By many accounts, George Downing was a right bastard. Samuel Pepys, the noted diarist of London and English bureaucrat said of Downing that he was a ”perfidious rogue” and remarks that “all the world took notice of him for a most ungrateful villain for his pains.”
Yet without this man, this rogue, New York City, as well as the United States, would looked markedly different from how it looks today. For one, without Downing, it would be likely that we would currently be living in the great country of Connecticut. But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.
Here’s some background – Downing was born in Dublin, but moved to the Massachusetts colony with his parents when he was fifteen years old. He not only attended Harvard, but was part of its first graduating class in 1642. He was also a Puritan, and he soon found his way to London to help out in Oliver Cromwell’s cause and (later) government. By 1657, he became a diplomat to The Netherlands, and took up residence in The Hague, where he proceeded to annoy many leaders in the Dutch government and tried to usurp their trade where ever possible.
When Cromwell’s protectorate fell after his death, Downing, clearly seeing which way the wind was blowing, apologized directly to the restored King Charles II, and threw both Cromwell and other Puritans under the proverbial bus, including giving up three of his friends who had helped plan the death of Charles I in 1649. King Charles II, seeing the benefit of having someone with experience in dealing with the Dutch under his thumb, not only allowed Downing to live, but re-instated him as ambassador to the Dutch.
This is where things get a little convoluted, for remember, at this time, New York City was still New Amsterdam, and still “owned” by the Dutch Wast India Company.
Enter John Winthrop, governor of the Connecticut colony, and son of the deceased head of the Puritan in North America, John Winthrop (the elder) who had been the head of the Massachusetts colony, and was also a good friend of Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch Director-
Winthrop the Younger, using his father’s friendship as an invitation, paid visit to Stuyvesant in New Amsterdam, and Winthrop was given the courtesy of a visiting head of state. While Stuyvesant showed Winthrop around, and kept up with friendly chatter, the governor of the Connecticut colony was taking notes of the size of New Amsterdam’s fort, the amount of guards on duty, and any other perceived tactical weaknesses and strengths that Dutch colony had. Winthrop then traveled across the Atlantic to Amsterdam, and gave a glowing report of the Dutch Colony to the West India Company.
Then Winthrop traveled to the Hague, to meet up with his cousin, George Downing, and it is said that he handed Downing over all of the notes he had taken about the colony. Soon afterwards, maps detailing the fortifications of New Amsterdam were found the halls of English Government.
Winthrop then went to King Charles II, where Winthrop looked for forgiveness for supporting Cromwell’s crusade, even at a distance, and then asked for a charter to create a country of Connecticut, and to include all of the lands west of Connecticut, including New York and everything else west all of the way to the Pacific. To the shock of many, including various other British Colonies in North America, Winthrop got it. When Stuyvesant got wind of the charter, he sent a message to Winthrop, asking for confirmation of respecting an earlier treaty between the two colonies. Winthrop responded with double-speak.
George Downing had other plans, and soon double-crossed his cousin Winthrop. Seeing first hand the amount of money the Dutch brought in from their colonies, Downing proposed to his new King that England should take a similar route. Downing, and a group of politicians, merchants, and other members of royalty all agreed that they needed to take a more direct role in overseeing the colonies in America, an approach which was 180 degrees from their previous position under Charles I and later Cromwell. In doing this, the English government soon reneged on their agreement on the Connecticut charter, and the Government soon set their eyes on New Amsterdam. Three years later, in 1664, Charles II gave the land to his “dearest brother James Duke of York”, and then took the necessary steps of taking the land away from the West India Company. By September 8, 1664, after a few weeks of negotiation with Peter Stuyvesant, the English entered New Amsterdam, lowered the flag of the Dutch West India company, and raised the cross of St. George. Soon afterwards, New Amsterdam became New York, named after the Catholic brother of Charles II, James, Duke of York.
For this work, and others, Downing became a baronet in 1663. He had another 20 years or so of service to the English crown, and invested in properties close to the English Parliament, and just south of Saint Jame’s Park. We know this area today as Downing Street, home to one of the most important addresses in England.