A 17th Century Entrepreneurial “She-Merchant” and Shipowner in America
A case of social responsibility and historical context
In the 17th century, the settling of New Amsterdam in the New World, or what we know of today as New York City, included the establishment of some thriving careers of entrepreneurial women. Margaret Hardenbroeck Philipse, a colonial merchant and ship owner, paved the way for future businesswomen, who can learn as many lessons from her business acumen as from her unethical participation in the slave trade. Today, with so many startups having as their foundation social responsibility, it might seem unimaginable that historically men, women and children were bought and sold along with all the other goods for sale. Margaret’s role as an example in the present day must account for what made up the path to success as much as any economic progress.
Born in 1637 in Elberfield of the Rhine Valley, Hardenbroeck’s birth name was "Margareta.” Her father was Adolph Hardenbruk, a German emigrant, and her older brother was Abel. In Germany prior to the 19th century, “young women lived under the economic and disciplinary authority of their fathers until they married and passed under the control of their husbands. In order to secure a satisfactory marriage, a woman needed to bring a substantial dowry. In the wealthier families, daughters received their dowry from their families, whereas the poorer women needed to work in order to save their wages so as to improve their chances to wed.”
In the late 1650s Margaret took her passage to the New World and arrived in New Amsterdam, later New York City, the capital of New Netherland, which had been established by the Dutch in 1614.
On arrival she worked as an agent in the buy and sale of goods for her Dutch cousin’s shipping business. She also represented him in court to collect debts and managed the colonial end of his business.
Margaret soon married in 1659 to Peter de Vries and had a daughter; however, she continued with her business activities and always with her maiden name. Under her maiden name, she was a business agent for merchants trading with New Netherland. She was also a shipowner. Her husband died in 1661 leaving a great deal of property. As it turns out, the Dutch Colony had a matriarchal structure whereby women could inherit money and land, and through this inheritance, become business owners. Margaret took over her deceased husband’s role as merchant and trader by shipping furs to Holland in exchange for Dutch goods.
In 1662 she married again, this time to Frederick Philipse, who was having an increasing role in the economic and political life of New Amsterdam. They had four children. With Margaret’s inheritance from her first husband, he was able to earn great wealth in the mercantile business. Meanwhile Margaret continued her trading between New Amsterdam and Holland. Margaret’s marriage to her second husband allowed her under Dutch law to maintain her legal identity and do business in herown name, called usus. Her business led to the ownership of several house lots in Manhattan and Bergen as well as several ships including the New Netherland Indian, Beaver, Pearl, and Morning Star.
In 1664 Margaret had no option but to continue her business dealings underneath the authority of her husband because the British seized control of New Amsterdam, and many of women’s rights were denied. She could not act independently anymore as a businesswoman, and all of her earnings were handed over to her husband. She continued to run the businesses on these terms, which led to her husband being recognized as one of the richest men in New York.
Part of his wealth came from expanding their transatlantic trading ventures by using the ships Margaret had accrued during her first marriage. The result was that the Philipses were considered the biggest slave traders in the northern colonies with their top cargos as slaves. They “also used slave labor extensively in their businesses and operation of their 52,000 acreManor.”
Margaret died in 1691 after a pioneering career though tainted by involvement in the slave trade.
In 1698 a small and insufficient statement was made about the Philipse’s participation in the slave trade in New York when British governor, Lord Bellomont, banned her husband from the Executive Council, a government office, for being a slave trader.
It would take a lot more, including a civil war, for slavery to be totally abolished in 1865.