History Lessons for Space

What the founding of Manhattan can teach us about settling the moon or Mars.

Space Dutch Ship.
Lisa Larson-Walker

On July 10, Future Tense and the JustSpace Alliance will hold an event titled “How Will We Govern Ourselves in Space?” in Washington. For more information, to RSVP, and to watch the livestream, visit the New America website.

It surely says something about the state of the world that there is suddenly so much chatter about people making plans to leave it. Some of the robber barons of our age—Elon Musk with SpaceX, Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin, Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic—have companies in place working on the colonization of space. And plenty of countries looking to flex their global power, including China, India, and the United Arab Emirates, have decided that space is the place. Even NASA has been stirred from its intergalactic slumber and is making noise about having a space station orbiting the moon ready to be inhabited by 2024. The message is clear: Let’s get out of here!

To say that settling the heavens is an enterprise without precedent might seem self-evident. But humans have a long history of establishing colonies in what, to those particular humans, was as alien and hostile a wilderness as one lacking oxygen. So it might be instructive to look at one of those experiences in order to get some insights into how a space settlement might be structured and what its needs might be. Why did these colonists decide to go? How did they plan? What did they expect and fear? How unsettling was the experience of settlement?

I’ll focus on what is quite possibly the most wildly successful wilderness colonization effort in history. In the early 1600s, Europeans decided to plant an outpost on the forbidding boondocks called Manhattan. It was an island of forests and swamps on the other side of a vast ocean and astride an alien continent: about the last place, many would have thought, where “civilization” could flourish. (Of course the Munsee peoples of the region had been flourishing in the area for millennia, but to the Europeans they simply didn’t count.) I titled my book about the Dutch founding of New Amsterdam The Island at the Center of the World, but I could as well have called it The Island at the End of the World because that’s how it seemed to Europeans at the time.

As is the case now, the dire state of then-current affairs back home spurred much of Europe’s overseas expansion. In the early 1600s, strife, especially of the religious variety, impelled the English in particular to cross the Atlantic, resulting in the Pilgrim and Puritan colonies of New England. By contrast, the chief problem the Dutch had in getting settlers for their New World colony was the fact that back home it was the Golden Age, the era of Rembrandt and Vermeer, of swaggering well-fed gents in floppy-brimmed hats, an era in which the tiny nation became, improbably, the greatest shipper on earth, pioneer of the stock market and of much that we call modern today. The Dutch were rolling in it, and they hoped to roll in even more of it with their North American settlement. They had had extraordinary success in founding the Dutch East India Company, which opened up trade with the lucrative Spice Islands of present-day Indonesia. The idea was to do the same in the “West Indies” (i.e., America): Establish a base from which to extract tradable goods.

Thus the planning stage of the enterprise involved establishing a corporation that would run their colonization effort: the West India Company. The WIC was a chartered company that was granted a monopoly on trade within its vast territorial concern, which technically stretched from northern Canada to the southernmost regions of South America.

Stop and ponder the ridiculousness of that notion, and you find yourself inhabiting a mental zone akin to the one we are in today regarding space exploration. The so-called Outer Space Treaty contains such Star Trekkie clauses as “the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.” The concepts bandied about are beyond our comprehension, and yet we try to wrap our familiar lingo around them. Similarly, the legal notion that England pushed with regard to its New World claim, that of “first discovery,” held that because the foot of an Italian explorer hired by England touched soil in the future Canada, the entire land mass encompassing North, South, and Central America magically fell under the ownership of the English state and monarch. (Again, the indisputable preexistence of indigenous populations didn’t count to Europeans.)

The Dutch—archenemies of England—didn’t buy the English claim, but the grounds for their own claims seemed equally dubious. The Englishman Henry Hudson had nosed around the East Coast of North America, going up the river that would bear his name and past the island of Manhattan; the Dutch based their claim to the region (which encompassed parts of five future states) on the fact that he had been in their pay at the time. If there is a lesson here for space settlement, it may be that the incomprehensible vastnesses of out there make efforts involving such mindboggling scope ripe for eventual confrontation. What’s ultimately going to matter is who has deeper pockets and bigger muscles when push comes to shove.

As to what the colonizers expected, the first notion of the Dutch was to situate the capital of their colony in the southern reaches of their claimed territory, on the Delaware River near present-day Wilmington. That was because early navigators had told them of palm trees and tropical warmth: It sounded lovely. Once the Dutch realized those reports were from much farther south, they shifted their attention northward. They were (and still are) all about water, zeroing in on navigable rivers, good harbors, and well-situated islands wherever they went. That led them to the finest natural haven for shipping on the whole coast: the future New York Harbor.

The first bad decision grew out of the need to lay claim to the land: The Dutch arrivals, few in number, spread themselves out across the vast terrain in an effort to show others that it was theirs, that they were using it. But the reality was pretty wobbly: A dozen or so were in the area around present-day Albany, New York; another handful were way to the south at Delaware Bay; a few more hunkered down on the Connecticut River.

For a capital, they put their initial hopes on a little place in New York Harbor that today is called Governor’s Island. It was the logic of overly tentative colonizers: A small island in the harbor, it was felt, would be manageable. But it couldn’t have sustained a thriving settlement. Reality forced a bolder approach. In 1626, after a violent altercation with Mohawks 150 miles to the north, the settlers reconsidered. Their leader, Peter Minuit, chose the southern tip of Manhattan, a stone’s throw from Governor’s Island, as a more defensible home, one that he felt confident could support a “large” population (if he only knew), and founded New Amsterdam.

The early years were a slogging story of failure and strife, of pirates and prostitutes strutting around lower Manhattan, of bar fights and fur smuggling and chaos. The wobbliness had a pretty clear cause. In 1650, 25 years after the founding, Adriaen van der Donck, one of the leading inhabitants, made a trek back to the home country to try to convince the Dutch government to take control of the colony from the WIC and turn it from a trade outpost into a state-administered province, under which the inhabitants would benefit from all legal and social institutions. The lengthy treatise he wrote summarized the WIC’s initial missteps. The overall problem was “bad government,” he wrote, italics and all. “The Managers of the Company adopted a wrong course at the first, and as we think had more regard for their own interest than for the welfare of the country.” Among the problems were “unnecessary expenses.” The WIC, whose directors sat thousands of miles across the ocean, had ordered the building of a ship, “three expensive mills,” a brickyard, and other infrastructural projects, which may have seemed sensible on paper back on the “mother ship” but didn’t fit the needs of the population and saddled the company with debt—so it couldn’t provide things they actually would need. The lesson for space settlements would seem to be to give those on the ground (or in the air) the power to make or change decisions.

Another flaw with the initial settlement, maybe the root problem, was that its organizers overlooked the role of the human heart in such an enterprise. The WIC, Van der Donck wrote, had “sought to stock this land with their own employees,” who left the colony as soon as their stint was over. Instead, Van der Donck argued, the emphasis should have been on attracting willing settlers, people who believed in the place, who wanted to make it their home and their children’s home.

Over time, that began to happen, in part thanks to Van der Donck’s own effort. While in Europe he published a book about the colony and its exploitable riches, which became a bestseller. Hundreds of people emigrated as a result, people who were enchanted by what they had read. They were perhaps the first people to self-consciously pursue the American dream.

The first indication of progress for New Netherland, as the colony was called, was the breakup of the WIC’s monopoly in 1640. Once that happened, the owners of trading firms in Amsterdam began sending their sons to New Amsterdam to set up branch offices. Seemingly overnight, the little wilderness port became a node on the global Dutch shipping map and a place where people wanted to put down roots. Opening up trade, in other words, brought not only competition but the willing settlers Van der Donck was looking for.

By around 1660, the colonists had finally worked out a successful mixture of elements for their settlement to thrive. The ingredients were: private entrepreneurship under the wing of a chartered company; substantial government regulation (New Amsterdam was chartered as a Dutch city in 1653, which is still the date New York City considers its birth, and which gave it a functioning city council that could authorize urban improvements); and a state church, which provided poor relief and an orphanage but whose tendency to dogmatism was tempered by an official governmental policy of tolerance of other faiths. A space settlement would have a different mix of constituent elements, but the underlying needs—for individuals to have a stake in the enterprise, for a check on greed, for a form of social welfare—would likely be the same.

The irony was that this combination was so successful that it attracted the English, eventually leading to them swiping the colony. The rise of New Amsterdam as a vibrantly functioning port coincided with the end of the Civil War in England and the restoration of the monarchy. Charles II and his brother James, the Duke of York, knew they needed to reorganize their North American colonies in New England and Virginia. In between them lay the Dutch colony, which had become so successful that Virginians who shipped goods to England took to sending them to Manhattan, where the Dutch, thanks to the open competition among their trading firms, had become efficient trans-Atlantic shippers with low tariffs. It was too enticing to ignore any longer. A flotilla of English warships off lower Manhattan convinced Peter Stuyvesant, the last director, to relinquish his charge.

At this point the place was still mostly wilderness. Hiking north from New Amsterdam up the length of Manhattan, a traveler would have encountered the landscapes that predated Tribeca and Times Square: thick woods and bird-filled meadows. But the basic problem of how to turn an alien world into a place called home had been solved. That that home would henceforth be called New York City was not something the original planners of the colony could have foreseen, any more than they could have imagined the island’s skyscraper-ed future.

But an inability to see the future doesn’t imply a failure of imagination. Maybe the most crucial thing required in establishing a successful settlement was the will and creativity to eventually fight the top-down structure that had conceived of and funded the enterprise in the first place. How that might be done in space would depend not only on the nature of the entity behind the settlement but on the goals of the enterprise. In the Dutch case, once the monopoly was relinquished, there was the possibility of individual, small-scale capitalism, in the form of trading with Native Americans. If a space settlement is based around mining, or farming, or whatever they do in airless climes that can turn a profit, having all the incentive for growth at the top would not be conducive to giving individuals a piece of the action and a sense of home.

If New York’s founding is an applicable model, the entities developing space colonies would go a long way toward ensuring success by being mindful of one point above all. In order to survive, every colony or outpost, however far-flung, needs to become somebody’s home.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.