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Anthony Jansen van Salee, better known as “Anthony the Turk,” was one of the most colorful characters in New Amsterdam, the Dutch colony that later became New York City.
The son of a Dutch pirate and a Moorish woman, he fought constant legal battles with his neighbors, one of whom denounced him as “a rascal and a horned beast.” In 1639, after an ill-advised feud with the religious leader of the fledgling settlement at the tip of Manhattan, he and his wife — a reputed prostitute known for her salty tongue (and her habit of measuring clients’ endowments with a broomstick) — were banished.
Like others pushed out of Manhattan in later centuries, Anthony — considered the first known person of Muslim descent to settle in America — just moved across the East River, and before long had secured a grant of nearly 200 acres of farmland near the wilds of Coney Island. And one afternoon last month, the recently rediscovered deed for the mother of all Brooklyn real-estate scores came home.
It arrived at the Brooklyn Historical Society’s stately headquarters in Brooklyn Heights in an unassuming brown package, fresh from Christie’s, where the historical society bought it in October for $27,500. Upstairs in the library, a small group gathered as Maggie Schreiner, the manager of archives and special collections, placed the package on a low shelf used to store fire-insurance atlases and gently sliced it open.
“There it is!” Deborah Schwartz, the historical society’s president, said in an awed whisper, as the document — deeply creased from repeated folding, its ink slightly faded to brown — came into view. “Wow.”
The deed, which will be on view at the historical society from Dec. 11 to 15, is “far and away” the most important item it has acquired recently, Ms. Schwartz said. It’s also one that arrived at a fortuitous moment.
When the auction listing popped up, the historical society had just completed a three-year oral history project and exhibition documenting Muslims in Brooklyn — a community that has deep roots in the borough but was all but invisible in the society’s archives.
“This is an amazing document,” said Julie Golia, the historical society’s vice president for curatorial affairs and collections. “It’s not only unbelievably significant to the way we understand the 17th century, but it’s also a direct tie to the kinds of themes and questions we are digging into about the 20th and 21st centuries.”
While Anthony’s land acquisition was known from the colony’s official records (which have been translated by the New Netherland Project), the fact that his copy of the deed survived was not. When it was brought to Christie’s, the owner, whom the auction house is not identifying, thought it was notable mainly for its early date of 1643 and an endorsement on the back by Peter Stuyvesant.
The roughly 7-by-13-inch piece of vellum, purchased with a grant from the B.H. Breslauer Foundation, may not look like much compared with treasures like the ultrarare 1770 map of Manhattan by the master cartographer Bernard Ratzer that was discovered among the society’s uncataloged holdings a few years ago. But its details suggest a tantalizing story.
In the library, the three women leaned close to read the dense, neat script, picking out words like “Nieuw Amsterdam” and “Conyne Eylandt,” and the signature of Willem Kieft, the colonial governor who issued the deed. On the reverse, the endorsement of Stuyvesant — who became governor in 1647, and presumably signed it to recertify its legality — was faded almost to invisibility.
“Some of the most powerful documents, the ones that let you tell the most powerful stories once you dig in with research and read between the lines, are often the most innocuous,” Ms. Golia said.
The story of Anthony Jansen van Salee, or “Anthony the Turk,” who was born in 1607, certainly provides plenty to think about. His father, Jan Jansen, a Dutch privateer, was captured by one of the Moorish states in 1618. He reportedly converted to Islam, possibly by force, and became one of the famed Barbary pirates. (Van Salee was a reference to the Moroccan port of Salee, where the family lived for a time; “Turk” was a derogatory term used at the time for Muslims of any ethnicity.)
Anthony set sail for New Amsterdam in 1629, and before long acquired a large farm just north of the city stockade at Wall Street, along with a reputation as one of the most quarrelsome characters in a town full of them.
Within five years, he had been hauled into court for offenses including “stealing wood, paying wages he owed with a dead goat, allowing his dog to kill a neighbor’s hog, pointing a loaded pistol at the overseer of the West India Company’s slaves, threatening a debt collector with bloodshed if he insisted on the money owed and slandering any number of people,” according to a biographical entry posted online by the New Netherland Institute.
The last straw came in 1639, when his wife, Grietje Reyniers, was accused of insinuating that the wife of the colony’s religious leader had herself solicited prostitution. When Anthony refused to back down, he and Grietje were ordered to leave New Amsterdam for good.
Anthony sold his farm near Wall Street, but somehow secured the deed for 100 morgens of land, or about 200 acres, near Coney Island. At the time, the area now known as Brooklyn — outside New Amsterdam, but claimed by the broader New Netherland colony — was the frontier, occupied by Native Americans and, near Wallabout Bay and a few other spots, a smattering of colonists.
“It was the Wild West, or the Wild East,” Ms. Golia said.
It remains unclear how Anthony was able to get the grant. (Also unclear, Ms. Golia noted, was exactly how the Dutch gained control of that land from the Canarsee, the tribe of the Lenape nation who inhabited the area.) But within a few decades, he was one of the most prosperous landowners in Kings County, whose illustrious descendants include Cornelius Vanderbilt.
His story is usually offered as illustrative of the fractious nature of the motley Dutch colony, long seen as “a collection of losers and scalawags,” as the historian Russell Shorto once put it. But peel back the salacious particulars, Ms. Golia said, and it reveals deep questions about race and gender, identity and self-identity, that resonate in our time.
Anthony’s own religious observance is unknown. But historical sources indicate that a Quran said to have belonged to him was auctioned in the mid-20th century, suggesting that his Muslim heritage was meaningful to him, Ms. Golia said.
“In our oral histories, we have people who practice and who don’t,” she said. “Now we have an opportunity to think about how that might have worked in the 17th century.”
The relationship between Anthony’s perceived race and his legal troubles, Ms. Golia said, bears pondering. So, she said, does the frequent identification of Grietje (the heroine of Michael Pye’s 1996 novel “The Drowning Room”) as a prostitute, which may itself be a slander.
In 2011, after The New York Times ran an article referring to her as “a lady of the night,” one of her 10th great-granddaughters wrote a riposte defending her honor, pointing out that the testimony calling her a “whore” came from a clergyman who was himself “a belligerent liar and drunkard.”
“This woman is a troublemaker, this man is of mixed race,” Ms. Golia said. “What role did that play in their exile? There are so many things to investigate here.”
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