Saturday, June 22, 2013

This Land was Made for You and Me

Hi everybody,

This week I would like to share with you my thoughts on Staten Island's founding and native populations. For all those fact-checking scholars whilst cleaning their hypercritical glasses and preparing their red pens, I'm sorry to disappoint but my focus won't be scholarly debate or precise detail. Rather, I'd like to express a human response to the history that has come to define our collective narrative.

It is known to many that Manhattan Island was purchased for a few shells, some beads, and maybe a handshake or two; as a native New Yorker, it's hard not to feel a sense of entitlement from being a product of this amazing bargain. No one could have possibly presumed what these five boroughs would have become. I mean, really, who could have predicted that a small island would later be the home of Madison Square Garden, the World Trade Center, and the fine accents that alert people from across the world to the presence of a 'New Yourka.'

The tale is great and all, but it's not exactly the truth. The shells and beads were added to a later myth surrounding the purchase of Manhattan. While we're on topic, I might as well discuss the fact that the native tribes that 'sold' Manhattan to Peter Minuit, a director of the Dutch West India Company (1626),  did not understand the European concept of ownership. To them, land was free and belonged to everyone. Yes, they had a battering system but to these Native groups, land could not be bought, sold, or traded. Historians claim that it is likely that both the Dutch settlers and the native tribesmen departed having a different understanding of the terms of their trade agreement.

Staten Island was acquired by the Dutch a few years later in 1630 when Michael Pauw received a grant  from the same Dutch West India Trading Co. that included the island.  However, the Dutch were more concerned with trading, particularly of furs, than with colonizing, so no attempts were made to colonize Staten Island except by independent Dutch settlers. For a while the island belonged to the Native American tribes who inhabited the area but since they did not share the Dutch concept of ownership, they did not own the island. Instead, they made use of its natural resources and migrated seasonally in search of fertile land and prosperous hunting grounds. The natives were known by many names, depending on who is describing them and what language they are speaking, but they are most commonly referred to as the Lenape. They were primarily a hunting based society that adopted agriculture as the centuries progressed. Like many 'primitive' cultures, their religious beliefs reflected their lifestyles and this corresponded to the way they saw themselves in relation to nature and life.

Could you imagine what it must have been like for Native Americans and Dutch traders to try to explain their interests to one another? The Dutch braved passage across the Atlantic Ocean in search of new lands in order to expand their commercial enterprise, exploit the land's resources, and escape the instability of Europe. They brought with them all their culture had to offer: Christianity, Europe's scientific knowledge, institutional slavery, standardized currency, economics, in addition to language, clothing, weaponry, and customs that must have seem quite strange to the indigenous peoples. The Native Americans did not have language to express, let alone understand, these advanced concepts. I wonder what a conversation between a Native American and a Dutch trader about the recently developed joint stock companies would have sounded like. The Europeans must have had a similar response to groups of tribal people who shared their land, lived in villages and temporary settlements instead of cities, and had virtually no technology or form of currency.

Is it any wonder that they often misunderstood each other? It doesn't seem surprising that violence erupted in the Americas almost immediately, only to be perpetuated by European settlers and their decedents, the colonists who later became American citizens, throughout the following centuries. The English would wrestle control of the New Netherlands and maintain it as a colony until the American Revolution. It is tragic to admit that Native Americans were dehumanized and treated as a disease that necessitated quarantine and extermination, by fellow human beings; men, women, and children alike were destroyed in the name of expansion and conquest.     

This was the case in the North American Continent and although this was an extreme instance, I think to some extent it serves as a model for European imperialism, from New Amsterdam to Manila.

I always have a hard time understanding and feeling things that I cannot connect to, and though I am not a Native American, or Dutch for that matter, this topic struck me with a certain interest that I could not explain. Reading up on it some more helped me to get a sense of direction, as well as see the immediate connection between global and regional issues in a time period that I do not always concern myself with. Just like learning about yourself is a good way to understand others, a microcosm may be a helpful way to uncover a macrocosm.

European items and luxuries were traded in the America's for furs and other products, including raw materials, that Europe did not have. Many were sent back to the continent where they could be sold, traded, or manufactured as items. This was one possibility of many for these desired goods, but the ripple did not end here. The profit received for these goods could have been invested in Amsterdam's stock market, used to fund further trade in America, or even used to purchase African slaves who were being brought to the New World. International trade affected the politics, culture, and economics of European Nations as it fueled the search for new lands and markets.  

Triangular trade has shaped relations between Europe, America, and Africa and influenced the way Europeans interacted with indigenous peoples, setting the tone for centuries to come; these phenomenons have come to define our collective history. I felt compelled to discuss this topic because its too easy to learn about a time or occurrence in history and not realize the affects it has had on one's home and community. Staten Island, as a result of its location, has played a role in this narrative and shares a connection with the a global narrative.

I hope that makes history seem less simple than before. Think on that a little until next time,

Joe the intern.

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