The world in the early 1600s was not sharply divided between people who were free and people who were not. There were many people in Europe and the American colonies who weren’t really free: indentured servants under contract for several years, apprentices who were bound to a tradesman while they learned a skill, and tenants farming land owned by a landlord.


Circa 1626, eleven bondsmen were brought to New Amsterdam. They had Portuguese names and were probably captured from Portuguese or Spanish ships. In 1627, the first three enslaved women were brought to New Amsterdam, which was still little more than a muddy village with thirty wooden houses and a population of less than two hundred people.

For much of the Dutch colonial period, the slaves were owned directly by the Dutch West India Company, and they worked for the colony. They cleared land, planted and harvested crops, and built houses, roads, and bridges. They built Fort Amsterdam, cut the road that became Broadway, and fortified a wall along a path that would later be known as Wall Street. Without their work, the colony of New Amsterdam might not have survived.


In 1613, Juan (or Jan or Joao) Rodriguez (or Rodrigues) appears to have accompanied Thijs Mossel, a Dutch sea captain, on the vessel Jonge Tobias from San Domingo, now known as Santo Domingo. Mossel returned to the Netherlands, while Rodriguez was marooned in what became New York (on either Governors Island or Manhattan) or more likely decided on his own to remain.

Something of a linguist, he is believed to have mastered the local Indian language and manned a tiny trading post (the Dutch apparently gave him 80 hatchets and other tools and weapons as payment for his services).


Manuel de Gerrit de Reus van Angola came from Angola. As such, he was one of the many West Central African slaves to end up in New Netherland and thus was probably Catholic and spoke Portuguese, Spanish and Bantu-speaking languages. His exact time of arrival is not known, but he was among the very first enslaved men in the colony, serving the Company as early as 1625/1626. He probably became known as Manuel de Gerrit de Reus because at some point he served the settler Gerrit Teussen de Reus, or Reux. During his long life in New Netherland, he married, had several children, and established himself as a farmer on Manhattan after he received half-freedom.

De Reus appeared in a New Netherland court as early as 1639 when he won a case against Dutch settler Henric Fredericksen van Bunninck for the 15 guilders that he had earned but had not yet received.2 Four years later, Manuel de Gerrit de Reus and Groot Manuel appeared in court to testify on behalf of Cleijn Manuel, a fellow Company slave. De Reus and Manuel stated that Jan Selis (also spelled Celes), a free colonist, had struck Cleijn Manuel’s cow with a knife and chased away other animals. Their testimony must have been convincing because the court resolved that Selis pay Cleijn Manuel for the damages he had done.

Although De Reus appears in the colonial records on several occasions, he is best known for that fateful day in January of 1641 when he survived public execution. Nine Company slaves—Cleijn Antonio, Paulo d’Angola, Gracia d’Angola, Jan de Fort Orange, Manuel de Gerrit de Reus, Antonij Portugues, Manuel Minuit, Simon Conge, and Manuel de Groote—admitted that they had killed Jan Premero together, though they did not elaborate why they had beaten their fellow Company slave to death. The Council decided that in order to resolve this case the men were to draw lots to determine who should be held responsible for Premero’s death, and the lot fell to Manuel Gerrit de Reus.

De Reus did not only survive the hanging; he continued to be a well-respected member of New Amsterdam’s enslaved community. In fact, he was one of the first slaves to receive half-freedom in 1644. After having served the Company for 18 or 19 years, the Company manumitted De Reus and 10 other Company slaves together with their wives Half-Freedoms. De Reus and the other half-free men and women received plots of land north of Manhattan’s Dutch settlement by the Fresh Water pond and close to Peter Stuyvesant’s bowery.

De Reus continued to be a respected member of the now (half) free African community on Manhattan. He owned land and baptized his son Michiel in Manhattan’s Dutch Reformed Collegiate Church. A testimony by Domingo Angola in December of 1663 indicates that De Reus was deemed trustworthy in New Amsterdam’s community. When Angola petitioned the court for the freedom of his stepdaughter, Christina, he claimed that Groot Manuel, Simon Congo, and Emanuel Reus had overheard Director General Kieft say that the children of half-free parents who were born after 1644 would be free. Clearly, Angola believed that this testimony of these African men would strengthen his case.

In 1674, Manuel de Gerrit de Reus was mentioned once more. He was listed as one of the Africans who lived between the Fresh Water Pond and Harlem. At that point, he must have been at least 65 years old. It is not clear how or when De Reus died. What is certain is that he lived a long life, and that he made the best out of the circumstances that had brought him to New Netherland as an enslaved young man. De Reus’s life reveals that there were opportunities for New Netherland’s enslaved population to obtain freedom and build a life in the colony as free people. But it is important to keep in mind that not all of the colony’s enslaved people were able to achieve the same kind of independence.

One of the first female slaves in Manhattan, Dorothy Creole adopted the orphaned Antonio, became a half-free landowner, and served as the executor of a child’s estate. Like the story of Groot Manuel, hers deals with the unfamiliar idea of limited freedom, and it contains the brief story of an infant who lost both parents. Dorothy Creole’s adoption of the boy, however, shows how one individual stepped forward to care for a child in need. This profile also describes how the lives of blacks and whites intersected during the Dutch period.


On February 25, 1644, the Dutch West India Company granted conditional freedom, also know as half-freedom, to Paulo Angola, Groot Manuel, Cleijn Manuel, Manuel Gerrit de Reus, Sijmon Congo, Antonij Portugies, Gracia, Piter Santomee, Jan Francisco, Cleijn Antonij, Jan Fort Orange, and their wives. These men received half-freedom after they petitioned the Council to be freed from their bondage after having served the Company for 18 or 19 years. In their petitions, they claimed that the Company had promised them their freedom, indicating that they had always considered their enslavement temporary. They also suggested that they needed their freedom so that they could provide for their families.1

The Company granted these men their freedom under the following conditions: they would have to pay yearly dues to the Company, assist the Company whenever it needed them, and their children, including those who were not yet born, would remain enslaved. The Council proclaimed that if these former Company slaves acted in accordance with these conditions they would be “free and at liberty on the same footing as other free people here in New Netherland.” But, if they failed to pay their yearly dues of “30 skepels of maize, wheat, peas or beans, and one fat hog,” they would be re-enslaved. The company provided them with plots of land north of New Amsterdam so that they could take care of their families and pay these yearly dues.

Although these freed men continued to be obligated to the Dutch West India Company, several of the conditions did not differ that much from the obligations of the city’s free, white population. Landholders often had to contribute a tenth of their yearly harvest, and, like the half-free men, New Amsterdam’s free men were required to assist the Company when it needed them. In 1647, for example, the Council requested that all men help restore Fort New Amsterdam: “Every male person, from 16 to 60 years, shall each for himself work 12 days in the year at the said fort.” They could be relieved from these services only if they would pay a fee.

The most devastating condition of their half-freedom was the continued bondage of their children. When Dutch authorities challenged this continued enslavement, the Company defended the practice by explaining that only three of the children actually remained enslaved. One of these children—Maria the daughter of Groote Pieter—was sent to the upriver settlement of Rensselaerwijck for a four-year period where she was to serve Nicolaes Coorn. Most of the children, however, lived with their parents even if they were legally not free. Several parents and caretakers successfully petitioned for the freedom of these children. Emanuel Pietersen petitioned the Council in 1661 to grant freedom to Anthony, son of half-free parents, and in December of 1663, Domingo Angola petitioned the court for the freedom of Christina, the daughter of his deceased wife, Anthonya, and her first husband, Manuel Trompetter.

Soon after these first eleven men obtained half-freedom, several other enslaved Africans received various forms of conditional or half-freedom from the Company as well as from individual slaveholders. In 1646, Johannes Megapolensis requested manumission for Jan Francisco under the condition that Francisco would pay yearly dues, and Philip Jansz. Ringo granted freedom to Manuel de Hispanien as long as Hispanien paid an annual fee of 100 guilders for three consecutive years.2 In 1662, the Company granted conditional freedom to three women under the condition that they would return weekly to clean the Director General’s house. While the conditions differed each time, the Company and the colony’s individual settlers granted conditional freedom or half-freedom on several other occasions.

Some half-free people had difficulty abiding by the conditions of their freedom. Only a few months after she received half-freedom, Mayken, one of the three Company slaves who received freedom under the condition that they weekly clean the director general’s house, petitioned for full freedom: She explained that the other women had since passed away, which left the weekly cleaning tasks to her. In her petition, she explained that she had trouble keeping this obligation since she was old and weak. She also pointed out that she had been a slave since 1628 and really wanted to live the final part of her life as a free woman. The Council granted her request, finally giving her full freedom.

Like Mayken, New Netherland’s half-free men and women continued to long for full manumission. Some of them realized that their half-free status was unique to the Dutch colony, and feared that they might be re-enslaved if the colony changed hands. On September 4, 1664, when English ships were stationed in New Amsterdam’s harbor, such concern caused eight men who had received conditional freedom earlier that year to request that New Netherland’s Council grant them full freedom. The men received their full freedom, and they maintained this status as freedmen in English New York. These freedmen, women, and their descendants formed a community in early New York City that Jasper Dankaerts described as close-knit.


Although most Africans in New Netherland were deemed slaves or “half-slaves,” not all relationships between Dutch and African descendants were based on the slave-master relationship. In fact, African and European relationships were amicable at times. Free white settlers sometimes served as witnesses for marriages between enslaved people, slaves and servants gathered for leisure activities and worked together. In a few instances, black and white New Netherlanders even married and had children together.

Sundays, holidays, and evenings provided enslaved Africans with time off to relax and meet with fellow New Netherlanders. Although the use of alcohol was prohibited on the Sabbath and other religious holidays, free and enslaved New Netherlanders frequently met and enjoyed alcoholic beverages on these days. In 1662, for example, Andries Joghimsen appeared in court for serving black New Netherlanders alcohol on Sunday, and Geertje Teunis was accused of serving hard liquor to a slave on the “Day of Fasting.”

The colony did not have laws that forbade interracial marriages, and not once did the Dutch Colonial Council punish interracial relationships. These relationships may have been frowned upon, but they were certainly not prohibited. Several African and Dutch New Netherlanders married, and multiple children came out of these interracial relationships. The Dutch Reformed Church consecrated these marriages and the baptisms of their children, which suggests that the church did not object to interracial marriages. As long as both partners were protestant Christians, the Church accepted their unions. In 1650, for example, Harmen Janszen from Hessen, a German immigrant, married Maria Malaet from Angola, and Jan “the negro” married Annetie Abrahams in the Dutch Reformed Church of Brooklyn in 1663.

Some Dutch settlers had intimate relations with their slaves. The most well-known example is that of Captain Jan de Vries who had a child with one of his enslaved women, a woman referred to as Elaria (also referred to as Elarij, Clara, Hillarij, and Swartinne). De Vries named their son Jan and had him baptized in New Amsterdam’s Dutch Reformed Church in August of 1647. Records do not reveal whether or not the couple married, but Elaria did inherit part of his property in Manhattan close by the Fresh Water pond.

Anthony Jansen Van Salee and Grietje Reyniers were the colony’s most infamous interracial couple. Van Salee, also known as Anthony Jansen de Turck, Anthony Jansen van Vaes, or Anthony Jansen the Mulatto, born in Cartagena, was a settler of Dutch and African descent. Not only was his mother African, his father was a Dutch privateer who converted to Islam. He met his wife Grietie Reijniers in the Dutch Republic where they agreed to marry. Once they settled in New Netherland, they quickly received a questionable reputation. The couple appeared in the colony’s court on multiple occasions for various offenses, many of them slander or debt related. Eventually, this led to their banishment from New Amsterdam in 1639. It remains unclear if the fact that they were an interracial couple contributed to their troubled reputation, but it certainly did not help their case.