The Founding of New York Chapter V

A Series of Articles Written by Thomas A. Janvier for the New York Times, In commemoration of the 250th Anniversary of the Founding of the City of New York.
Chapter V: Our First Reform Governor

Although the English had acquired New Netherland, nominally, by force of arms, they were far from treating New York as a conquered province. On the contrary, with the change in the ownership of our colony there came a very pleasing change in the administration of its affairs. Col. Richard Nicolls, who was our first English Governor, managed matters so wisely that the transition from the old to the new order of things was made easily and was most noticeable in agreeable ways. And it also was made slowly. A good part of a year was suffered to pass before the City Government was reorganized, to make it conform to English customs, by substituting for the Burgomasters and Schepens and the Schout a Board of Aldermen and a Mayor; and even then most of the old city officers simply continued to carry on the Government under new names. The instrument by which that change was effected bears date June 12, 1665, and is known as the Nicolls Charter. it enlarged the authority of the City Government and was the beginning of our civic liberties and rights. What made it especially welcome at that time was the practical assurance which it gave that New York was to be treated not as a commercial investment, as the Dutch had treated New Netherland, but as a colony which deserved and which was to be given a fostering care.

The most notable outcome of that fostering policy was the making of a law in the year 1678 that was known as the Bolting act. by its provisions no millers in the colony outside of this city were permitted to grind flour for market, and no persons in the colony outside of this city were permitted to pack flour or to make biscuit for export; with the result that the export trade in what are called "breadstuffs" was thrown entirely into the hands of the millers and the merchants of New York. The country people, naturally objected strongly to this law, which gave to the city people such great privileges at their expense; and at last, in the year 1694, they succeeded in getting it repealed. But during the sixteen years that it remained in force the city increased in wealth and in population by leaps and bounds. The revenues rose from L2,000 to L5,000 and the number of houses rose from 384 to 983. In a word, the city more than doubled in wealth and in size.

And the Bolting act did still more for us. The sea trade that it developed mainly with the West Indies established on a firm foundation the foreign commerce of New York. Our civic arms, granted in the year 1682, came to us in the midst of that period of great prosperity and commemorate it. The beaver is the emblem of our early fur trade; the windmill sails and the flour barrels are the emblems of the vast expansion of our commerce by our flour trade; while the "supporters" the Indian, from whom the furs were bought, and the sailor, who navigated the trading ships repeat the meaning of the shield. The arms, as a whole, show the sources whence the inflow of our sea wealth began.

Still another good thing came to New York in that time of energetic expansion. On the 22d of April, 1686, the city received a new and very liberal charter that is known as the Dongan Charter, because it was granted while Gov. Dongan held office that still farther extended the personal and commercial privileges of the citizens, and that still farther helped to increase the city's very rapidly growing foreign and domestic trade.

But there was another side, and not a pleasant side, to the great prosperity that came to our city in those early English times. Our citizens abused their newly gained liberties and fell into evil ways. Even in referring to what is styled, but very erroneously, the "drowsy" period of the Dutch domination, no one has ventured the suggestion that anybody ever went to sleep when there was a bargain to be made; and in the time with which I am now dealing when the English had been in possession of New York for twenty years and more exceeding wide-awakeness was the rule. Had they stopped at mere bargain making, our citizens would have been within their rights: but I am sorry to say a good many of them took to cheating the revenue laws by smuggling, and some of them sent out ships to trade with pirates for stolen goods, and some of them fairly became pirates themselves. All of which, even making allowances for the times in which they lived, goes to show that a great many very hard characters lived in this city two hundred years ago. In the Dutch times there had been some excuse for breaking the revenue laws, because those laws were oppressively severe. Under the English laws that excuse did not hold: and trading with pirates and piracy of course admitted of no excuse at all.

Col. Benjamin Fletcher was appointed Governor of New York in the year 1692, and to his weakness a large part of the evildoing of that discreditable period is to be ascribed. By him trading licenses were granted to ships which everybody knew were to engage in "the Red Sea trade," as trading with the pirates politely was called; by him privateering commissions were given to ships which everybody knew were going to sea as pirates pure and simple; under his government smuggling was carried on by the leading merchants of the city and he granted the licenses and he permitted the smuggling because he was bribed.

Such a state of affairs could not be allowed to continue and it was not allowed to continue a governor was sent out from England in Fletcher's place who brought up the pirate traders and the pirates and the smugglers with a round turn. That Governor was Richard Coote, Lord Bellomont; and of all the Governors who ruled New York during the English domination I think that he was the strongest and the best.

Lord Bellomont arrived in New York and took up his commission as Governor April 2, 1698. He then was sixty-two years old; but he still had in him a lot of fighting strength, and he put every bit of that fighting strength into the reforming work that he had to do. In one of his speeches in the Provincial Assembly he said: "I will pocket none of the public money myself, nor shall there be any embezzlement by others" and in those words he struck the keynote of the policy that he held fast to until the end.

By one of those perverse twists of fortune that come sometimes Lord Bellomont's first effort to break up piracy turned out badly. It actually resulted in setting afloat a most notorious pirate Capt. William Kidd! At that time Capt. Kidd was a respectable seaman who commanded a packet-ship sailing between this port and London. His home when in this city was in Hanover Square, quite the Court end of the town in those days. Because he was so respectable and such a good shipmaster, he was given the command of an armed vessel sent out to capture all the pirates he could find, and to break up "the Red Sea trade." But instead of doing what he was sent to do, he turned pirate himself. I am satisfied that he was forced by his crew into making that very radical change in his plans, and I am sure that he did not want to be a pirate at all: but he certainly did become one, and when at last he was caught he very properly was hanged. Lord Bellomont was placed in an awkward position by the failure of his plan, and some people went so far as to say that he was Kidd's partner and had hoped to share Kidd's stealings a charge that was absolutely false.

There were political complications in this matter, and in connection with the whole of Lord Bellomont's administration, growing out of the Hanoverian succession in England and out of the execution of Leisler in New York in Gov. Sloughter's time. Those are matters which cannot properly be discussed here. Nor do I think that they need be discussed. The main reason why Lord Bellomont was so hated in New York and he was hated here was not a political reason: it simply was the evil resentment of a scandalous community against the strong man who was determined to, and who did, bring its scandalous doings to an end. In making his reforms the Governor had to fight against the members of his own council, against the provincial officials who were in office when he took up his Government, and against almost all of the merchants of the city. Practically everybody was opposed to him. "I am obliged to stand entirely upon my own legs. My assistants hinder me, the people oppose me, and the merchants threaten me." That was the way in which he himself summed up the situation in a letter to the King.

One instance will suffice to show what sort of a fight he had to make and how he made it. When the ship Fortune, a nottoious Red Sea trader, came into port the Governor ordered the Port Collector, Chidley Brooke, to seize her cargo of stolen goods instantly. Brooke made no attempt to make the seizure until the next morning and in the night-time most of the ship's cargo was brought on shore. Being in a fine temper over this evasion of his orders, the Governor gave Brooke a practical lesson in the meaning of the word "instantly" by whisking him out of his Collectorship neck and heels. Stephanus van Cortlandt was appointed in his place, and one Monsay was appointed Searcher, and the latter was sent flying off to seize the pirate plunder in the house of the merchant, Van Sweeten, who had taken it in. A constable was ordered to accompany Monsay; but each of three constables sent for, in turn, managed to be missing at the moment when his services were required. Finally, when a constable was found and the seizure was attempted, a regular mutiny broke out among the merchants who flocked to Van Sweeten's house and hustled the two officers into a broiling hot loft under the roof and there locked them fast. For three hours they were imprisoned, and they "had like to died of it." Fortunately, before they were quite stifled the Governor got wind of what had happened and sent a file of soldiers to relieve them and to carry the seizure through. Fancy, what a righteous rage the Governor must have been in at finding in one single morning the Collector of the Port, the Searcher of the Port, three constables, and a mutinous body of the principal merchants that is, of the leading citizens of New York all joined in opposition to his authority and in the perpetration of a crime! And precisely that sort of combination was what he had to deal with from first to last.

Had Lord Bellomont been a less resolute or a less honest man he would have abandoned the thankless and seemingly hopeless task in which he was engaged. But the very difficulties which beset his reforming work only made him hang on to it with a greater tenacity; and because he did hang on to it like the delightful old bulldog that he was he came out victorious in the end. But he was too old for such rough-and-tumble fighting, and that the strain of the conflict in which he so gallantly engaged hastened his death is very probable. He died March 5, 1701; and his body, after lying for some years in the chapel in the Fort, was buried at last in St. Paul's churchyard, where still is his unmarked grave. Very likely this brave gentleman died not unwillingly. Certainly his life here save for the knowledge of the good work that he was doing was as hard and as bitter as a life could be. And when his end came he had the satisfaction of knowing that he had won his victory; that through his exertions New York piracy and the second-hand piracy of "the Red Sea trade" were as dead as he himself was about to be.

Lord Bellomont was our first reformer. What he accomplished, in the face of tremendous odds against him, stands to encourage for all time those who would strive as he strove to purify and to elevate the Government of New York

                                                                                                                                                          THOMAS A. JANVIER

Note: Thomas A. Janvier is the author of "In Old New York," "In Great Waters," "The Passing of Thomas," "In the Sargasso Sea," "The Uncle of an Angel," and "The Aztec Treasure House."


Website: The History
Article Name: The Founding of New York Chapter V
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The New York Times May 29, 1903
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