Dorothy Creole was one of the first black women to arrive in New York. She arrived in 1627. That year, three enslaved African women set foot on the southern shore of Manhattan, arriving in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (Nieuw Amsterdam). Property of the Dutch West India Company, these women were brought to the colony to become the wives of enslaved African men who had arrived in 1625. One of these women was named Dorothy Creole, a surname that she acquired in the New World, and likely began as a descriptive term.
Dorothy's world was one in which West Africans and Europeans had mixed and traded for more than two centuries. The Dutch had established trading posts in present-day Angola on the Slavenkust or Slave Coast to acquire slaves for their New World colonies. It was also the year of the supposed sale of the island of Manhattan to the Dutch by native inhabitants for the equivalent of 24 dollars of trade goods. What is significant to Dorothy Creole's story is that by 1625, New Amsterdam was a place where Europeans, Native Americans and Blacks had significant interaction.
An early copper plate print of New Amsterdam shows the mix in the fledgling colony. In the foreground, a Dutch couple displays the agricultural wealth of the colony, chief among these being tobacco, very much in vogue in coffee houses of Europe. The print, circulating in Europe, was designed to attract European colonist for New Amsterdam. The Dutch West India Company wanted New Netherland to be the granary of its western Atlantic empire. Prospective colonists were attracted by the abundance of rich farm land, offering them the possibility of becoming wealthy landowners. In the middle ground of the print, figures of Black men and a woman in African garments carry goods to and fro on their heads. The brimming basket of foodstuff held by the Dutch woman is a trope for wealth and abundance. In the background, ships are shown arriving and departing from the colony with wealth from trade.
The colony was a business venture of the Dutch West India Company (DWIC); and Dorothy Creole was a part of that business. The agricultural profits of the DWIC came from New World products that relied upon slave labor from Africa. The company's headquarters in Amsterdam, Europe, boasted warehouses filled with tobacco, sugar and coffee that had been produced with slave labor from Africa and unloaded in Europe from the holds of ships returning from the New World. On Manhattan, Dorothy became a tiny, but vital link in the chain of the company business.
When Dorothy arrived in New Amsterdam, it was a hardscrabble village of thirty wooden houses clinging to the southern tip of Manhattan, today's financial capital of the world. But is was also, quite literally, the island at the center of the Dutch world, linking the New World with Africa and the European continent. But it was also, quite literally, the island at the center of the Dutch world, linking the New World with Africa and Europe.
The DWIC had a lucrative monopoly on the Dutch North American fur trade with the Native Americans. Beaver pelts were valued for making broad-brimmed beaver hats, which were warm and water repellent, as well as expensive status symbols.
The wealthy men depicted in Rembrandt's Syndics of the Drapers Guild, are pictured with such hats that were made from beaver pelts sent to Holland from the New Amsterdam colony. The New Amsterdam fur trade was so crucial to the success of the Dutch colony had been established by Juan (Jan) Rodriguez. Rodrigues was the first known person of African descent to arrive on Manhattan. He arrived as a free man in 1613. A black sailor from Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), he had set up a trading post with the native Lenape people on Manhattan.
The future of the fur trade, and indeed the colony itself, was jeopardized by the actions of the DWIC Director-General, Willem Kieft. Kieft's War, (also knwon as the Wappinger War), was a conflict between the Dutch of the nascent colony and the local population. Lasting from 1643-1645, the conflict grew from Kieft's unauthorized order for an attack on the Lenape camps, in which the Dutch massacred the native inhabitants. This action had unified the local Algonquian tribes against the Dutch, causing many attacks on both sides. Dutch settlers began to return to the Netherlands, slowing the growth of the colony.
Part of Keift's solution was to use the African population as a buffer between the Indians and the Dutch. At the height of the fighting, Kieft opened the frontier north of New Amsterdam for settlement by Blacks. Company records show that in 1644, one Paulo d'Angola and other enslaved Africans petitioned the DWIC for their freedom, as well as the freedom of their wives. The wife of Paulo d'Angola was none other than Dorothy Creole. Records of the colony show that the previous year, Dorothy had adopted a young Black child who had lost both his parents. Keift conditionally granted the petition. He conferred what was called "half-freedom," declaring them "free and at liberty on the same footing as other free people here in New Netherlands." This group of former slaves was also granted title to land in the Dutch colony. Only the names of the men appear in the records. Some historians feel that helf-freedom for the petitioners' wives came only when these men paid for the women's half-freedom.
These families received the right to own land north of the settlement to farm and settle. Called the "Land of the Blacks" or the "Negro Frontier," this two-mile stretch from Canal Street to today's 34th Street was established as one of the first free Black communities in North America, clearly outside the boundaries of the colony.
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