The success of a colonial administrator in New Netherland depended as much on luck, intuitive judgment, and the courage to make bold decisions on matters often supported only by faulty intelligence and rumor, as it did on strict adherence to WIC instructions. Directors of the colony often had to wait over a year to receive approval of requests, reaction to decisions, and clarification and amplification of WIC policy. In some cases pressing matters had been disposed of long before instructions or approval were received from Amsterdam. Directors such as Verhulst, Minuit, Van Twiller, and Kieft all proved to be unsuited to the task of operating a remote colony under these conditions. All returned to the Netherlands either under a cloud of mismanagement or ineptitude Even Stuyvesant provoked the Amsterdam directors with his actions; but his errors always seemed to be the result of boldness and decisiveness rather than pettiness and inertia.
The earliest surviving instructions for directors of the colony are those issued to Willem Verhulst in 1625. They state with utter simplicity thexvii structure of government to be observed. Verhulst was to serve as director of the colony assisted by a Council, which consisted of his commissary, secretary, schout,and any skippers in port at the time. * This body carried out all executive, legislative and judicial functions of the colony. The instructions also dealt with specific legal matters, such as the punishment for persons who illegally slaughtered animals. However, the director was instructed to observe and obey the ordinances and customs of Holland in matters concerning marriage, settlement of estates, and contracts; and in cases of intestate estates to observe the placard issued by the States of Holland in 1587. There is a reference in the instructions that copies of these papers had been sent. Finally, the director was admonished not to pass any new laws or ordinances or sanction any new customs without the approval of the WIC directors. Even after the colony had grown in population and new communities had sprung up from Beverwijck in the north to Fort Casimir in the south, the nature of this highly centralized governing body remained essentially the same.
In 1644 the first court other than that of the central administration on Manhattan was formed at Heemstede. This court, which was in response to an influx of settlers from Connecticut, was followed by one at Gravesande in 1645 and one at Breuckelen in 1646. The increase of population on Manhattan was accompanied by an increase in legal activity: lawsuits, petty squabbles, and other nuisances best handled by arbitrators rather than the full central council. In order to keep the council from being swamped by such cases, a court of arbitrators, consisting of nine men, was established in 1647. Their function was to decide cases referred to them by the council; however, judgments were subject to appeal before the council. This board relieved the council of its increasingly heavy case load until February of 1653, when New Amsterdam received its charter as a municipality. The court of arbitrators was at this time replaced by a court of schout, burgomasters and schepenen. Other benches of justice were erected at Flushing in 1648, Beverwijck and Middelburgh in 1652, Amesfoort and Midwout in 1654, Westchester and Rustdorp (Jamaica) in 1656, Haerlem in 1660, Bushwijck, Wiltwijck (Kingston), Bergen, and New Utrecht in 1661, and Staten Island in 1664. The laws and ordinances enacted by the Council on Manhattan were binding in all communities within New Netherland, unless they exclusively applied to a specific locality. Attempts by the patroonships, especially Rensselaerswijck, to exercise their independence and remain outside the Jurisdiction of the council’s ordinances, led to disputes that eventually were resolved in favor of the WIC. By 1658 Rensselaerswijck xviii was required to post WIC ordinances in its jurisdiction and submit its own ordinances for approval by the council on Manhattan as did all other communities in New Netherland.
Although the council on Manhattan served as a control on ordinances submitted by inferior courts, it too had to submit its ordinances to the scrutiny of the directors in Amsterdam. Several times ordinances were returned with the director’s expression of disapproval. Once the council was sternly advised to adhere strictly to the customs and ordinances of the city of Amsterdam, a copy of which had been supplied the council for consultation, in order to prevent such future conflicts. Another time certain resolutions adopted by the lantdach, an assembly consisting of representatives from the inferior courts, were rejected by the directors, who found it especially strange that the resolutions had been published without waiting for their approval. When ordinances were approved by the directors, they were sometimes revised and then returned to New Netherland in printed form. Unfortunately, none of these printed copies of ordinances is still among the records.
The laws of Holland, according to which the council on Manhattan was to regulate itself, had been systematized by Hugo Grotius in his Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Holland, which had appeared in 1631. By this work Grotius contributed to making Roman–Dutch law accessible as a legal system. As with the legal systems of other countries, Holland’s system of law reflected the various stages of its historical development and the effect of outside influences. From the ancient customs derived from Germanic law, to the considerable influence of the Roman code of Justinian (the corpus iuris), to the canon law of the Catholic Church, to the special privileges gained from support of one monarch or another, they had all contributed to the confused mass of law that Grotius was able to systematize in such a clear and concise manner. It soon became regarded as the authoritative work on Roman-Dutch law and rose rapidly in popularity because it was written in Dutch rather than Latin.
In addition to Grotius, the council of Manhattan, and probably the inferior courts, including those of the patroonships, would have had copies of the following works at their disposal: Ordonantie van de Policien binnen Hollandt, usually cited simply as the “Political Ordinance.” Published shortly after the Union of Utrecht in 1580, it was the States of Holland’s response to the massive confusion in the laws of the province. This early attempt to bring some uniformity to legal matters regarding marriage, succession, sales, leases, mortgages and registration would have been a standard reference for the courts of New Netherland. Other works included Joost van Damhouder’s Praktycq Crimineel, one xix of the earliest treatments of criminal procedure, and Paul Merula’s 1592 treatise on the Civil Procedure of the Courts of Holland, Zeeland and West Friesland, which was considered the standard work on the practice of the Dutch superior courts. The directors also sent over a copy of the Groot Placaetboek van Amsterdam, which was a compilation of the edicts and ordinances of the city of Amsterdam. Not only were these legal volumes available in the colony, but also the uniformity and precision of the legal proceedings indicate that they were actively consulted.
* Verhulst’s instructions can be found in Documents Relating to New Netherland, 1624-1626, A.J.F. van Laer, trans. and ed. (San Marino, CA, 1924).