Colonial African Enslavement

Nieu Amsterdam
Enslaved Africans serving in Nieu Amsterdam

NYPL archives

How did New York City become the sprawling global financial metropolis we know of today? New York City's beginnings start in the 1600s, when the Dutch West India Company, landed on "Manahatta" (Lenape for "land of many hills") and created a colony, Dutch New Amsterdam, to profit from the beaver fur trade and commerce. Later, in 1664, this colony would be taken by the British and renamed New York, after the Duke of York.


Rediscovery changed the theoretical, historical, and financial concepts of African’s accurate contributions and inclusive narratives of colonial New York’s sustainability. Enslaved Africans provided essential labor for the growth and development New Amsterdam’s city infrastructure: Broadway, once an indigenous trail, was cleared and widened. Houses, municipal buildings, and fortifications were constructed. Current day Wall Street was a stockade built from the East River to the Hudson River with work from enslaved labor. Enslaved Africans cut timber, worked on farms and protected the colony. Current Stone Street situated in Lower Manhattan was the first street in the new colony constructed of paving stones by the work of enslaved Africans.
Additionally, rediscovery helped the nation understand the beginnings of the African American presence in New York City. Rediscovery communicated both enslaved and free Africans' contributions to New Amsterdam's and New York's social, financial and physical construct. Enslavement differed under the two colonial periods: Whereas there was hopeful availability for the enslaved to attain "half-freedom" during Dutch New Amsterdam period, enslavement under British rule became a more restrictive legal system of stripping away any hope for freedom by enacting the Duke of York Laws. Not until 1827 would legal emancipation be enacted in New York.

Last updated: March 27, 2018

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