Despite the Dutch reputation for cherishing freedom, New Netherland was hardly governed democratically. New Amsterdam, the main population center, was essentially a fortified military outpost controlled by appointees of the West India Company. Although the governor called on prominent citizens for advice from time to time, neither an elected assembly nor a town council, the basic unit of government at home, was established.
A view of New Amsterdam from 1651 illustrates both the tiny size of the outpost but also its status as a center of international trade between Europeans and Native Americans.
In other ways, however, the colonists enjoyed more liberty, especially in religious matters, than their counterparts elsewhere in North America. Even their slaves possessed rights. The Dutch dominated the Atlantic slave trade in the early seventeenth century, and they introduced slaves into New Netherland as a matter of course. By 1650, the colony’s 500 slaves outnumbered those in the Chesapeake. Some enjoyed “half-freedom”—they were required to pay an annual fee to the company and work for it when called upon, but they were given land to support their families. Settlers employed slaves on family farms or for household or craft labor, not on large plantations as in the West Indies.
Women in the Dutch settlement enjoyed far more independence than in other colonies. According to Dutch law, married women retained their separate legal identity. They could go to court, borrow money, and own property. Men were used to sharing property with their wives. Their wills generally left their possessions to their widows and daughters as well as sons. Margaret Hardenbroeck, the widow of a New Amsterdam merchant, expanded her husband’s business and became one of the town’s richest residents after his death in 1661.
Most striking was the religious toleration that attracted to New Netherland a remarkably diverse population. As early as the 1630s, at least eighteen languages were said to be spoken in New Amsterdam, whose residents included not only Dutch settlers but also Africans, Belgians, English, French, Germans, Irish, and Scandinavians. Meanwhile, Puritan emigrants from New England established towns on Long Island. Religious toleration extended not only to Protestants but also to Catholics and, grudgingly, to Jews. Twenty-three Jews arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654 from Brazil and the Caribbean. Referring to them as “members of a deceitful race,” Governor Peter Stuyvesant ordered the newcomers to leave. But the company overruled him, noting that Jews at home had invested “a large amount of capital” in its shares.