By William Loren Katz
New York’s first murder took place on January 6, 1641 in the Dutch Colony of New Amsterdam and the man slain was one of dozens of African laborers who had had begun to arrive before 1624 when the Dutch purchased the island from the Algonquins for $24. To this day the murder remains an unsolved mystery. The victim, Jan de Primero, worked alongside nine other Black laborers. Primero was found dead and the Dutch investigators chose as prime suspects his nine Black fellow workers. Perhaps racial prejudice led them to zero in on the Africans since none of the arrested had been caught red-handed, admitted the crime or pointed to a culprit, and evidence was inconclusive.
It was a chilling time for the nine suspects. Each maintained innocence. But knowing that the Dutch planned to torture them until some one admitted or pointed to a murderer, the nine concocted a united answer. They announced that they were all guilty of the crime. Was this courageous African solidarity, a inventive plan, or a desperate act? Their intentions are not known, but their unity led to momentous and long lasting changes in the colony.
The Africans created a crisis. Their decision to accept joint responsibility forced the Dutch – represented by their New Amsterdam Council sitting as a court – to confront the Africans’ vital economic importance. Were white colonists – to satisfy a desire to punish the murder of a Black man – willing to execute their most reliable labor force? After two weeks the Council decided not to execute the “admitted” murderers. Instead it ordered the nine workers to draw lots – so only one man would face execution.
Manuel de Gerritt, nicknamed “the Giant,” picked the unlucky straw. On January 24, less than three weeks after Primero’s death, he was marched to the Black hangman at City Hall. White and Black men and women, including Governor Willem Kieft, crowded around as the hangman prepared for the colony’s first public execution.
The rope was placed around Gerritt’s neck, the trap was sprung, but then fate intervened. The rope snapped, people gasped, and Gerritt tumbled to the ground shaken but alive. The crowd, according to an eyewitness, “called out for mercy with great earnestness.”
At this point the unpopular Governor Kieft seized the chance to win citizen support. He pardoned Gerritt and the eight others. The murder mystery deepened years later when Primero’s widow married Jan of Fort Orange, one of the nine who confessed.
Kieft’s refusal to execute the colony’s best workmen proved that Africans were of crucial importance to the Dutch. Of his many decisions, most of them wrong, this one would later turn out to be vital in the survival of the colony. In 1638 Kieft, a rigid, bigoted, dictator with a penchant for theft and violence, had been installed as Governor of New Amsterdam. His governing style was inept and disasterous. He initiated get-rich-quick schemes, and as they failed, he imposed higher taxes.
Kieft considered the Algonquins on whose land the Dutch settled as a “primitive and inferior people.” He decided to tax the Algonquins, and if that did not work, to destroy them. Algonquin leaders took a dim view of the incompetent and hostile foreigners, and called the Dutch “Materiotty” which meant “men of bad blood.” They added, perhaps with a touch of humor, that while these Europeans might be “tolerable at sea” on land they were “good for nothing.”
White residents of New Amsterdam also charged the Algonquins welcomed the colony’s escaping slaves tp their villages north of the island, in today’s Harlem. Algonquins could muster about 1500 fighters and the Dutch garrison had about a hundred able-bodied men, so Kieft’s hotheaded belligerence threatened the colony’s future.
But in 1643, two years after Primero was slain, Kieft launched a full-scale war on the Algonquins. Terrified Dutch farmers north of Wall Street fled to Fort Amsterdam for safety, and morale among those crowded at the fort began to sink. It looked hopeless.
As Kieft’s war took more lives, Africans – including families of those accused in the Primero case – petitioned the Governor for freedom and land. The Governor, seeing an opportunity to rescue his colony from disaster, began to grant these families liberty and to hand them landed estates north of Canal street. He clearly hoped these farmers would form a buffer zone that would keep the Algonquins from overrunning his colony. Black land grants stretched from Canal Street to today’s 34th Street.
In a short time, the war ended. The record does not show that any Africans died fighting the Algonquins. Some historians claim that Kieft ordered several massacres of Algonquins that convinced the foe to quit. It is more likely that free African farmers, harboring no grudges against the Algonquins, saved New Amsterdam by bringing peace and friendship to the warring parties. Kieft was sent home to Holland in disgrace, and the Africans remained a crucial and fixed part of New York life from that time forward.