Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Humble and Nether Origins of New York

The story of New Amsterdam is surprisingly well-documented. And a little sad.

A delightful, if a little fusty, book from 1978 "A Sweet and Alien Land", tells the story of Dutch colonization of what we now call New York State, beginning with the purchase of Manhattan from the local Indians in 1626, and outward to Long Island and upstate up to Albany. There is a surprising amount of documentation available, thanks to the scrupulous record keeping of the Dutch, including the cost of Manhattan itself, a steal if there ever was one. But the most interesting facet of the story is the subtext of human density and the role it plays in conflict. Whoever has more people wins the land, a process that may someday come back to haunt us.

The land was only sweet because it was underpeopled, (from a European perspective), partly through the technological backwardness of the resident native americans, partly from their decimation by exotic diseases. Nevertheless, like other colonists up and down the new world, the Dutch had a very difficult time getting a foothold and making their old-world methods work in the new. Maize was one technology they had to learn, for example. It didn't help that the Dutch colony was not really about colonization at all, but about "harvesting" the local beaver skins. it was founded by the Dutch West India Company, the ill-starred sibling of the Dutch East India Company, expressly and solely to make enormous profits from trade in the skins, which were brought down the Hudson River from the interior by Native Americans.

As one can imagine, the supply dwindled from overkill, and never came up to the company's expectations. So the colony was left with little investment, few defenses, and mediocre personnel. Its strong suits were its prime central position on the coast, outstanding harbor, and easy-going culture, compared to the fanatics up in Boston. The population was roughly 270 by 1640, and 4,000 by 1664. In the absence of completing claims early on, the Dutch expanded their network of outposts from Connecticut down to Delaware, but the outlying sites were doomed from lack of personnel and from encroachment, not by Indians, but by other Europeans, particularly disenchanted New Englanders who took over the Connecticut area, and then Long Island.

The book proceeds through the gory details of successive governorships, which  will leave aside, except to note that it was an excruciating position to occupy, faced with rude, obstreperous colonists, and months travel from one's putative overseers in Holland. and from there he was ruled by two bodies- the West India Company, and the Dutch government proper. Neither of which appreciated the great difficulties of the new colony, and provided as little guidance as they did resources.

The English had as little foresight in their settlement of the new world, it being a dumping ground for religious dissenters (New England) or for deluded economic opportunists (Jamestown and the South). But for them, the settlement took precedence over the economic plunder, and the people came. When enough had populated New England in the later 1600's, they cast their eyes southward upon the weak settlement in New Amsterdam. A few political machinations later, particularly in England where the king's brother York was eager for a feather in his cap, and they presented an overwhelming show of force and defeated governor Peter Stuyvesant on September 5, 1664, with very little firing or bloodshed.

Who should own the land? Those who currently possess it, or those who can most densely populate it and put it to its most productive economic (and martial) use? Or those who have the firepower to take it? As soon as Europeans took over land in the new world, they set up systems of property deeds and law that completely contravened their original mode of acquisition, which was by swindling, terror, killing, and stealing. Europeans continually overwhelmed and "opened" up lands during American settlement on the basis of both higher density and stronger force. If density and productivity is the rule, we may eventually be on the short end of such a competition from Asia. Even Mexico, at 64 people per square kilometer, has about twice the population density of the US.

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