Jewish Petition to Dutch West India Company, January 1655
From the turn of the 16th century to the mid-17th century, Iberian Jews lived in a dangerous world. In 1492, the Catholic monarchs of Spain had decreed that all Iberian Jews had to convert to Christianity or leave the kingdom. Portugal made a similar proclamation shortly thereafter. During the long diaspora that followed, many Spanish and Portuguese Jews immigrated to the Netherlands and its colonies. Some of these refugees started new lives in the Dutch Brazilian colony of Pernambuco. In 1654, however, the Dutch agreed to return Pernambuco to Portugal, and the Jewish immigrants were once again forced to leave. This time, many traveled to the port city of New Amsterdam in North America.
Unfortunately for the Pernambuco Jews, Peter Stuyvesant, the newly appointed governor of New Amsterdam, immediately forbade the Jewish refugees from entering his city. When merchants living in Amsterdam heard about the situation in North America, they wrote the petition shown above. To the authors, Stuyvesant's actions were in opposition to the religious tolerance cherished in the Netherlands since 1619. Unlike in much of Eastern Europe, Jews were so integrated into Dutch society that they held their own courts and lived in city quarters, not ghettos. On the other hand, Dutch immigration policy lagged behind that of other world powers such as France and England.
The petition was an argument for the positive economic impact the Jewish immigrants would bring to the city. It was no accident that the New Amsterdam petition was addressed to both the Burgomasters of Amsterdam and the directors of the Dutch West India Company. Portuguese Jews had become powerful players in this sizeable business whose influence rivaled that of the actual Dutch government. The company controlled its own fleet of ships and military operatives and was not under the direct control of the Dutch government. Appealing to the Dutch West India Company was essential to gaining entry to New Amsterdam.
Ultimately, the petition was successful; the Portuguese Jews found a home where they were free to practice their religion and commerce. This community was one of the first groups of immigrant Jews in the North American continent, and its impact can be seen today throughout various neighborhoods of New York City, built right on top of New Amsterdam.
The English translation of this document was found in Samuel Oppenheim, "The History of the Jews in New York, 1655-1664: Some New Matter on the Subject," Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society 18 (1909): 1-20. The translation is found on pp. 9-11; this article also contains a transcription of the original Dutch (pp. 11-13n11) and additional information on the petitioners.