Took the #7 train to Flushing last week. You can’t miss it. It’s the final stop. Main Street looks and feels like Singapore. This should come as no surprise when you realize that Flushing is Greater New York’s bustling Little Asia. Cool. But on that particular evening I was in more of a 17th century Quaker frame of mind.
The Queens Historical Society in Flushing had invited me to speak about New York Diaries at their May meeting. So after a few anxious moments checking street numbers on acupuncture clinics and karaoke bars, I finally located (with assistance of husband’s smart-phone GPS) a verdant park and two old buildings; one of these, the Kingsland Homestead, the Society’s headquarters.
I had been looking forward to this particular engagement because I’d felt, during previous readings, that I’d given short shrift to one of my earliest diarists, a very brave man named John Bowne. In the 1600s, he and his wife had converted to Quakerism and come to live at the settlement that was then called “Vlishing.”
The Dutch West India Company’s charter laid out what served as Colonial law and seemed to grant religious freedom to all comers, but Governor Peter Stuyvesant, a notorious bigot, declined to allow The Friends freedom of assembly. A number of them signed a petition called the Flushing Remonstrance protesting that these rights had been promised them and Stuyvesant dismissed their grievances.
Defying the Governor, John Bowne allowed the Quakers to assemble in his home. And, for this, he was arrested, taken from his sick family, and deported to Holland. There, he presented his case to Stuyvesant’s employers at Company headquarters. Remarkably, his argument prevailed. When word of this reached New Netherland, the Governor was forced to stand down.
As I read aloud Bowne’s diary account of his arrest, my husband, who was in the audience, appeared utterly absorbed – not by me – but by something beyond the podium and beyond my right shoulder, out of a window.
Afterwards, I asked him what he’d been looking at. Turns out, it was the old Bowne manse, site of the first test of religious freedom in the New World. And Bowne’s words, read in the shadow of his own house, had seemed, in my husband’s words, “magical.”
Note: The Dutch West India Company knew that religious tolerance was very good for commerce. It also left them on the right side of history.