Dorothy Angola was one of the first enslaved people brought to New Amsterdam by the Dutch West India Company. She arrived in Manhattan sometime between 1626 and 1640. Very little is known about her life before that. Historians do not even know what name she called herself. She is referred to in Dutch records as Dorothy, Etoria, Victorie, and Reytory, but she may have retained an African name that she used among family and friends. What we do know about Dorothy’s early life comes from her last name, Angola, which identifies her as a woman from the southwestern coast of Africa.
Dorothy and other African women were brought to New Amsterdam to do gender-specific work. Enslaved men needed wives. Dutch women needed help keeping house—survival depended on the work of women. They cooked, gardened, watched children, made clothes, kept the house and laundry clean, and took care of people who were injured or sick. Enslaved women like Dorothy were expected to do all of this work, and were also forced to labor alongside enslaved men building houses and roads for the colony. Life in New Amsterdam at this time was difficult for everybody, but enslaved people were forced to do the most difficult and dangerous work.
Dorothy married Paulo Angola, one of the first enslaved men brought to New Amsterdam. His last name suggests that he was also from the southwest coast of Africa. Paulo and Dorothy were part of a community enslaved people in New Amsterdam formed to support one another. Choosing godparents for their children was one way that they did this. Godparents created family networks to help replace those they had lost when they were kidnapped from their homelands. In 1643, Dorothy became the godmother of a baby boy named Anthony. Dorothy and Paulo adopted Anthony when his mother died a few months later.
In 1644, Paulo and ten other enslaved men petitioned the Dutch West India Company for their freedom. They had been enslaved by the Company for many years and explained that their many years of slavery made it hard for them to take care of their families. The Company director, Wilem Kieft, granted them conditional freedom. They had to pay a yearly tax to the Company. If they could not pay the tax, they would become enslaved again. Dorothy and the other wives of these men also became free, but none of their children did. Kieft wanted to ensure that future generations of enslaved people would work for the Company.
Kieft gave Paulo and the other men small farms so that they could support themselves, so they would not become a burden on the company. These plots of land were located about a mile north of New Amsterdam in an area that became known as the “Land of the Blacks,” which became home to enslaved, free, and conditionally free Black people.
Paulo died less than ten years after petitioning for his freedom. Dorothy inherited his land, but because her freedom had been tied to Paulo’s she did not know if the Company would allow her to keep it. She quickly remarried and her new husband, Emmanuel Pietersz, became the manager of the land for her. Emmanuel was another free Black man living in the colony.
Dorothy took steps after her marriage to Emmanuel to make sure Anthony, her adopted child, would inherit his parents’ status as free people. She and Emmanuel petitioned the company for Anthony’s freedom in 1661. They argued that Anthony was free because Dorothy had raised him without any help or money from the Company. The Council agreed with Dorothy’s argument and confirmed Anthony’s status as free.
The English had different laws about slavery than the Dutch did. All of Dorothy’s efforts to secure her and Anthony’s freedom were under threat.
The English took control of New Amsterdam in 1664 and renamed it New York. The English had different laws about slavery than the Dutch did. All of Dorothy’s efforts to secure her and Anthony’s freedom were under threat. Former Dutch Director General of New Netherland Peter Stuyvesant spoke up for them and, in 1667, the English finally confirmed their freedom and land grants. But as the English expanded the practice of slavery in their colonies, Dorothy and her family continued to live under the constant threat of re-enslavement.
Dorothy’s hard labor and skillful navigation of the social and legal customs of her time enabled her to maintain her free status until her death in 1689. Her efforts also ensured that freedom would pass to future generations of her family.