Want to buy Manhattan? 24 dollars will do -- or did

12th September 2009, Comments 0 comments

A new Dutch exhibition charts the history of the New Amsterdam, the impoverished Dutch colony that later became New York.

New York -- Wall Street never cut a deal that good again: the whole of Manhattan purchased from the original Indian inhabitants for 24 dollars.

The only written testimony to the sale 400 years ago now headlines an exhibition opening Sunday on New Amsterdam, the impoverished Dutch colony that the English soon seized and turned into New York.

The rarely displayed letter -- about the size of A3 paper and torn at the left hand corner -- joins maps, books and documents from the Dutch National Archives on display at South Street Seaport Museum, in the old New York docks.

The exhibition is part of celebrations marking the 400th anniversary since adventurer Henry Hudson explored Manhattan on behalf of Holland's trading powerhouse, the Dutch East Indian Company.

Yet it is the failure of Holland to hold on to that extraordinary piece of real estate, or even to foresee the island's importance, that overshadows Hudson's achievement.

"No one, absolutely no one, knew that this little settlement would one day become New York," Martin Berendse, director of the National Archives of the Netherlands, said at a preview of the exhibition.

The yellowed texts, filled with ornate handwriting, depict a tenuous trading outpost that was light years from today's financial capital and gleaming city of more than eight million people.

More than a decade after Hudson's 1609 breakthrough, there was still only a handful of settlers scattered in the forested region, living in uneasy partnership with the Indians, who sold the Europeans fur pelts in exchange for household tools and trinkets, like glass beads.

So unimportant was New Amsterdam to the worldwide Dutch trading empire that the famous 1626 document, dubbed "the birth certificate of New York," only mentions the historic purchase in passing.

"They have purchased the Island Manhattan from the Indians for the value of 60 guilders (approximately 24 dollars)," the report to Dutch officials reads, sandwiching this priceless information between accounts of settler children being born and a cargo of furs delivered.

Settlers spread well beyond Manhattan Island in tiny groups of five or 10, before retreating to the southern tip of Manhattan and the protection of a barrier along Wall Street.

Even in 1653, there were no more than 500 to 700 colonists, many of them not Dutch. "A rabble gathered from all manner of countries," wrote the colony's director Petrus Stuyvesant in a taste of the ethnic melting pot to come.

Prominent colonist Adriaen van der Donck published a popular and often fanciful description of life in New Amsterdam, which is also part of the exhibition.

The account promotes a land of plenty where "the trees are bigger than in Europe and the animals are bigger -- and don't you want to come here?" Russell Shorto, author of The Island at the Centre of the World, explained.

But in private, writing to Dutch officials in 1649, van der Donck painted a dark picture.

"All here are living in poverty," read his letter. Stuyvesant "threatens to totally ruin us all."

If life was precarious for the settlers, it was worse for the Lenape Indians who had sold them the wooded island, little imagining the disaster to follow.

About 50 percent of the Indians, who had no immunity against European diseases, are thought to have quickly perished. The rest were gradually driven away or killed.

Slowly the settlement took shape, assuming the basic street layout still visible in downtown Manhattan.

For example, an Indian trail known in the local language as "Gentleman's Way," became Brede Wegh under the Dutch, then Broadway to the English -- the same north-south thoroughfare and theatre district cutting through New York today.

Yet the Dutch period was over almost as soon as it began.

The English decided in 1664 to capture the Dutch colony, which split their own possessions to the north and south, and the residents of New Amsterdam gave up without a fight.

The 1667 Treaty of Breda gave England control over Manhattan, while the Dutch kept Suriname in the north-east corner of South America -- an arrangement that seemed advantageous to both sides at the time.

Of New Amsterdam, nothing remains other than the street layout, numerous old Dutch names, and the torn document, which is nearly always kept hidden in the archives.

Said a Dutch National Archives employee, mournfully: "All good stories come to an end."

Sebastian Smith/AFP/Expatica

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