Lesson #206: How the Brits Acquired Manhattan

While I was living in an Eastern European capital a couple years ago, I came across a documentary produced by the CBC called Big Sugar. It turns out, I could care less about sugar and what I found most interesting about the documentary is how the British Empire came to be in possession of Quebec. They had already claimed the rest of Canada for the king (queen? I have no idea…imperialist monarchs are not my area of expertise) and forcibly removed several thousand Acadians, and after a French defeat at the Plains of Abraham*, but victories elsewhere in the world (as the Seven Years’ War was ongoing — ah, imperialism…the direct cause of the first global war**), the French offered Britain a choice at the 1763 Treaty of Paris. They could have Quebec or they could have the sugar islands of Guadaloupe and Martinique. Influenced by greedy sugar barons with lots of money with which to bribe government officials in London, Parliament voted to take control of Quebec. I find this one of the more interesting pieces of Canadian history.

Interestingly enough, how the Empire came to be in control of Manhattan is strikingly similar. In the mid-17th century, Britain decided it had had enough of The Dutch East India Company controlling, well, everything and a couple of (cleverly named) Anglo-Dutch Wars were launched.

At the heart of the struggle was the Indonesian archipelago island of Run, which produced nutmeg. Nutmeg could be sold at a markup of over 3000% because at the time, Run was the only producer of nutmeg in the world. The island had belonged (in the Eddie Izzard “well, do you have a flag?” sense) to the British East India Company from 1603 until 1620 when the Dutch spent four years laying siege to it until the British packed it in.

The concession in the Treaty of Westminster, which ended the First Anglo-Dutch War in 1654, was that control of Run was to be returned to Britain. However, two attempts (in 1660 and 1665) to retake Run failed and after the second attempt, the Dutch, somewhat bafflingly, destroyed the nutmeg trees. All of this annoyed the Brits enough to launch the Second Anglo-Dutch War in 1665. The fighting went on for two years until the signing of the 1667 Treaty of Breda, in which both sides agreed to keep the lands they were illegally occupying. The Dutch would keep Run (and presumably, a monopoly on the nutmeg market) and the British would keep Manhattan, of which they’d seized control in 1664.***

*Which would go on to have a rather interesting history as a popular place for prostitutes to engage johns in the 19th century, site of hangings, an observatory, a rifle factory, a skating rink, a fine arts museum, an arsenal, greenhouses, a discovery pavilion and a reservoir among other things. It is now under the protection of Parks Canada as part of the National Battlefields Commission.  More about that here.

**More on the Seven Years’ War here.

***Okay…more on Run here, the First Anglo-Dutch War here, the Second Anglo-Dutch War here, the Treaty of Westminster here and the Treaty of Breda here.

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