I'm reading an historical fiction novel New York by Edward Rutherfurd at the moment.

One of the early chapters, set in New Amsterdam (New York City) in the mid 17th century, is told from the perspective of a slave owned by a Dutchman. This Dutch slaveowner is depicted as a 'kind slaveowner'. Some specific details:

  • The slave's role appears to be as a domestic servant and a labourer, his tasks are fetching things, opening doors for guests, waiting on guests, running errands around town.
  • The slave is never whipped. (Except once, as a child, where he is whipped alongside the slaveowner's son, when they broke a window).
  • When the slaveowner rents the slave out to others, he gives some of the money he recieves to the slave.
  • As a child the slave plays with the slaveowner's children.
  • The slaveowner agrees to free the slave, and his family (wife and son) when the slaveowner dies.

What I'm wondering - is this depiction of slavery accurate and commonplace enough for the time and culture - or is this fanciful writing?

  • 19
    is this depiction of slavery accurate and commonplace enough for the time and culture - or is this fanciful writing? Aren't you setting up a false dichotomy? Such a slaveowner could certainly conceivably have existed, without it being "commonplace".
    – Semaphore
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 6:56
  • 4
    We need a few more details: where exactly is the setting: rural or urban, and what are the usual duties of said slaves (eg personal servant, field work…). Are these "specific details" your summary or embedded in speech within the narrative or author's descriptions? –– What has your own research into this revealed so far? Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 10:39
  • 3
    Stockholm syndrome should be mentioned in this context. The owner appears to be "kinder" than others in the slave's eyes, but still he doesn't go the full distance (freeing the slave immediately, not only when he dies).
    – Annatar
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 8:03
  • 1
    Talking about an age where corporal punishment, whipping, canning were common in schools, armies and in general among free men, it is a strange question to ask if slave owners whipped their slaves.
    – Greg
    Commented Nov 3, 2019 at 6:01

4 Answers 4


A few preliminary points:

  • 'New York' was of course 'New Amsterdam' for the larger part of the mid 17th century (until 1664). This is important, as the status and nature of slavery (and of free blacks) changed in the years following the British takeover.
  • From the 1640s, Dutch West India Company had a system of 'half-freedom' which could eventually lead to full freedom.
  • 'Paternalistic' seems a more appropriate word than 'kindly' when talking about slave owners. The kindest thing a slave owner could do would be to free his/her slaves, in which case (of course) he/she would no longer be a slave owner.
  • For context, in 1664, New Amsterdam had a population of around 1,500, of whom 300 were slaves. About one in eight citizens were slave owners.

Domestic Servants

Female domestic slaves were common during the Dutch colonial period:

Slave women, usually no more than one per household, aided white women (free and indentured) with cooking, cleaning, and child care.

Source: Leslie M. Harris, 'In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863' (University of Chicago Press, 2003)

Male slaves performed many kinds of tasks, including skilled ones, but it seems that most were used for physically demanding tasks. This does not preclude, of course, male slaves working as domestics. They almost certainly did. (see also this article)


This did happen, but there is too little information available to say how common it was. Administering punishment was considered a very low status occupation so

In New Amsterdam, a slave named Pieter administered punishments including whipping, maiming, and execution.

Source: Harris

There was a case of a public whipping of a child for theft in 1661:

Her punishment was so harsh that one scholar has noted, “she seems to have been the only child the court ordered beaten in this way”

The scholar in question would appear to be Susanah Shaw Romney in “Intimate Networks and Children’s Survival in New Netherland in the Seventeenth Century,” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 7, no. 2 (Fall 2009)

As the colony had few laws regarding slaves, there may not have been a law concerning the (private) administration of punishments such as whipping by slave owners.

Slaves earning money for their labour

On your third point, slaves could receive wages but the evidence I've found relates to the Dutch West India Company (WIC) rather than to individual owners:

WIC remitted wages to at least five slaves who, in 1635, petitioned the metropolitan authorities in Holland to order the WIC to pay them for their labor

Source: Thelma Wills Foote, 'Black and White Manhattan: The History of Racial Formation in Colonial New York City' (Oxford University Press, 2004)

Children of slave and slave owner playing together

On your fourth point, given that

the northern urban slaves of colonial New York City generally lived in their masters’ houses and in this respect led more confined, closely monitored lives than their counterparts in the rural South,

it is not unlikely that black and white kids did play together. Also, racism was much less evident during the Dutch period:

Blacks and whites had coequal standing in the colonial courts, and free blacks were allowed to own property (Jews, however, were not). They intermarried freely with whites and in some cases owned white indentured servants.

Schools were also integrated:

As early as 1636, Dutch officials in New Amsterdam had educated black and white children in integrated schools.

Unfortunately, the source doesn't say if these black children were those of free parents, but it is evident that race was not a barrier to these children mingling.

Also, the Dutch Reform Church (which was strongly opposed to slavery) married and baptized Africans until 1655. Although not evidence of slave owner and slave kids playing together, this does (with other evidence in this post) indicate that the colonist at the time held a wide range of views; this makes generalizing difficult.

Freeing of Slaves

On your last point, freeing of slaves was (by the 2nd half of the 17th century at least) uncommon but not unheard of:

Few New York City slaveowners rewarded their slaves with the gift of freedom. In a rare act of voluntary manumission, the widow Christiana Cappoens stipulated in her will that after her death Isabell, her female slave, should be freed from bondage and receive manumission papers documenting her free status. Cappoens also left Isabell several items of modest value: one small gold hoop ring, one iron pot, one kettle, a bed, and pillows.

Christina Cappoens died in 1693, admittedly a little late for your time frame. Earlier, in 1626, the Dutch West India Company (WIC) granted 'half freedom' to 11 male slaves and their wives:

A written agreement stated that the black petitioners were “free and at liberty on the same footing as other free people here in New Netherland.” But according to the “half-freedom” bargain, the WIC manumitted the 11 enslaved male petitioners and their wives on the condition that they were obligated to labor for the WIC when called on to serve and that their offspring were the WIC’s property.

Later, the DWIC granted the same status to more than 20 other slaves, but these measures were in effect forced upon the company by the Indian wars and the desperate shortage of soldiers (many slaves had previously served in the military).


On September 4, 1664, on the eve of the English conquest, Petrus Stuyvesant granted the petition of eight men “praying to be manumitted and made entirely free.”

Petrus Stuyvesant was Director General of the New Netherland Colony (which included New Amsterdam, the capital). Some slaves of individual owners also gained their freedom:

Besides some WIC slaves, a few slaves of individual slaveowners managed to attain freedom. For example, in 1649, Manuel de Spanje purchased his freedom from Phillip Jansz Ringo for 300 guilders, to be paid over three years, and in 1654, Captain Pieter Jacobsz and Jan de Graue manumitted Bastiaen d’Angola...freed as a reward for faithful service....


slaves found it more difficult to obtain freedom from individual owners than from the company

Finally, it is worth noting that

Slaves, white and black indentured servants, and free black and white workers in the seventeenth century held more rights and experiences in common in New Amsterdam, and indeed in North America, than would be true in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Source: Harris

  • 3
    Fantastic answer - this is what I'm looking for.
    – dwjohnston
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 23:53
  • 1
    @dwjohnston You're welcome. Overall, it seems Rutherfurd's character is plausible but I don't think it's possible say whether this slave owner's way of treating slaves was common or not. Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 5:50
  • @Fruit Monster Thanks for spotting the omitted 'not'. Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 3:35

For a counterpoint, written by an actual enslaved person, I'd highly suggest the autobiography of Fredrick Douglass, which is fairly short, and out of copyright, so available in lots of places online for free.

It was a fact that some owners were nicer than others. In general, the further into slave territory you were, the worse it was likely to be. This is where the term "being sold down the river" originated.

However, it was one of Douglass' observations from his interaction a new slave-owner that the relationship itself inevitably tainted the owner's soul, so that even the most kind-hearted person became cruel.

My new mistress proved to be all she appeared when I first met her at the door,—a woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings. She had never had a slave under her control previously to myself, and prior to her marriage she had been dependent upon her own industry for a living.


But, alas! this kind heart had but a short time to remain such. The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon.

  • 5
    This doesn't answer the question. No doubt there were bad/cruel slave owners - but I'm asking if kind slaveowners, with the specific details listed, were common place.
    – dwjohnston
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 1:18
  • That's quite oblique. MD 1800s, NY 1650, etc. But if you make the challenge to the frame "Cattle slavery was almost uniform across time and space until 1865" it might work to differentiate imaginations. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_slavery_in_New_York Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 11:11
  • 6
    @JohnDee - Find me a memoir from a former slave who wasn't in favor of abolition and I'll concede you the point.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 15:55
  • 2
    @LangLangC - Hmmm....I suppose I could try to dig up something biographical about Sojurner Truth. I'm not as familiar with her story, and it would still be 19th century, but she was enslaved in New York to a Dutch family. (and I'm sorry, John, but still an abolitionist. What an amazing coincidence, huh? Darn our luck...)
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 16:10
  • 1
    Ones who weren't badly suffering probably wouldn't escape and write books. It not something that I care about, much.
    – John Dee
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 3:18

"How accurate/realistic is the conception of 'the kindly slave owner'?" An 1860 quote by Lincoln, in his great Cooper Union Address, may shed just a little light on one aspect, though it is not dispositive:

"Much is said by Southern people about the affection of slaves for their masters and mistresses; and a part of it, at least, is true.
A plot for an uprising could scarcely be devised and communicated to twenty individuals before some one of them, to save the life of a favorite master or mistress, would divulge it. This is the rule; and the slave revolution in Hayti was not an exception to it, but a case occurring under peculiar circumstances."


This is an excellent site, & where I recently read a good number of Lincoln’s speeches and writings. As a great admirer of Lincoln I highly recommend others do also, especially those cynics, whether black or white, who seize upon a few quotes to cast doubt on the fact that Abe and a great portion of the nation long thought slavery an abomination and desired, short of war, to see its expansion stopped, and its eventual extinction.


Define 'kind'. This would be relative to experiences the slave had in the past or seen on others.

No doubt many slaves were rarely if ever whipped or otherwise tortured. It lowered their value, and may even reflect poorly on the owner is he needed such in order to keep his slave under control (depending on the society they live in obviously).

A slave owning money sounds like a weird thing to me. As John Norman writes in his Gor novels (and yes, they are fiction but this is an excellent quote) "a slave does not own property, in fact it is she who is owned". That said, some Roman slave owners would hold some money in escrow for their slaves, which would become theirs in case they were freed (upon which the slave would become a free member of their former owners' household).

As to children of slaves playing with the children of their owners, no doubt that happened. Children will be children, and quite often children were not given duties as slaves (at least when small/young).

  • 2
    Re 'define kind' see the list of examples in my question.
    – dwjohnston
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 6:03
  • 6
    This answer doesn't have any sources or references.
    – dwjohnston
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 6:03
  • 1
    Torturing slaves was routine in Haiti. "They were whipped, burned, buried alive, restrained and allowed to be bitten by swarms of insects, mutilated, raped, and had limbs amputated. Slaves caught eating the sugar cane would be forced to wear tin muzzles in the fields." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_in_Haiti Commented Aug 2, 2019 at 11:30
  • 1
    You conflate the unique institution described as "American chattel slavery" with other institutions of often very different nature going by the same generic name of slavery across many different times, regions, and cultures. In some of those other times, places and cultures it was not at all uncommon for slaves to even own other slaves, as well as to purchase their own freedom. Commented Nov 3, 2019 at 0:40

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