Thomas Phippen, DCNF
New York, both the city and the state, is named after the house of York and particularly for James Stuart, then Duke of York, one of the most successful slavers in colonial American history.
President Donald Trump wondered aloud during a raucous press conference Tuesday whether the impulse to tear down memorials to leaders of the Confederacy like Gen. Robert E. Lee would slip into calls to remove monuments to America’s founders, like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, both of whom owned slaves.
The memory of slavery is enshrined in the name New York as well as the name of the nation’s capitol, even though both cities have vastly changed from their christening.
James Stuart conquered the settlements between the Delaware and the Connecticut rivers from the Dutch in 1664, and the name of the principal port, New Amsterdam, was promptly changed to honor the new master. James’ brother, King Charles II of England, gave the territory to the duke in exchange for four beaver pelts annually.
The Duke of York, who later became King James I of England (and James VII of Scotland), created Britain’s greatest slave empire known as the Royal African Company, which transported between 90,000 and 100,000 African slaves to the Caribbean and American colonies between 1672 and 1689.
King Charles II established the Royal Adventurers company in 1664, which traded in Africa, and put his younger brother James in charge of the operation. When the company went into debt, James and the crown dissolved it and reformed it into the Royal African Company to focus on the continent full of ivory, gold, and the “single most lucrative commodity,” slaves, Hilary McDonald Beckles, now the vice-chancellor of University of the West Indies, wrote in a 1999 paper for UNESCO.
The Royal African Company, governed by the brother of the king, enjoyed almost regal power to compete with the Dutch for dominion over Africa’s resources and people.
The company established ports along Africa’s Gold Coast, and “soon became the largest single company involved in the slave trade,” Beckles wrote. “Between 1680 and 1700 it supplied some 30,000 Africans to the Caribbean.”
“Slaves purchased for the Royal African Company of England were branded ‘DY,’ Duke of York, after the president of the company,” Beckles wrote.
The troublesome namesake of New York did not doom the colony to be marked forever as pro-slave. New York State passed a law to gradually emancipate slaves in 1799, following successful abolitionist movements in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, which outlawed slavery in the decades after the revolution.
New England states were more willing to abolish slavery in part because it had become unprofitable by the end of the Revolution. Agricultural life of the northeast does not require the same amount of labor as harvesting tobacco or picking cotton, which became the main cash crop of the South.
New York never fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, though some in New York flirted with the idea of letting the Union dissolve. Many of the poor in New York, mainly Irish immigrants, viewed freed slaves as competition for positions as laborers.
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