In the last days of Dutch control over Manhattan, a demagogic dictator seized the city, promising to keep unwanted foreigners at bay. The first step? Build a wall.
The shirtless man, a messenger from Boston, was still alive when he was strung up on a pole in the main public square, on the site of what would become Bowling Green in Downtown Manhattan. Across his chest, beneath the pulp of putrid fruits and vegetables, was a word scrawled in Dutch: “Oproermaker.” Troublemaker.
He hung there for three days while citizens and soldiers pelted him with tomatoes, onions, apples, beets. The crops were rotten, but they must have still been dear to those doing the pelting. The city’s treasury was empty; war had stalled international commerce, and intense security measures had slowed regional trade. The soldiers weren’t being paid, and the citizens couldn’t ply their wares. Even the wealthy had lost their fortunes to the city government.
On the third day, the man was cut down. The orders to do so emanated from the fort across the square, where the National Museum of the American Indian stands today. The commands were stringent: The man was to be freed, but banished from the city for ten years on pain of death. It was a common sentence handed down by the governor, who had ordered the man strung up in the first place.
The transgression the messenger committed was simply delivering his message – an official letter recognizing the end of the Third Anglo-Dutch War. Peace had been made between England and the Netherlands. The city on the south side of Manhattan island was to be returned to the English, and its Dutch governor, Anthony Colve, was to step down. But Colve had other ideas.
For some of the city’s inhabitants, Colve was a dream that turned into a nightmare. They ushered him into their metropolis, expecting him to return it to its former glory. Instead, they soon realized they had unleashed a tyrant who used them to his own ends, breaking those who would not bend. He enacted martial law, waged war on neighboring communities, and raided the city’s coffers to build and repair walls, which served to keep citizens in, as much as to keep foreigners out. A minority of the city’s inhabitants had seen this terror coming, if only because they understood they were in Colve’s crosshairs. He drove them out at the business end of a musket, torturing those who stayed under the pretense of espionage. It would take a coalition of forces and multiple interventions to finally force Colve from power. He left his former subjects broken and battered, but perhaps wiser for their trials.
Welcome to New York City in 1674. Welcome to New Orange.
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Anthony Colve had arrived in New York Harbor the summer of the previous year, 1673. A thirty-year-old career military man of noble Dutch ancestry, he was part of an expedition tasked with disrupting England’s transatlantic operations during the Third Anglo-Dutch War. Colve served under Admiral Cornelis Evertsen, who, along with Admiral Jacob Benckes, led a combined 23-ship fleet in the invasion of New York City, which the British had seized from the Dutch nine years earlier. Colve himself was a captain in direct command of at least six hundred marines. While no known portraits of Colve exist, those of Evertsen and Benckes offer clues of how the captain likely styled himself: curly brown locks hanging to his shoulders; a mustache, if not a full Van Dyke mustache-goatee combination; ceremonial black armor and sword.
As the population of New York at the time was only 2,500 residents, the Dutch fleet could have overpowered the city’s defenses – but that was unnecessary, thanks to the citizens themselves, who were largely Dutch. The city had been founded in 1625 as a Dutch outpost named Fort Amsterdam, which eventually grew into the colony of New Amsterdam. It remained under Dutch control until 1664, when, as part of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the English took over and renamed it New York after James II, then Duke of York. This Dutch majority was ruled over by the English minority, predictably creating friction. “The Dutch inhabitants had been living most of their lives under Dutch rule in New Amsterdam. They wanted to go back to the way things used to be,” explains Artyom Anikin, a scholar at the University of Amsterdam who specializes in the history of New York City. (The information in this article – except where otherwise noted – is based on conversations with Anikin, his panel at the 2016 New Netherland Institute Annual Conference and two of his papers: “The Life and Times of Anthony Colve” and “Colve’s Men: The Sudden Influx of Soldiers into New Netherland in 1673 and What Became of Them.”)
When the Dutch fleet arrived in New York Harbor in 1673, they were greeted by many New Yorkers as liberators. Supported by the population, Colve and his men were able to circumvent the city’s fortifications.
The Castello Plan, a map of New York drafted in the 1660s, depicts some of the defenses: on the South side, old Fort Amsterdam (renamed Fort James by the English), which was a four-sided, earthen stronghold with bastions at its corners; on the North side (across what is today Wall Street), a double wall of earthworks and timber; and all along the Southern shoreline, batteries complete with artillery (which eventually lent their name to Battery Park). The invaders were tipped off about the absence of New York’s English governor, who was away on business in Boston, and seized the opportunity to strike. There was a brief exchange of cannon fire, but Fort James was soon stormed. Despite the invasion’s overwhelming success and its relative ease, Colve ordered one of his own men executed for poor performance. It was a sign of things to come.
To manage the newly re-conquered New York, Evertsen and Benckes established a council of war and appointed Colve governor-general. One month after the invasion, the admirals would set sail for the Netherlands, rendering Colve the city’s highest authority. The city council, a holdover from the original Dutch period, still existed as a form of civilian government, but the new governor soon cowed the councilmembers into submission. Using intimidation and outright expulsion, Colve transformed the council into a board of yes-men and ruled as a de facto dictator.
The city was renamed New Orange, rather than restored to New Amsterdam, and Fort James renamed Fort Willem Hendrick, rather than restored to Fort Amsterdam. Both were done in homage to Prince Willem III of Orange, who was at the time in a power struggle with republicans for control of the Netherlands. Holland, the region of the Netherlands, which includes Amsterdam, was supporting the republicans, while Zeeland, the region which sponsored Colve’s expedition and from which he hailed, was steadfastly “Orangist.”
These distinctions meant little to New Yorkers, who were more interested in home rule than the politics of the metropole, but Orangism would still color these years of the city’s history, as Colve claimed to rule in the name of the prince. On the other hand, because Colve had no legitimate appointment by the government of the Netherlands, he avoided acknowledging his authority in dispatches home. Instead, he hid his requests for additional men, supplies and funds behind the rubber stamp of the city council. As Anikin describes it: “He was lying to both sides at the same time and being this rogue, renegade governor that was not serving anybody other than his own crazy whims.”
Paramount among Colve’s whims was the subjugation of the English. Many of the English residents of New Orange were expelled from the city, and those who remained were suspected of espionage, interrogated and tortured. Colve reintroduced methods of punishment unknown since the Spanish Inquisition, like the wooden horse, which involved seating victims on triangular sawhorses and weighing down each of their legs. Such draconian measures were extended to Dutch citizens associating with English “spies” and even to Colve’s own soldiers, whom he drilled mercilessly, marching them through the city at each sunrise and sunset. The indiscriminate character of Colve’s brand of justice is captured in a particular case: One man had challenged another to a duel; the second man refused, as dueling had been outlawed. The first man was sentenced to run the gauntlet for proposing the duel; the second man was sentenced to the wooden horse for refusing the duel.
Colve’s obsession with the English also affected the city’s infrastructure. All of the buildings on a street abutting Fort Willem Hendrick were demolished to clear firing range for cannons, as well as to deny cover to any possible English invaders, and the fortifications surrounding the city, most of which had been built from earthworks and timber, were reinforced with stone. All things considered – the still-raging Third Anglo-Dutch War, the ease with which Colve had recaptured New Orange, the fact that the city had been taken by the English once before – security was a legitimate concern, but the extent to which Colve pursued building walls bankrupted New Orange. The city’s coffers were spent, yet he continued, financing his construction with “forced loans” that his soldiers extracted from wealthy residents. Security measures, such as the closing of the city gates after dark and the imposition of passports for entry and exit, further strangled New Orange’s economy, which relied on regional and transatlantic trade.
The kind of tyranny Colve exerted over New Orange extended to neighboring communities that he considered to be part of the greater Dutch colony of New Netherland. Settlements in New Jersey, Brooklyn, Long Island, Harlem, The Bronx and up the Hudson River were all expected to pledge allegiance to Prince Willem III, and most did. When otherwise peaceable English villages on Oyster Bay in Long Island refused to submit, Colve had them harassed by armed soldiers. When they persisted in defying him, he launched a fleet to subdue them, which was met by an alliance of colonial forces from Plymouth, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts Bay. Colve lost the battle of Long Island Sound, but his reign continued.
Despite the mounting oppression, Colve’s subjects never moved against him. The citizens of New Orange hadn’t anticipated martial law, and they now seemed paralyzed in its hold. “They didn’t see this when they thought the Dutch were coming back,” explains Anikin. “They thought it would be a restoration of civic order and the normal state of law, but it was a very militaristic state that replaced it. Anyone who questioned Colve was either punished or fired and replaced with someone who was more loyal to him.” Although the civilians had been thoroughly subdued, defiance grew among the overtasked and unpaid soldiers. To deal with this, Colve attempted to create a secret police to stamp out insubordination, but he was expelled from power before it could be organized.
The messenger from Boston was only one of the many outside attempts to get Colve to step down. The Third-Anglo Dutch War concluded in early 1674 with the Treaty of Westminster, which not only ended combat, but returned New Orange to the English. Several messengers informed Colve of this fact, but he refused to accept it until late in the year – and then only after a fleet of ships from the Netherlands arrived, seemingly twisting his arm. Even in resignation, the former governor attempted to exert his authority: While anchored in a boat off of the coast of Staten Island, he negotiated the terms of surrender through his lawyer, who took a dinghy back and forth to Manhattan.
Colve’s reign officially ended in November of 1674. Although his adventures would continue – first in Suriname, where he likely relished in evicting the English inhabitants of what was at the time a Dutch colony, and then back to Europe in time to possibly be involved in the Glorious Revolution, which saw Prince Willem III become the King of England (probably the greatest conceivable fulfillment of Colve’s lifelong vendetta against the English) – he would never return to New York. The city would remain under English control until achieving independence in the American Revolution, and Colve’s short time in power would be almost entirely forgotten.
* * *
There are, understandably, no monuments to attest to Colve’s time in New York. Apart from one Dutch book from the 1920s and another American one from the ’80s, little has been written about him or his reign. The surviving documents from his administration, which are preserved in the New York State archives, have to this day gone untranslated. “It’s a fascinating period of history that’s been left out,” says Anikin, “and it was left out for good reason.” In the immediate aftermath of Colve’s reign, there was little incentive for anyone to keep his memory alive. New Yorkers would have preferred to forget their tyrant, and the English could save face by glossing over their brief loss of the city. Even Colve’s countrymen had little interest in celebrating his conquest – not only because of his barbarity, but because the Netherlands needed to be rebuilt following the Third Anglo-Dutch War, and Colve’s Orangism would only emphasize the nation’s internal divides. Even the Dutch today, while keen to promote their involvement in New York City’s history, would rather focus on their first, happier era, epitomized by Peter Stuyvesant rather than Anthony Colve.
But Artyom Anikin thinks differently. As the world’s leading “Colve-ologist” (a phrase he coined only half-jokingly), he has made the former governor-general of New Orange the focus of his career studying the history of New York. Far from believing Colve’s time in the city to be negligible or so horrific as to be worth forgetting, Anikin sees its connections to some of the most pivotal moments in the United States’ history, let alone New York City’s past. He points out that one of Colve’s men who extracted forced loans was Jacob Leisler – the same man who would fifteen years later lead Leisler’s Rebellion, earning New York independence for the first time in its history and serving as a point of inspiration for the American Revolution. Leisler must have learned a thing or two from Colve, Anikin argues, and so must have all New Yorkers.
Anikin attributes to Colve a legacy of rebellion, not only against the British, but against tyranny in general. Colve taught New Yorkers how tyranny operated, and it was a lesson they wouldn’t soon forget – one that would carry them through the founding of the United States. In a sense, then, Colve was the bitter pill New Yorkers needed to take to remedy their body politic. Colve’s reign may be proof that sometimes things must indeed get worse before then can get better, that even the worst political leaders can leave us a stronger peoples. But only, that is, if we don’t forget the brutal lessons they impart.