The illustration above is from the New York Historical Society's article on Manuel, and is used as a placeholder. We don't really know what Manuel looked like, but perhaps future research will provide a clue.
The first slaves arrived in Manhattan August 27, 1627 (Jaap Jacobs, 2023) rather than 1626 as once thought. There were 22 of them (although older scholarship may say 11) and most had Portuguese names.....Manuel de Gerrit de Reus (Giant Manuel) who probably belonged to Gerrit de Reux, a colonial settler in the 1620s and 1630s. (Some accounts list him as a servant of Director Willem Kieft.)
When in 1641 the slave Jan Premero was murdered, eight slaves, including Giant Manuel, made a group confession to the murder. 1
Recent scholarship suggests that there were 9 slaves involved in the trial. 2
The slaves were tried before the Director and Council sitting as a court of justice. They had to decide how to handle this situation as the Court of Burgomasters and Schepens did not yet exist at the time of the trial.
See this link for more information about Manuel from the New-York Historical Society:
Please visit the New-York Historical Society website for additional reading and educational materials:
See his manumission record in the documents here.
Historian Chris Moore provides us with more information:
On February 25, 1644, eleven Company slaves, including Manuel, successfully petitioned for their freedom, and the Dutch council granted their emancipation. Their wives received immediate freedom too, however, their children remained the property of the DWIC. The children all eventually received emancipation too.
The newly freed men received grants of farmland in the frontier region north of New Amsterdam. According to land conveyance records it was called the "negroes land" or "the land of the blacks." 19th century historian David Valentine called it "the negro frontier." Note the map from the I.N. Phelps Stokes Iconography of Manhattan Island, which shows the placement of some of the farms in the Greenwich Village area. Chris Moore also created a photo overlay of land documents for the New-York Historical Society which is available below. In 1665, the English questioned the freedom and property owning standing of the free blacks. Their freedom and landownership was verified by then former governor Peter Stuyvesant.
Free and enslaved blacks lived in the environment of New Amsterdam. In 1653, Stuyvestant primarily relied on the slaves to build the town wall (Wall Street). In 1658, Stuyvesant ordered the Company slaves to build the ten mile road to the island's second settlement, New Harlem.
The Story of Manuel de Gerrit de Reus
On a cold day in January of 1641, Manuel de Gerrit de Reus climbed the ladder that would be his place of execution. Before him stood New Amsterdam’s population, ready to bear witness to the court’s ruling. Behind him stood the West India Company’s executioner, another enslaved African, who secured two ropes around Manuel’s neck to compensate for his great size and weight. To carry out the sentence of death as punishment for murder, the executioner pushed Manuel from the ladder. But this was not the end of Manuel’s life story, which tells us much about slavery in the Manhattan’s early days.
Manuel de Gerrit de Reus was among the first enslaved people brought to New Amsterdam by the Dutch West India Company in 1626, probably captured from a Spanish or Portuguese vessel by Company privateers. In desperate need of workers, Company officials turned to slave labor to build the fort, cut timber and firewood, clear land, burn lime, and harvest grain. Since much of this work was seasonal, enslaved people were sometimes rented to other residents. It is believed that Manuel was rented for a long period of time to Gerrit Teussen de Reus, one of Manhattan’s original farmers, whose name helped distinguish Manuel from other enslaved Africans with the same name. Manuel’s great physical stature also earned him the nickname ‘Giant Manuel.’
Like many other slaves, Manuel held certain rights in New Amsterdam. He could marry, own moveable property, and he could raise his own crops and animals. He participated in New Amsterdam’s legal system by petitioning the government, testifying in court against a white man, and granting a power of attorney to the company’s commissary in Rensselaersyck to help him collect money he was owed.
In January, 1641, the company slave Jan Premero was found murdered. Nine other company slaves, including Manuel de Gerrit de Reus, confessed to the murder knowing it was a capital crime in New Amsterdam and perhaps recognizing the reluctance of the company to execute nine of its thirty slaves. Since no single individual confessed to inflicting the lethal blow, the Provincial Council (acting in a judicial capacity) ordered the drawing of lots to determine who would be punished. They believed that the hand of God would intervene to help identify the perpetrator. Manuel drew the short straw and was sentenced to death by hanging. But when Manuel was pushed off the ladder, both ropes broke and he fell to the ground. The crowd shouted for mercy, convinced that a failed execution was an act of God. The Provincial Council agreed and pardoned all nine slaves on condition of good behavior and willing service.
Three years later, in 1644, Manuel and his cohort, now joined by two more enslaved Africans, petitioned the Director and Council for their freedom claiming it was deserved after many years of service and that it was impossible to support their wives and children in the company’s service. Although they were not the first to request their freedom from the Company, the Eleven’s petition came at a critical moment for the colony – during Kieft’s War against the natives. It is likely that Manuel and the remaining petitioners had helped in the colony’s defense, armed by Director Willem Kieft with pikes and hatchets, and hoped to be rewarded for services rendered. The Company granted their request, but with restrictions. Manuel, the others and their wives were granted their freedom but were required to pay an annual quitrent to the company of 30 schepels of wheat and one fat pig. They were also required to serve the Company, with pay, whenever required, and agreed that their children would remain enslaved to the Company. Within a year, the Eleven were granted plots of land for farming and housing, outside of the city wall and north of the Fresh Water Pond. In the next twenty years, they would be joined by almost twenty other former slaves creating the first racially segregated but free Black community in Manhattan.
With four English naval vessels sitting in the bay, awaiting New Amsterdam’s surrender in September 1664, nine “half free” slaves petitioned the Company to be “made entirely free.” Their request was immediately granted. Manuel de Gerrit de Reus was not among them, though he still held title to his land near what is today’s Washington Square Park. His free status and land ownership were soon confirmed by the new English government.
At the time of the surrender, Manuel was one of 75 freed slaves living on Manhattan. But there were an additional 300 Africans that remained enslaved, many of whom had recently arrived aboard the Company ship “Gideon.” Unlike Manuel, their future was uncertain, as was the future of those Manhattan residents who remained enslaved. The institution of slavery that had once shown signs of flexibility would gradually begin to tighten.
1 New York, New Amsterdam by Martine Gosselink
2 Brothers Among Nations, 2008, by Cynthia Van Zandt
Root and Branch : African Americans in New York and East Jersey, 1613-1863 by Graham Russell Hodges
This book provides a map of the lands that were eventually granted to the slaves involved in the trial of Manuel de Gerrit de Reus.
See the Photo Overlay showing Washington Square Park facing north to 5th Avenue where boundaries of the of the Free Black Farms met.