Dutch New Amsterdam vs. the Spanish Empire

In the 1620s, New Amsterdam (soon to be New York) was a tiny Dutch village with an excellent harbor in the colony of New Netherland. The Dutch West India Company—a militarized private corporation—founded the port to trade in furs, pelts, and lumber. But New Amsterdam was also meant to serve as a base against Spain’s vast empire in the western hemisphere. The Dutch hated the Spanish, to whose monarch they were subject, and had long been in revolt.
 
In 1647, to bolster their North American outpost, the Dutch West India Companytransferred Peter Stuyvesant up to New Amsterdam from its Caribbean base of operations in Curaçao. Stuyvesant, who had assaulted the Spanish-held island of St. Martin (losing his leg in the process), now assumed the formal title, “Director-General of New Netherland, Curaçao, Bonaire, and Aruba.” 

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (Spain, 1599–1660), Portrait of King Philip IV, 1623–24. Oil on canvas. Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas, Algur H. Meadows Collection, MM.67.23.
From 1621 to 1665, Philip IV ruled over an empire that stretched from Spain to the Philippines. This powerful monarch chose his kingdom’s greatest artist for his court painter. In 1623, Diego Velázquez painted one of the first of many images of Philip, capturing the king as a young man with smooth, unlined skin, so unlike the war- and time-worn monarch who appears in the famous 1644 portrait in The Frick Collection (New York) or in the artist’s masterpiece, the 1656 Las Meninas in the Prado.
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (Spain, 1599–1660), Portrait of King Philip IV, 1623–24. Oil on canvas. Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas, Algur H. Meadows Collection, MM.67.23.

Panel, 17th century. Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund and Director's Discretionary Fund, 1984 (1984.301a). Using forced Indian and African labor, Spain extracted fabulous wealth from silver mines throughout Spanish America, particularly at Potosí’s “El Cerro Rico” (Rich Mountain) in present-day Bolivia. Spanish ships ferried the silver to Havana, Cuba for transfer to heavily guarded fleets, which departed for Spain twice a year.

The Dutch West India Company raided the convoys rather than assault Spanish strongholds like Mexico and Peru. In 1628, Admiral Piet Hein scored a celebrated victory, intercepting the treasure fleet before it left Cuba with twelve million guilders worth of silver and other goods. Among the booty was cochineal—the most brilliant and durable red dye available to weavers and painters. Coveted by Europeans, cochineal yielded 17th-century Spain more revenue than all other New World products besides silver.

Panel, 17th century.Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund and Director's Discretionary Fund, 1984 (1984.301a).

José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez (1737–99), Memoria sobre la naturaleza, cultivo, y beneficio de la grana, 1777. Edward E. Ayer Manuscript Collection, The Newberry Library, Chicago. Pre-Hispanic peoples nurtured cochineal insects on prickly pear cactus, then extracted a crimson dye from the dried and crushed remains of the females. Spanish conquistadores quickly discovered cochineal’s value, and by the mid-1500s, Spanish ships were carting home enormous quantities of the dried insects packed in leather bags. Since the cochineal insect could not be cultivated in Europe, Spain’s rivals now had another reason for seeking to seize Spanish possessions. 
José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez (1737–99), Memoria sobre la naturaleza, cultivo, y beneficio de la grana, 1777. Reproduction. Edward E. Ayer Manuscript Collection, The Newberry Library, Chicago.
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