Atlantic History New York City
by
Serena Zabin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 December 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0212

Introduction

When the English conquered New Amsterdam in 1664, the city was already a polyglot commercial community of some 1,500 inhabitants, 8 percent of whom were enslaved. As it was founded initially as a trading post under the aegis of the Dutch West India Company, trade and heterogeneity were part of the city’s makeup from its founding. When the Duke of York (later James II) sent four hundred troops to claim the city in the months leading to the second Anglo-Dutch war (1665–1667), the governor turned over the city without firing a shot. Even after this peaceful turnover, and possibly reinforced by a brief return to Dutch control in 1674, Dutch language and customs coexisted with the English for another century. The Dutch emphases on Atlantic trade, religious tolerance, and slavery never disappeared from British New York. English traders married into or absorbed earlier Dutch trading networks, consolidating New York’s economy as an Atlantic hub. Female New Yorkers likewise continued earlier trading practices in which Dutch women were active participants. The proliferation of religious and cultural communities fostered a dynamic and diverse culture with little top-down authority from either the state or churches. The result was a political scene marked by pervasive and unending conflict among political elites, which also offered opportunities for new political ideologies and alliances across class. It also set the stage for diverse coalitions of Loyalists and Whigs once the British army occupied the city during the American Revolution. Furthermore, the combination of a vibrant Atlantic market and a relatively weak state tended to encourage smuggling, illegal trafficking, and the development of an informal economy outside the purview of state regulation. Ideas and people as well as goods traveled along New York’s Atlantic networks. Political practices, theories of law, and conceptions of the natural world all came to New York via transatlantic pamphlets, newspapers, and technologies. Other Atlantic pathways brought slaves from Africa, the West Indies, and the Spanish shipping lanes. The city’s enslaved population grew at a much faster rate than the white population, reaching close to 15 percent by the middle of the 18th century. It was the largest black population north of the Chesapeake. Like other elements of its social, legal, and political structure, slavery and freedom in New York were categories defined by fluid and contradictory practices. Several slave uprisings, both real and imagined, revealed white New Yorkers’ fears over living with such a large enslaved population. At the same time, the demands of Atlantic maritime trading and labor practices sometimes offered opportunities for slaves that included partnerships with whites.

General Overviews

There are two excellent overviews that focus solely on English New York. Kammen 1975 focuses on the 17th and 18th centuries, examining political change and ethnic conflict. More recently, Burrows and Wallace 1999 put New York in a more Atlantic context, with an emphasis on the lives of ordinary New Yorkers. Landsman 2010 offers a synthetic overview of the middle colonies with an explicit comparison of New York City and Philadelphia.

  • Burrows, Edwin G, and Mike Wallace. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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    Impressive Pulitzer Prize–winning synthesis that locates hundreds of stories of individual New Yorkers of all sorts in a larger story of New York’s developing place in an Atlantic economy.

  • Kammen, Michael G. Colonial New York: A History. A History of the American Colonies. New York: Scribner, 1975.

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    Fundamental one-volume account of the colony that emphasizes its commercial, contentious, and heterogeneous nature. Focuses on political and economic white elites.

  • Landsman, Ned C. Crossroads of Empire: The Middle Colonies in British North America. Regional Perspectives on Early America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

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    An overview of the mid-Atlantic colonies (Pennsylvania and New Jersey as well as New York) that locates them in both a continental and Atlantic context. Argues for a coherent regional identity of the area based on their interconnected pluralism, commerce, and importance to the British Atlantic empire.

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