Welcome to the eight day of Blogtober, where the demand for content outstrips the access to common sense. Note to self: Next time you get two bloggers like Speaker7 and Sips of Jen and Tonic (two talented writers whose work you should check out) goading you into a writing stunt, build in a week to get some buffer together.
Going through this now, I can better appreciate what went into the every-day-stand that mywithershins just did in October. Which has a day longer to deal with than I did; yeah, I’m starting to whine here…
Honestly, there may well be some small phone-in pieces coming up here and there, a few “Yeah, I showed up” stands where I wave and get a paycheck for a few seconds. Kind of like Stan Lee in a Marvel film…
But this ain’t going to be one of those…
The Pirates of New York
Over a few installments, I will be filing a popular history about some of those in the Sweet Trade, both identified and out of sight at the edges, who sailed the waters around what would become the New York metropolitan area. As I mentioned before, this is an exercise not so much in hard documentation but measured assumption, a popular history that makes no guarantees due to the subjects keeping themselves out of scrutiny. Short of winning the lottery, a MacArthur grant, or a really well loved Kickstarter campaign, I simply do not have the resources needed to devote to turn these musings into a hard historical account; anyone out there who can go out and connect a few dots while busting together some heads, if this helps in any way, hey, go for it…
Part the First: The Early Days, or Voyage of the Nieu Amster-Damned
We have no idea if the Lenape tribes that occupied Manhattan before Europe showed up had engaged in raiding parties against other tribes, and although it’s not out of the realm of possibility there’s too little to look at to say conclusively. Had they done so, we could assume that they might have gone a-raiding by canoe; the first hard records of the tribes in 1524 comes from the logs of Giovanni da Verrazano, who was greeted in Upper New York Bay on the water when tribal representatives paddled out to meet him.
When next the Lenape met Europeans, they encountered Henry Hudson in 1609. While Hudson was no pirate, he would two years later drive his crew to mutiny, a not uncommon practice back then which sometimes prompts the mutineers to be going on the account. It’s interesting to speculate what might have happened had the Discovery not gone back to England and tried to find safe harbor away from the authorities back where they had been two years before; in all likelihood, everyone who remembered sailing past Manhattan up to Albany either did not make this voyage or got cast over the side with Hudson.
The Dutch were the first to come to New York to make buck, much the same as the other groups to follow, such as the English, the Irish, the Italians, the Yuppies, the Hipsters, and all the rest of ‘em… In all likelihood, a certain amount of violence was involved as the new group established their presence, as would happen with the other groups noted above-
(Hey, I’m not implying anything here about these named waves of people bringing crime; the fact that some Hipster cut me off at Whole Foods the other day with her frigin’ attitude is still fresh in my mind, that’s all…)
Anyways, the violence: We can’t ignore the fact that the first permanent Dutch settlement in 1624, on what today is Governors Island, was most likely chosen for its defensibility, nor that the first permanent structure the Dutch built on Manhattan was a protective palisade. The name given the structure that protected the newly-founded settlement of New Amsterdam, the Battery, gives its name to the neighborhood and landmarks associated with the territory, such as the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.
And while the relations between the Dutch and the Lenape were better than between, say, the Spanish and every other set of people in the New World, to the point where the Dutch could conduct real estate dealings with the natives 1626, the need for protection was still high. For the 17th Century was a time of aggressive mercantilism, where colonies could be fought over by crowns back in Europe, who hoped to disrupt their rivals’ trade and pick up a few extra riches for themselves on the process. And one of the cards available to the colonizing powers was the offering of letters of marque, licenses to seize ships and keep some of the trade personally.
And as we all should know by now, the difference between a pirate and a privateer is whether you have your paperwork in order…
One such privateer who conducted business in New Amsterdam was Abraham Blauvelt, whose history seems to be confused, which can be a good thing for a pirate. There seems to be only one biography of Blauvelt repeated across numerous websites, all of whom claim that in 1644 he was serving the Swedish East India Company, which is no mean feat considering that the company only comes into existence as of 1731. That’s not to say that Swedish money might not have been behind his ventures, allowing him to raid Spanish shipping from bases in Jamaica (from Bluefields Bay, named for him) and then unloading (fencing) his cargo in New Amsterdam. However, there are a few possible explanations how this pirate became something of a temporal anomaly:
- the story may have been spread after the fact by descendants wanting to burnish the family name
- another throne in Europe wanted plausible deniability and blamed him on the Swedes
- Blauvelt was an independent agent who talked his way out of a few jams, and one of his stories about the Swedes got him the best results with authorities, sutters, victims, whomever he’d use it on
While we (kinda) know something about Blauvelt, we can assume that there may have been a few other sea dogs who benefitted from Dutch hospitality when they came to New Amsterdam. Like a number of settlements established during this time, such as the pirate havens Port Royale and Tortuga, New Amsterdam probably depended if not thrived on trade, and administrators who wanted to show a profit would be willing to allow trade in ill-gotten goods to go on, for a few fees here and there. While the largest settlement in Dutch North America did make a good profit above board on the fur trade, there’s nothing to preclude the possibility that a little side trading went on as well.
The fact that the Dutch tried to encourage farming among newly arrived colonists in order to slow the growth of villages along the East River, which were becoming ports of call for smugglers and pirates, suggests that even if the authorities were not comfortable with buccaneers, they did have to deal with their presence in the area. We can also draw from this that there are neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens that may be able to claim that their first residents plied the waters as pirates, which could endow a little cachet on them…
Speaking of pirates encouraged by the Dutch, mention must be made of Moses Cohen Henriques, a Sephardic Jew working for the Dutch who makes a name for himself in history as one of the pirates who seized the Spanish Plate Fleet in 1628 on behalf of the Dutch. With his riches, he ultimate led fellow Sephardi to Dutch possessions in Brazil to establish a haven in the New World. When the Portuguese were on the verge of retaking Brazil in 1654, the colonists fled Recife, fearful that the Inquisition would come for them in the New World, to find refuge elsewhere.
During the flight back the Amsterdam, a contingent met Spanish pirates who stripped them of their possessions. Desperate and high and dry in Jamaica, they sought passage to the nearest Dutch possession from French captain Jacques de la Motthe of the Saint Catherine. Unfortunately, de la Motthe was not above a little high seas robbery himself, and attempted to recoup the inflated costs incurred for his “services” by holding some hostages, expecting to be paid when he dropped the 23 passengers off in New Amsterdam.
To add insult to injury, the governor of the colony, Peter Stuyvesant, felt there were already enough Jews ashore, and did everything in his power to make life uncomfortable for the suddenly expanded Jewish community under him. This led to a long conflict between Stuyvesant and Asser Levy, one of the “Recife 23” who used the colonial court system and direct petition to the Dutch West India Company, Stuyvesant’s boss, which ultimately results in codified tolerance for the Jews and a tradition of welcoming all newcomers in New Amsterdam, that gets institutionalized and carried forward when the Dutch surrender their possessions to the British in 1664.
Yes, the Big Apple owes its welcoming ways and means to a Spanish pirate whose name is lost to history, who may not have been aware of what he and his crew had done for local history when they raided that ship on its way back to Amsterdam…