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Andrea C. Mosterman Spaces of Enslavement. A History of Slavery and Resistance in Dutch New York Cornell University Press, Ithaca (NY) 2021. xiii, 230 pp. Ill. $39.95. (E-book: $25.99.)

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Andrea C. Mosterman Spaces of Enslavement. A History of Slavery and Resistance in Dutch New York Cornell University Press, Ithaca (NY) 2021. xiii, 230 pp. Ill. $39.95. (E-book: $25.99.)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 April 2023

Douglas R. Egerton*
Le Moyne College, Syracuse, New York, United States E-mail:
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Book Review
Copyright © The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis

Once overlooked by scholars writing about slavery in North America – with the exception of rare pioneers such as Edgar McManus – unfree labor in early New York has in recent years been the subject of masterful studies by Graham Russell Hodges, Shane White, and Leslie Harris. Andrea Mosterman adds to that list of important books with her examination of physical spaces, from kitchens and attics in mansions to taverns and church pews, and her explanation of how those spaces often inspired black resistance. Despite the book's subtitle, this slim volume is impressively wide ranging, and while the majority of its pages are devoted to the Dutch period of control, or at least how pervasive Dutch culture shaped the culture of early Manhattan, Mosterman covers many decades of New York's history and occasionally even wanders into the early nineteenth century.

Early on, Mosterman suggests a new and original prism through which to understand the importance of enslaved people in early New Netherlands. Modern scholars, she notes, have rarely underestimated their significance to the colony's economic success due to the crops and crafts they produced. But less explored is the way their labor cleared the land and literally claimed “this space for the Dutch” (p. 14). In a variety of trading settlements around the globe, Mosterman observes, the ability of enslaved craftsman to construct homes and warehouses in Dutch-style architecture, or to dig familiar looking canals, not only made the ports more welcoming to prospective colonists but asserted Dutch control over what were often contested spaces with indigenous peoples. Due to the relative prosperity and religious cohesion of the Dutch Republic, too few immigrants cared to undertake the perilous journey to a frontier settlement, so the Dutch West India Company was forced to rely on enslaved Africans to clear trees, work the fields, and help in fighting the Munsee, who continued to hunt on land the Dutch insisted they owned.

Because of this, Dutch colonial officials often devised what Mosterman calls “hierarchies of enslavement”, in which authorities and company managers granted conditional manumission in return for precise obligations. Other scholars have suggested that these high rates of manumission indicated either that those being liberated were aged and relatively useless, or that such private agreements demonstrated slavery in Manhattan to be milder than in other colonies. Mosterman, however, provides ample evidence that such “half-freedoms” came at a high price. Only three years after being condemned to hang for killing a fellow slave owned by the Dutch West India Company, Manuel de Gerrit de Reus was offered freedom provided he pay annual fees for a number of years. Reus was evidently young and strong and a diligent worker, as the company required him to pay his fee in maize, wheat, and hogs to the families of company employees, including children not yet born, for what appeared to be an imprecise term. Should he fail to perform his duties, he could be legally re-enslaved, but if he fulfilled his tasks adequately, the company declared Reus and his wife “free and at liberty just as other free people here in New Netherland” (p. 27).

As historian Ira Berlin once emphasized in his scholarship on New Netherland, most of the enslaved Africans in the colony lived and labored in New Amsterdam. While Dutch settlers ranged across the colony and into New Jersey, both those owned by the company and by individual settlers resided in the lower Hudson Region. This meant that the majority of unfree people in the port lived in close proximity to one another and routinely interacted with each other. Although it is often difficult to indicate precisely from extant records how many slaves resided within any given home, some larger houses clearly contained several entire families, and so provided each with little privacy or personal space of their own. In its early decades, Manhattan remained small, so even when farms on the edge of town held only one or two Africans, they were still able to congregate in off hours in the streets, churches, and taverns. Life in a dank basement or stuffy attic damaged the health of the enslaved, and especially the well-being of children, but their evening hours and Sundays allowed them to maintain a sense of community harder to achieve on isolated rural holdings.

One indication of the strength of this community, Mosterman argues, were the witnesses who stepped forward to attend the baptism of an enslaved woman's child. Africans in West Central Africa, where Catholicism had taken hold more than a century before, had often traveled great distances to attend baptisms, and with no Catholic congregations in New Amsterdam, they naturally performing the same rituals in Dutch Reformed Churches. Scholars have debated the extent to which Africans fused earlier religious practices and faiths with their North American variety, and Dutch ministers were the least likely to knowing countenance such syntheses, but membership in these churches, Mosterman suggests, “proved a crucial step toward societal inclusion”, just as these baptisms and marriages strengthened the efforts of enslaved people to force Dutch settlers to accept their family ties (p. 43).

Not all whites were willing to do so. In practices that would stretch well into the nineteenth century, most congregations forced black congregants into pews or benches located in the rear of churches, or up into overhead galleries. Some whites worried that allowing too many Africans or African Americans into their doors would degrade the congregation, and others fretted that liberated blacks might wish to serve as elders or deacons. Those who disagreed often did so on proslavery grounds. The Reverend Peter Lowe insisted that physical bondage did not conflict with spiritual liberation, a theory that dated back to the earliest days of Christianity. Either because he agreed with that sentiment or simply because he thought it imperative to save African souls, even Jacobus Elisa Johannes Capitein, a liberated West African minister, defended physical enslavement provided it accompanied Christian salvation. Lowe expressed the view of many Dutch slaveholders when he argued that far from weakening the chains of servitude, “religion will make them good Christians & better servants” (p. 111).

Mosterman's prose is clear but occasionally lapses into jargon, and her frequent use of future tense might have caught the eye of a good editor in less budgetarily restrained times. But Spaces of Enslavement is firmly grounded in the relevant secondary sources, and her archival research, and especially her impressive use of Dutch Reformed Sources makes this a valuable addition to the growing historiography of slavery in early New York.