By Mark Meuwese
Recently, refugees from the Middle East have become a controversial topic of discussion in American media and politics. According to the New York-based Donald Trump, currently seeking the nomination with the Republican Party for the presidential election of 2016, the United States should not allow any Muslim refugees into the country. Several commentators and historians have rightly pointed out that heated debates about refugees are unfortunately nothing new. Indeed, two dramatic episodes concerning the treatment of refugees can be found in the history of the early seventeenth-century Dutch colony of New Netherland.
The first episode took place in the winter of 1643. The refugees in question were the Tappan and Wecquaesgeeks, two groups of Algonquian-speaking Indigenous peoples from the lower Hudson valley. Since 1640, Dutch-Indigenous relations had become tense following the attempt of the colonial government, based on the southern tip of Manhattan in Fort Amsterdam, to impose a tax on the Algonquian communities living in the vicinity of Manhattan. When a Wecquaesgeek man murdered a Dutch settler in 1641, the colonial council, chaired by director Willem Kieft, held a special meeting with prominent settlers to deliberate how to respond. A decision was made to punish the Wecquaesgeeks in a future expedition. In March 1642, the impatient Kieft dispatched eighty men on a night raid against the Wecquaesgeek village. Although this expedition failed to locate the village, the Wecquaesgeeks were sufficiently intimidated that they negotiated a truce with Dutch officials. In the meantime, tensions between the Dutch and other Algonquian peoples in the lower Hudson valley had increased following other unresolved murders and thefts.
Petrus Stuyvesant, the Director General of the colony, was unhappy with the arrival of the refugees. Stuyvesant was concerned that the refugee families would only be the first of many other Jewish families. Moreover, the sudden arrival of Jews in New Netherland was seen as a danger to the religious and social stability of the fledgling colony. Johannes Megapolensis, the Dutch Reformed minister based in New Amsterdam, also feared that the presence of the Jews would cause religious and social unrest in the Protestant colony. The objections of Megapolensis and Stuyvesant were rejected, however, by the directors of the Amsterdam Chamber of the West India Company (WIC). The Company directors had received an important petition from the sizeable Jewish community in Amsterdam in January 1655. This formal request asked the directors to admit the Jewish refugees a safe haven in New Netherland. The prominent Jewish community of Amsterdam reminded the Company directors that the Jews in Brazil had always been loyal to the WIC. Additionally, the petition hinted that the large Jewish community from Brazil with its valuable commercial networks stretching across the Atlantic world could relocate to English and French Caribbean colonies rather than those controlled by the WIC if the Dutch did not allow the Jewish refugees into New Netherland. Since the WIC was still recovering from the recent loss of its Brazilian colony, the Amsterdam directors were concerned about losing access to the valuable Jewish community of the Atlantic world. The WIC directors were especially eager to have the former Jewish community in Recife to pay back outstanding debts to the Company that dated back to the time that many Jews had been tax collectors in Brazil. Finally, the Amsterdam directors were also swayed by humanitarian concerns. In the instructions to Stuyvesant, they wrote the Director-General to accept the Jewish refugees into the colony since many of them had experienced great hardships following the loss of Dutch Brazil.
As these two episodes in New Amsterdam’s history illustrate, the Dutch colony in New North America did not receive refugees with open arms. The Dutch viewed New Netherland as a vulnerable colony that needed to be vigorously protected against any perceived threats from within and without. Although New Netherland is sometimes held up as a place of religious toleration, the brutal treatment of the Indian refugees and the hostile reception of the Jews shows that the seventeenth-century Dutch colonists could be as intolerant of religious and cultural ‘others’ as theirEuropean counterparts in the New World.
Mark Meuwese, Associate Professor of History, University of Winnipeg. He is currently working on a study of massacres in the Dutch colonial world.
The massacres of the Wecquaesgeeks and Tappans as well as ‘Kieft’s War’ in general are discussed in Allen W. Trelease, Indian Affairs in Colonial New York: The Seventeenth Century (1960) (reprinted by the University of Nebraska Press, 1997); Willem Frijhoff, Fulfilling God’s Mission: The Two Worlds of Dominie EverardusBogardus, 1607-1647 (Leiden: Brill, 2007); Paul Otto, The Dutch-Munsee Encounter in America: The Struggle for Sovereignty in the Hudson Valley (New York: Berghahn Books, 2006); Donna Merwick, The Shame and the Sorrow: Dutch-Amerindian Encounters in New Netherland (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006); Robert S. Grumet, The Munsee Indians: A History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009); Tom Arne Midtrod, The Memory of All Ancient Customs: Native American Diplomacy in the Colonial Hudson Valley (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012).
The ordeal of the Jewish refugees in New Netherland has been most recently examined in Evan Haefeli, New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013) and Jaap Jacobs, The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-Century America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009).