A Glimpse of the TransAtlantic Life for Jews and Others in New Amsterdam
by Leo HershkowitzOn March 30, 1645, Arent van Curler (1619–1667), chief agent for Kiliaen van Rensselaer (J. Franklin Jameson, ed., Narratives of New Netherland 1909), one of the wealthiest Dutch patrons, with property that covered a vast territory in the upper Hudson Valley, appeared before notary Joost var de Van and provided testimony about the voyage of the ship Rensselaerswijck from New Netherland to Amsterdam. His account (Gemeente Archief, Amsterdam, Notes and Archives, No. 107, pp. 221-222) provides a detailed description of the problems faced by any vessel in its often-perilous crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.
The skipper of the ship, Jan Sijomsen, from Wieringen, Dirck Wouterssen, 37 years old, mate on the said vessel, and Steven Stevense, a sailor, almost 21 years old, also added to this account. Little seems known of these last named witnesses, but their statements further added to an understanding of a time and a place.
Leaving from the Rensselaerswijck colony in mid-1644 probably from the Kinderhook area facing “Bere Eijlent” (Barren Island), they mention taking aboard 1,585 beaver skins, “both large and small,” belonging to Pieter Wijncoop of the colony. The ship sailed down the Hudson (Mauritius) River to New Amsterdam, arriving there sometime in autumn of 1644. There the ship was hauled on dry land before Fort Amsterdam on the tip of Manhattan Island. The vessel was inspected, caulked, made water-tight “to the best of their powers” and “fit to ride the ocean.”
They left Manhattan on November 6, 1644, but the very next day encountered severe storms which “raged continuously for nine days and nights.” Such was the violence of the sea that the “ship’s bottom became open and leaking.” Sailors used two pumps, and in twenty-four hours managing fifty to sixty thousand strokes, yet could not clear the bilge water. In grave danger of sinking and joining the many vessels that were on the ocean floor, by November 15th they managed to bring their sorely leaking ship to the Bermudas, where the ship carpenter, possibly one of the above-mentioned crew, with the help of nine or ten local craftsmen, using such materials at hand, caulked and tightened the seams.
Nevertheless, pumps still had to be manned at fourteen hundred strokes in twenty-four hours. With the ship so “thoroughly stricken and disheveled by that continuous storm,” it was abandoned as a worthless hulk. The cargo and crew then were loaded on an “English pirate ship” and crossed to the Downs. The skipper remained in England, and the deponents returned to Amsterdam and gave their testimony in the presence two witnesses, Louis Boudaens and Laurens Pieters Wit.
This graphic account obviously underscored the peril of a maritime crossing of the Atlantic. Surely this danger reduced ocean-going traffic and limited immigration and any profit from trade — and also bred a large degree of independence from European supervision. If New Netherlands (and the Eastern Seaboard Settlement) comprised twenty or hundred miles of the European Continent, would there ever have been the War of Independence? It was not until larger and stronger vessels were built, and the ocean properly mapped, that New Amsterdam could become New York City.
Leo Hershkowitz is professor emeritus of history at Queens College. He is the author of Tweed’s New York: Another Look (Anchor Press) and the co-editor of Wills of Early New York Jews, 1704-1799 (American Jewish Historical Society).