New Netherland, William Kieft, and the Smoker’s Rebellion
Following their secession from Spanish rule in 1579, seven Dutch provinces formed the United Provinces of the Netherlands and became the first fully independent Dutch state. What followed was the Dutch Republic's "Golden Age," a time when, according to the New York State Library's What Was New Netherland? article, "the newly independent United Provinces of the Netherlands became Europe's leading commercial power and Amsterdam its preeminent trading city." With their new found independence and economic power, the Dutch Republic, like many European nations in the "Age of Exploration," embarked on journeys to foreign shores with a desire to expand both economically and territorially.
The Dutch Republic, competing against the interests of the Spanish, French and British, set about staking claims in the New World and established New Netherland, a colony along the Hudson valley area that "extended from Albany, New York, in the north to Delaware in the south and encompassed parts of what are now the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, and Delaware." The seat of colonial authority in this claimed territory was New Amsterdam, which sat at the southern tip of Manhattan and by 1625 was designated the capital of the province.
New Netherland was under, for all intents and purposes, the jurisdiction of the Dutch West India Company. The Dutch Republic had granted the WIC a royal charter giving the Company "a 24-year monopoly on trade and colonization that included the American coast between Newfoundland and the Straits of Magellan," according to the Historical Society of the New York Courts. The charter additionally "authorized the Company to maintain a military force and granted it almost complete administrative and judicial power, including the power to 'appoint and remove governors, officers of justice and other public officers, for the preservation of the places, keeping good order, police and justice in like manner for the promoting of trade' within the bounds of its monopoly."
New Netherland's economic opportunities and plentiful land attracted colonists from all over Europe, and over time the province — again citing the New York State Library — "developed into a culturally diverse and politically robust settlement." The West India Company also drew settlers by offering "a colonist who organized 50 people to come to New Netherland ... a special grant of land and, within four years, ... special privileges as the owner and 'patroon' of the land or "manor," according to The Rise and Fall of New Netherland on the National Park Service website. Tenant farmers, who worked the land, "paid no taxes for ten years, but were required to pay the patroon rent and a percentage of that which they harvested." The following gives greater insight into the inherent shortcomings of this economic system:
No farmer could sell any product without first offering it to the patroon. Some tenants were actually "bonded" to their patroons and could not move to a different estate or town. This effectively gave the patroon 'feudal' rights over the colonists. The patroon system was successful in bringing people to New Netherland, but the feudal system soon became unpopular.
This situation, as one might expect, became untenable, and tenant farmers began selling their goods independently and quit paying their dues to the patroons. The then Director-General of New Netherland, Peter Minuit, failed to enforce the WIC's protocols and was eventually recalled to the Dutch Republic. After Miniuit's departure, two more Director-Generals were appointed and then recalled — the colony's economic issues and conflicts with neighboring colonies and indigenous tribes proving to be a monumental hurdle for leadership.
By 1638, the WIC had appointed Willam Kieft to the position of Director-General, and like his predecessors, Kieft would prove ill-equipped to handle the challenges of the colony. Born in Amsterdam and educated as a merchant, Kieft had no experience governing and had never set foot in New Netherland. He was hired primarily for his business experience, but around the same time, the Dutch government became more active in the colony's affairs, reducing the WIC's economic control of the region and "opening up trade opportunities for others." According the New Netherland Institute, the New Netherland's evolving policies placed Kieft in a dubious position, as "[g]overning the colony, under the new rules instituted by the Dutch States General, was considerably different than running the colony as a business."
Due to the Dutch government's new-set priorities, "the inhabitants expected more freedom and influence in how the colony, and especially how New Amsterdam was governed," putting Kieft "at odds with the population and especially with its leaders, who were expecting a more participative government." Kieft didn't do himself any favors when it came to ingratiating himself to the colony, escalating tensions with, and eventually engaging in war with, neighboring indigenous tribes, levying new taxes, disregarding directives from the WIC, and ignoring the advice of numerous governmental councils.
During the early days of colonization, "well before the Revolutionary War, laws were passed to restrict smoking," writes Eric Burns in his book The Smoke of the Gods: A Social History of Tobacco. Burns further elaborates on various laws and policies of the time, in various colonial governments, to discourage the use of tobacco products, writing:
In 1646, public smokers in New Haven were fined six pence for each transgression. After a time the penalty shot up to eighty-four pence, "which is to goe to him that informs and prosecutes." A year later, the Connecticut General Court ruled that no one "under the age of 20 years, nor any other that hath not already accustomed himself to the use thereof " could partake of tobacco without a note from a doctor stating that it was "useful for him." Then the court got it into its head that a traveler could smoke only if he were on a journey of at least ten miles and only if he limited himself to one cigar or one pipe.
Connecticut was far from the only, or first, colonial territory with a vendetta against smoking and tobacco:
More than a decade earlier, the court of Massachusetts had decreed that tobacco was to be a solitary pleasure; people were no longer to smoke in groups, even groups of two, either publicly or in private. That seemed to give the authorities in the village of Plymouth an idea. They decided to forbid the consumption of tobacco within a mile of a dwelling and to outlaw it completely in farm fields and rooms at inns.
Enter Kieft, who, during his nine year stint as Director-General, "banned the use of tobacco altogether," in New Amsterdam, prohibiting the inhabitants "... to smoke either a pipe or a cigar, no one was to sniff or chew, at any time or for any reason within city limits." What followed is not an official part of the historical record, with accounts and depictions not materializing until a couple centuries later. Nevertheless, even if the event falls somewhere between rumor, myth, and assumption, the Smokers' Rebellion is a particularly illustrative story about a citizenry making themselves heard against an unjust and incompetent ruler.
According to Washington Irving's Knickerbocker's History of New York, a work that blurs the line between fact and fiction, the pipe "was the great organ of reflection and deliberation of the New Netherlander" and a "constant companion and solace." Irving goes on to describe the purpose of the ban: "[Kieft] had been greatly annoyed by the facetious meetings of the good people of New Amsterdam, but observing that on these occasions the pipe was ever in their mouth, he began to think that the pipe was at the bottom of the affair, and that there was some mysterious affinity between politics and tobacco smoke."
Essentially a ban designed to reduce public criticism of Keift's incompetence, this new policy infuriated pipe smokers of the time, leading to what Irving describes as a "popular commotion." These pipe-smoking citizens, "armed with pipes and tobacco-boxes, and an immense supply of ammunition," staged a sit-in outside of the governor's mansion and began "smoking with tremendous violence." Irving describes the event as follows:
"The testy William issued forth like a wrathful spider, demanding the reason of this lawless fumigation. The sturdy rioters replied by lolling back in their seats, and puffing away with redoubled fury, raising such a murky cloud that the governor was fain to take refuge in the interior of his castle.
A long negotiation ensued through the medium of Anthony the Trumpeter. The governor was at first wrathful and unyielding, but was gradually smoked into terms. He concluded by permitting the smoking of tobacco, but he abolished the fair long pipes used in the days of Wouter Van Twiller, denoting ease, tranquillity, and sobriety of deportment; these he condemned as incompatible with the despatch of business; in place whereof he substituted little captious short pipes, two inches in length, which, he observed, could be stuck in one corner of the mouth, or twisted in the hatband, and would never be in the way. Thus ended this alarming insurrection, which was long known by the name of the Pipe Plot, and which, it has been somewhat quaintly observed, did end, like most plots and seditions, in mere smoke."
Kieft was eventually recalled to the Dutch Republic, but during the journey back to Amsterdam, his ship was destroyed in a storm, killing Kieft and the crew. In 1664, New Netherland came under British control, ending the Dutch Republic's control of the region, though the Dutch influence remained and contributed to the multicultural fabric of the region and the country at large. The Smoker's Rebellion, then, serves as an interesting footnote in the history of the United States and as a testament to the temperament of those who refuse to be robbed of the pleasure of a pipe.
- "William Kieft [1597-1647]," New Netherland Institute
- "The 1621 Charter of the Dutch West India Company," Historical Society of the New York Courts
- "The Rise and Fall of New Netherland," National Park Service
- "What Was New Netherland?," New York State Library
- The Smoke of the Gods: A Social History of Tobacco, by Eric Burns
- Knickerbocker's History of New York, by Washington Irving
A great article. I’m so glad you mentioned Irving’s Knickerbocker History.