Slavery System in New York in The Colonial Period

New Amsterdam was established as the most important trading port city by the West India Company. Most of the immigrants who were attracted by the colony were interested in becoming merchants and traders than agricultural laborers. The main problem for the merchants was the lack of labor supply – shortage of a large white labor. To deal with the labor shortage, the company started to import African slaves into New Amsterdam as early as 1626. In New Amsterdam, slaves were very important for merchants and traders as a means of solving labor problems.

The slave labor in New York was completely different with variety from the one in the Chesapeake. The province of Up-State New Netherland along with Hudson River needed agricultural labor with exception, but the peasant of the province were mainly German immigrants called tenant farmers. Unlike the southern colonies, however, New Amsterdam in particular was urbanizing society where agricultural labors were rarely needed. Therefore, colonial people employed African slaves in various kinds of urban occupations such as servants in manufacturing, in commerce, in trading and even in variety of skilled and semiskilled occupations. The employers often required slaves a considerable degree of skill. Slaves in the city carried out such skilled crafts as carpenter, blacksmith, weaver, shoemaker, and butcher ( Koblin, 9 ). Unlike the tobacco plantations of the Chesapeake society, in New York the slaves did not usually work at simple, repetitive tasks under the strict slave owners. In New York, hiring system was more widespread than in any other colonies. For instance, skilled slave labor was able to compete effectively with the free labor of white artisans. The temporary use of slaves was even more advantageous to those who needs help only during short periods. In short, slave labor in New York was considerably free labor because of the wide and large demand of labor.

Under the Dutch, the arrangement of the slave?s position was informal. The Dutch had no fear of increasing the class of free slaves within their community, in which there was no legislation to prohibit their freedom. A common arrangement by which slaves gained a measure of freedom was ” half- freedom.” Under this plan, the owners granted liberty to a slave in return for an amount of work every year, or for an annual payment of goods, or sometimes, for both ( Koblin, 12 ). The benefit to the owner who required part-time servants, or who had a seasonal demand for laborers, was obvious. It assured free labor when needed, while at the same time freeing the former owner from the responsibility and expense of caring for workers at other times. Thus, half-freedom was a quite effective plan for the slave owners to use and maintain their slaves.

This halfway status of slaves under the Dutch was revealed even more obviously in many points in which slaves were accorded equal treatment with whites under the law. Blacks, for example, were allowed to own land. Slaves had basically the same status in the courts of justice as did other members of the community. Though slaves in New York were legally considered to be property, slaves also had some legal recognition as human being. For instance, a law was intended to protect the slave from cruel abuse or tyrannical treatment, so that the owners were prohibited from punishments which could harm slave or cause his death. Also, slaves were insured to be provided with food and clothing.

In addition, slaves were permitted a personal relationship between slaves and their masters which was not likely on the large plantations. Koblin remarks such a relationship as follows, ” their black … were very free and familiar; sometimes sauntering about among whites at meal time, with hat on head, and freely joining occasionally in conversation, as if they were one and all of the same household.” ( Koblin, 11 ) In New York, the most slave owners did not treat their slaves like objects rather than people, which southern slave owners did.

On the whole, in New York, the circumstances surrounding slaves were fairly different from any other colonies. Compared with tobacco slaves in southern colonies, slaves in New York were engaged in urban occupations, were granted much more freedom, and were insured halfway status close to white, which Chesapeake slaves never had. For the colony itself, also slavery was an important solution to the labor problem in New York as a means of solving absence of labor. The Dutch West India Company adopted half-freedom system to take advantage of slaves, and the slave owners and the other people could use slaves effectively through this system.

Writen by Seigo Dobashi, Baruch College History Department, 1997.


Koblin, David. The Black Minority in Early New York, The university of the state of New York ; NY, Albany, 1971.