So. As previously stated, a common theme I’ve discovered when researching the history of slave owning patriots, particularly those living in Western New England, is fobbing that hatred off onto New York (and, by extension, the Dutch, who would ultimately be forced to give way to Anglo Americans). I therefore think it might be useful to explore this a bit. I’m not sure if this will be a major part of my dissertation/research, or if it will be an aside for my own edification and knowledge. Still, I think it worth to listen to the voice of an enslaved woman who experienced the realities of Dutch colonialism herself, an orator known to history as Sojourner Truth.
For most of my life my knowledge of Truth began and ended with her “Ar’n’t I A Woman” speech, a withering rebuttal to white male chauvinism informed by her experience as an African American woman, as well as her presence among the pantheon of ex-slaves such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas and WEB DuBois. The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, edited by Margaret Washington, collects details of her life as told by her contemporaries. A lot of it is elided and a fair amount of reading between the lines is necessary; for instance, attempts at depicting one of Truth’s masters as a “benevolent overseer” type requires a mix of patience, teeth-gritting, and repeated chants of “it was the early 19th century yes it was f**ked up but it was the 19th century and besides they’re all dead chill out historical particularism etc etc.” However, a close reading gives you a great deal of insight into a remarkable woman with a great deal of innate intelligence, a gift for extemporaneous speaking and an awe-inspiring amount of what even her detractors described as “presence.”
As for her experiences as an enslaved person, she was born to enslaved parents in 1797 in Hurley, Ulster County, New York. They were “owned” by Johannes Hardenbergh, Jr., “an influential rural Dutch patroon, American patriot, and heir to the Hardenberg Patent, a massive but contested land grant which included the Catskills” (xiv). In other words, a patriotic Dutchman who supported the new Anglo American nation and was complicit in its beginnings. Moreover, it seems that her second “owners,” who were English, were harsher than her first Dutch owners; Truth recalls her first flogging was due to the vexation of her owners at her inability to speak English. The fact of the matter is is that in either case Truth was in the employ of people who saw themselves as “owning” her and forced her to do shit she didn’t want to do. However, her experiences in the two households call into question the notion that ownership by Dutch families was somehow more brutal.
Moreover, while Dutch (and later English) New York had more slaves than anywhere else in the north and slave codes similar to the south (perhaps due to the fact that New York was a much more agrarian state than Massachusetts), there were varying accounts of the harshness of slavery. Some blamed Dutch “penury,” noting that in addition to treating enslaved Africans “miserably” they “almost starve themselves” (xviii). Feel free to insert references to the Protestant Work Ethic here. However, Washington also flags up “hoary myths about paternalistic Dutch slavery,” where slaves were seen as equal members of the household. Others believed that since the Dutch, unlike the English, never codified slavery that this allowed for more individual “privileges” (xix). Never mind the fact that a lack of codification can very much cut either way. And the fact that, ya know, they were still slaves.
There’s also the fact that New York was still a northeastern colony largely viewed as a “progressive” area on the “right side” of history. Moreover, while still an agrarian colony, economic and geographic realities still meant that slavery in New York was very different from bondage in the South. Unlike the states such as the Carolinas New York lacked long and temperate growing seasons, a monocrop, and expansive plantations. There were also far fewer African slaves than down South (although they were still very much present; during the colonial era the enslaved population of New York reached 14%). Sojourner Truth lived these experiences.
Mild or no, “different” from the South or no, Truth saw fit to flee with her youngest child. She changed her name to reflect her values, adopted Quaker and Methodist values (including pacifism), embraced Transcendentalist philosophy and earned renown during her lifetime as a fiery and eloquent speaker. There is no possible way I can do her justice here. Please excuse this inadequate tribute.
What do you think? Is this germane to my overall thesis? Should I touch on it at all? Expand on it? Vomit in shame because this is word-salad type drivel?