involuntary labor.
Several factors played into the Dutch getting involved in slave trading. The first is the growth of worldwide shipping that expanded opportunities for trading goods in the 1500s. After Columbus and others “discovered” the New World, they also discovered new trading products and found new lands that could be used for hunting and farming. It opened new opportunities for the Europeans, especially those who owned shipping and trading companies.
Shipping was very competitive, and in the early 1600s the Dutch set up the Dutch East India Company to trade in the far east with India. They wanted the spices that were only available there.
Although Giovanni da Verrazano was the first known explorer to reach what would later be called the Hudson River in 1524, it wasn’t until almost a century later in 1609 that Henry Hudson rediscovered the river and set up Dutch colonies. Hudson was seeking the Pacific Ocean and traveled 150 miles up a river that later would bear his name. He found what would become Albany, NY instead. He also found a commodity that was cherished by the Dutch in his homeland – beaver pelts. The Dutch made fur hats from the pelts, which they traded for weapons with the indigenous Lenni Lenape Indians.
The word quickly spread in the Netherlands that there were pelts and good farmlands in what they called New Netherland. Soon ships with Dutch immigrants arrived seeking a new life in a new land.
The families that came to America did not have enough help to carry out the tasks needed for farming. The Dutch believed in having servants to provide labor on their farms. The first immigrants gave rights to their servants and didn’t treat them as harshly as later slaves were treated. When the Dutch arrived in New Netherland, they found Native Americans who they tried to press into duty as servants. But the Native Americans were susceptible to diseases that the Europeans brought with them, and many hundreds of them died of small pox and other diseases. Before too long, they realized that Africans were immune to many of the European diseases. They could be purchased, enslaved, and traded for products. So, the Dutch soon formed a second trading company to bring products and slaves to America in exchange for other goods or money.
The trade circuit or trade triangle
The Trade Circuit
In 1621, the Dutch West India Company was set up as a Dutch company with shareholders. This allowed many investors to share the wealth that was being created while not having the national government control the trade efforts. The new company was modeled after the Dutch East India Company, which established trading posts in the Far East.
Despite the efforts of their competitors, the Dutch West India Company had a monopoly on the trading of slaves for most of the 17th century. During that time, they built a strong maritime presence and a trade network that has been called the “trade triangle” or “great trade circuit”. They set up trading posts in four areas before bringing the desired “products”, slaves, to New Netherland. They purchased, traded, or otherwise gathered the slaves at trading posts they established on the West Coast of Africa. They set up other posts along the east coast of Brazil, and in the Caribbean. The final stop on their trade route was New Netherland on the Hudson River. According to the PBS video, Dutch New York, the Dutch West India Company had another purpose. Their trading ships were also loaded with military equipment, and they were directed to attack enemy ships who might be interfering with their slave-trading mission.
In the first stage of the circuit, the Dutch would bring to Africa things they didn’t have such as weapons, metal, and clothing. They would exchange these items for people who would become slaves. The second leg of the journey was known as Middle Passage, which was a euphemism for “the suffering”. It was during this long trip across the Atlantic that many slaves were bound in chains in holds below deck in crowded ships. The ships’ hulls were subdivided into low-ceiling holds to pack in as many slaves a possible. Many slaves didn’t survive the crossing.
The third leg brought the slave ships to America, initially to New Netherland, but later to other ports such as Charleston, South Carolina, where the slaves were sold, often at auction, to the masters who would control their lives thereafter.
Along the way, the ships would also pick up goods to sell. For example, raw sugar and molasses, a liquid form of sugar, were purchased from the Caribbean islands such as Barbados. Sugar was not readily available in the Americas, and sugar refining was an important business in the Netherlands. Molasses was used to make rum, a popular alcoholic beverage of the day. The Dutch would trade for beaver pelts in New Netherland, and it is estimated that 38,000 pelts were taken back to the Netherlands. They would often trade slaves for molasses, and the new slaves would help them make even more molasses.
At New Netherland, ships would unload their human cargo. They then cleaned the ships and refilled them with products to take back to the Netherlands.
These trade routes continued from 1621 to 1808 when an Act of Congress ended the import of slaves.
The division of East and West Jersey is known as the Keith line.
East Jersey, shown in white, is where most of the Dutch settled.
West Jersey is shown in black, and the green line divides North and South Jersey.
As their population grew, the Dutch were moving out of what is now Manhattan, and they were discovering good farmlands in the Province of New Jersey. Land was plentiful. The Lenni Lenape Native Americans, who lived on the land for centuries, had no concept of land ownership. They shared their lands among their people and moved about seasonally. The Dutch, however, wanted to be land owners, so they drove many Lenni Lenape out, killed many of them, or made them sick with new, unknown diseases.
In 1664, the British took over New Netherland in a quiet coup. Rather than fight a battle they would surely lose, the Dutch negotiated a land trade. The British owned a country known today as Suriname just north of Brazil, South America, and the Dutch acquired it in exchange for New Netherland. It was a colony of indigenous Caribbean people, and it served as a slave trading post as well as a port for merchandise. The takeover of New Netherland triggered the migration of many Dutch from New York to North and Central New Jersey to avoid the new power structure of the British.
With many Dutch looking for land, speculators saw a big opportunity to sell these rich farmlands. New Jersey was then divided – East Jersey and West Jersey. Many Dutch migrated to East Jersey where they could purchase abundant land tracts and also receive additional land for every slave they brought with them. As time moved on, the slave population grew, especially in Central New Jersey. First, the growth was close to the shore in Middlesex County, but the Dutch homesteaders purchased land patents and gradually moved west to build plantations. The Blaw, Nevius, and Covenhoven families along with their slaves moved into the area that we now call Blawenburg between 1738 and 1753.
Impact of Slavery
What started as a trade route to exchange goods for laborers in the new Dutch colony in New Netherland, changed society forever. Millions of slaves were brought to the new world, to work the fields to grow products that yielded large profits within the new country and also in Europe.
Many believe that America was built by the indentured labor of African slaves. There is no doubt that slaves were central to the agriculture of the nation. The plantations would not have been able to function without them.
The very existence of slaves and their abhorrent treatment have caused much debate in our country. What there should be no debate about is that for many Africans, who were brought to America against their will, there was much suffering and death at the hands of those who would subjugate them for their own benefit.
The abolition of slavery came only after thousands died fighting for and against the end of slavery in the Civil War. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring that the Confederate-held lands were free. Finally in 1865, the 13th Amendment of the Constitution made slavery illegal. It said, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Slavery in its many forms did not end in 1865. Despite the laws emancipating slaves, the impact of slavery on our country is still with us today. While all minorities have gained equal rights in many areas, fully equal treatment for all has not been achieved. Equality is and has been a work in progress since the Dutch slave traders brought the first Africans to America in the early 1600s.
In our next blog we will explore what we know about the slaves of Blawenburg and Montgomery Township before emancipation.
1. It was easier for wind-powered sailing ships to go south toward South America or the Caribbean than it was to go west across the Atlantic from Africa into the prevailing winds. After going south, the ships would pick up the westerly winds as they continued on their trading mission. Hence, the phrase “trade winds”.
2. The big three products that Europeans wanted and were willing to trade slaves for were sugar, cotton, and tobacco.
3. According to Emory University and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., as reported in Wikipedia, it is believed that 12.5 million Africans were transported to North and South America to be enslaved. Other accounts estimate the number of slaves transported to be as high as 20 million.
4. The conditions on slave ships were highly unsanitary. Dehydration, dysentery, and scurvy led to many deaths. Between 15% and 33% of slaves died of these diseases before they made it to their final destination.
5. Slave trading not only made people rich, it also provided much needed capital to fund the Industrial Revolution (1750-1840).
Cassidy, Judith Smith. The History of Low Dutch Slavery from New Netherland Through Kentucky and Beyond. Blue Bell, PA, 2019.
Video: Dutch New York. PBS, Channel 13
Keith Line – http://westjersey.org/wj_line.htm
Trade triangle – SimonP, Wikipedia
Copyright © 2023 by David Cochran. All rights reserved.