Sunday, June 5, 2016

An Overview of Slave Trade in New Netherland, New York and Schuyler Mansion

by Danielle Funiciello

“Slaves? In New York?” - It’s not an uncommon question on tours of Schuyler Mansion. 

Actors portraying Schuyler's enslaved workers and freemen
during Schuyler Mansion's "The Accused" Focus Tour (2014)
We are often led to believe that slavery was, more or less, “a problem of the South”, when in fact, slavery was an integral and inseparable part of the Dutch, Colonial and Early-American economy throughout the New World. Drawing from census records, receipts and Schuyler letters, we can piece together that between 8 and 13 people were enslaved under Philip Schuyler at the Albany estate over the years. An additional population at Philip’s Saratoga estate brought the total to at least 30. In his writings, Philip Schuyler most often referred to his enslaved workers as “the servants”. We intend to bring some of these individual “servants” into the spotlight throughout the season here on our blog, but let’s begin with a more general history of Slavery in New York and Albany.

Slavery was a nearly immediate truth of New Netherland. The Dutch West India Company was granted access to the Americas and West Africa as part of the same charter in 1621. They began a fur trade in New Netherland and a slave trade mainly operating out of Angola. In the early years, slaves were brought over direct from Angola to build the infrastructure that allowed the fur trade to operate and paved the way for Dutch settlement.

By the 1650s, when Philip’s great-grandfather Philip Pieterse Schuyler was settled in New Netherland, the preference had shifted to importing enslaved people from the Dutch Caribbean rather than from Angola, because Africans who had already worked the sugar plantations were “broken-in” and thought easier to control.

This trend would carry forward as the English take control and rename the land New York in 1664. Under English Colonial rule, New Yorkers often opted to pay more for African, Native or mixed-race individuals who were already enslaved, since they had valuable skills sets and were already privy to the customary rules of their white owners.

By 1790, when the first census was taken, Albany held the highest slave count of any county in the state with 3,722 residents living in slavery – 572 just in the city of Albany itself, out of a total city population of 3,498. Schuyler claimed 13 enslaved persons on this census record. Even those households which did not own slaves were engaged in the trade in other ways. Boatmen trafficked human cargo upriver from NYC, bankers and lawyers brokered deals exchanging human property, citizens who could not afford slaves of their own rented their labor from their masters, and the products of farms and mills were traded downriver to New York and from there to sugar plantations in the Caribbean. This included produce from Schuyler’s mills in Saratoga.

Meanwhile, on Schuyler’s Albany estate, the enslaved population seems to have been made up of a handful of men, several women and their children. The farm land was largely worked by white tenant farmers, so the majority of enslaved men were engaged in moving materials between Schuyler’s properties, working with the animals, operating mills and other skilled and semi-skilled labor. Under Catherine Schuyler’s direction, enslaved women tended to household tasks such as cooking, washing, and perhaps helping tend to the children. Evidence suggests that enslaved children were trained to serve as wait staff within the home. Several enslaved people made attempts to escape from the Schuyler property over the years.

Manumission efforts in New York did not truly begin in New York until after the American Revolution. In 1788, the slave trade was banned in state, though loopholes could be found and slave owners kept title to those under their enslavement. In 1799, New York passed “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” which allowed for the manumission of slaves dependent on their age and date of birth. In 1827, slavery was outlawed entirely, but even under these laws many slave owners were able to transfer their enslavement into indentured servitude or otherwise devise unfair working conditions for “freemen”. Slavery may have functioned differently in the North, but it was the economic base on which New York and Albany were built.

We intend to discuss all aspects of life at Schuyler Mansion for the enslaved population in greater detail moving forward, but we hope this article gives you a framework for understanding the world in which Philip Schuyler and his enslaved population lived and worked.

Sources (in addition to the collections at Schuyler Mansion) and further reading:

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