Life

Wealthy Black landowners in early Manhattan — how did they lose Greenwich village and Brooklyn?

Poor Dutchman hopes to buy from a well dressed African saleswoman, offering only a small bunch of tobacco

The first 11 Africans who arrived in New Holland (present day New York) in 1626 were treated by the Dutch more like indentured servants, as were many others brought from Europe. They could marry in Church, earn money when not working for their master, own land and testify and sue (often successfully) in court — against their white neighbors. It was normal for their Dutch masters to grant freedom and a plot of land after a period of labor, even while the laborers were still young and strong. In the early days, the need of Africans to support their families by gardening and farming, just like anyone else, was recognized.

The Dutch in New Holland sometimes had an extremely hostile relationship toward Native Americans, especially under the governorship (from 1638–1647) of Willem Kieft. They didn’t hesitate to arm the Africans to help out in the fighting. The Dutch West India Company disapproved of Kieft’s violence and replaced him with Pieter Stuyvesant (not an egalitarian). Much of the transaction with local inhabitants was relatively peaceful trade as the “Little Ice Age” in Europe had created an immense demand for furs. However, the ecological, social and economic disaster caused by this trade within Native American communities up and down the whole East Coast, is another story.

The original Dutch settlers, among themselves, were mostly of an egalitarian persuasion, believing that “whoever is placed over them as commander act as their father not as their executioner, leading them with a gentle hand; for whoever rules them as a friend and associate will be beloved by them, as he who will order them as a superior will subvert and nullify everything… `Tis better to rule by love and friendship than by force’.” The young governor preceding Kieft advocated for the Africans to go to school with the other children, but it is not known whether this happened. Two Dutchmen and their African neighbor were taken to court for drinking together in the tavern while the Sunday service was taking place at church, (they denied consuming alcohol until the service was over, escaping any fine) and intermarriage was not unknown.

The son of Pieter Santomee (from São Tomé), one of the original 11 Africans brought to New Amsterdam, became a physician. Born around 1610, the doctor was a free man, named Lucas Santomee or Lucas Pieters (i.e. Lucas son of Pieter). He may have trained in Holland, or used knowledge of African medicine, or both. It has been suggested that he was apprenticed at the Dutch West India Company’s hospital for Negroes and soldiers, however the building wasn’t established until he was about 50 years old. He did work as a doctor there. Lucas Santomee was the primary physician for the small enclave of New Amsterdam, apart from the wealthiest inhabitants. Lucas himself (identified as “Lucas the Negro”) eventually became wealthy enough to pay a 300 guilder fine in 1679 for concealing an escaped prisoner.

Clearly the Manhattanites were very grateful to Lucas Santomee for his services, because the property granted him in 1644 initially extending to six acres grew to include parts of Brooklyn and Greenwich Village. (The Dutch physician and “surgeon” Hans Kiersted received a parcel of land as well. He perhaps coincidentally, named one of his sons Lucas). Lucas’s brother Solomon and almost all the other early African arrivals were also granted parcels of land from 2 to 18 acres between 1643 and 1664, when the British took over and renamed the city New York. The Dutch land grants were of good farming land in Lower Manhattan around what is now Little Italy and south of NYU. Called “the land of the blacks” in legal documents, this was an American community of free people of African descent whose last clear manifestation lay in its African Burial Ground.

Between 1659 and 1660, Governor Peter Stuyvesant granted parcels of land and a small house to at least nine African farmers, including Pieter San Tomé along a wagon track near Stuyvesant’s farm (Bouwerie in Dutch — along the Bowery and 4th Avenue). In 1667, the brothers Solomon and Lucas Pieters (Santomee) inherited the 6-acre farm from their father, Pieter San Tomé. In 1680, Solomon Pieters was also able to also purchase a 30-acre plot of land near Twenty-third Street and Broadway. The father’s farm remained in the family until it was sold by the widow and children of his son Solomon in 1716. The land is now part of Gramercy Park.

New York under the British was a much harsher, authoritarian regime than the Dutch had run in New Amsterdam. Gone were access to the courts, acceptance in the Christian congregation, and the assumption of freedom after some years of toil. The new and fundamental racist idea that rather than being ‘enslaved people’, Africans were “slaves” was used to justify the automatic enslavement of their children. The fast-rising number of Africans being sold into slavery in New York, and the worsening conditions of enslaved people throughout the New World made life harder for Africans and their children in Manhattan. By the early 1700’s, about one fifth of the population of Manhattan was of African origin, some free and some enslaved. This made inequality difficult to maintain without brutal repression.

As a result of laws passed by the British following the 1712 Slave Uprising, freed African New Yorkers were prohibited from owning real estate, and were forced to forfeit their property to the British crown. By 1716, after a half-century of British rule, the last piece of land in Lower Manhattan owned by an African New Yorker, Francisco Bastien, was sold by his heirs. The African Burial Ground remained as one of the few pieces of African-controlled land in Manhattan, and its land was increasingly eaten into by white property owners, until in the mid 19th century with the ideology of racism ascendant, Burial Ground was finally and completely desecrated and destroyed.


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