William III awards Joseph de la Penha land grant to Labrador region; Questions, controversy arise

William III

Portrait of William III in the 1680s by Sir Godfrey Kneller [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Thanks to Cousin Anje, the tale of lore of the Dutch sea captain who saved a King of England now has a lot more substance to it than it did a few days ago; although, a lot more clarification could be had. The story was that an ancestor who was a Dutch sea captain had saved the King of England from drowning and had been rewarded with Labrador, the region in Canada. I had no dates, names, or other details.

Now all that has changed.

Following my initial post on the topic, Cousin Anje was able to track down a news article from July 7, 1950, that had since been posted online:

 “According to records secured by the descendants of the De La Penha family in Canada and in London, King William the Third of Britain was saved from drowning in a shipwreck in 1695 by Joseph De La Penha, an Amsterdam Jewish merchant. In gratitude King William gave De La Penha hereditary tenure forever of Labrador. This grant was legalized in 1697 in a document signed at Het Loo Palace in Holland and renewed in 1732 and 1768, the descondants of the Do La Penha family claim.” – Reuters Article: “Descendants of Portuguese Jewish Family Revive Claim for Possession of Labrador

The article goes on to say how descendants started to band together before WWII to file their claim to the land and that proceedings were postponed because of the war. It says Isaac de la Penha, of Montreal, filed the first suit in 1927 and then it was later brought up jointly by descendants in Belgium and P.H. Molhado. It also alludes to one of the descendants finding the 1697 document inside a book he borrowed from a Dutch library in London (but more on that later).

From here, I had a name: Joseph de la Penha.

De la Penha (1658-1731) was a “Rotterdam Sephardi merchant, ship-owner, and financier of privateers,” according to “The Dutch Intersection: The  Jews and the Netherlands in Modern History” edited by Yosef Kaplan.

Through Google book searches, I found several authors saying the land had been given to de la Penha. Each seemed to regurgitate the same short line about how William III had given the land to de la Penha and then speculate that it could have been gifted in exchange for helping discover Labrador.

One result, though, stood out. From the “Search Out the Land” book, which was primarily concerned with the equality of Jews:

“The practice of granting proprietary colonies by royal charter continued even after the passage of the restrictive Corporation and Test Acts. Pennsylvania was chartered to William Penn, an English Quaker, in 1682, and Labrador was chartered to Joseph de la Penha, an Iberian Jew who lived in Rotterdam, in 1697.

The charter given to de la Penha was perhaps the most unusual of the English colonial charters. According to the Dutch text of the document, on 1 November 1697 William III of England granted all of Labrador from the 54th to the 60th degree of latitude to de la Penha in perpetuity. The grant was likely a reward for de la Penha after the captain of one of his ships had defended the English coast by fighting a victorious battle with two French ships off Dunkirk in February 1696. De la Penha was known to have sent large numbers of Sephardic ‘poor Jews’ from Holland to London. A letter from the wardens of the London Sephardic Congregation to de la Penha in 1692 warned him to discontinue forwarding poor people to London as ‘His Majesty’s Council have just passed a new Order forbidding entry at the ports without a passport which cost £3, 10s. od., a sum which the congregation cannot possibly afford for all the would be immigrants who are detained thereby on entry.’ It was likely anticipated that de la Penha would settle Labrador with Sephardic ‘poor Jews.’ Notwithstanding this extraordinary gesture by the English crown, it is not known whether de la Penha took any action to attempt to establish a Labrador of the Jewish colony.” – “Search Out the Land: The Jews and the Growth of Equality in the British Colonial America, 1740-1867” by Sheldon J Godfrey

I may be completely off the mark — but I find it interesting that this excerpt is saying de la Penha was bringing poor Jews into London, where they were not wanted. That implies to me that part of the motive behind the colonial charter could have been to get rid of that problem, not just a “thank you.” However, I’m still holding on to that saved-the-king-from-drowning story since it seemed to come from the original documents gathered for the court case whereas this telling is based somewhat in speculation.

Then again, the colonial charter could have come about because the merchant de la Penha loaned William of Orange the heaps of money he needed to take over England.

Yes, really. It wouldn’t exactly have been out of character.

“This prominent personage, active in supporting the Habsburg Pretender to the Spanish throne during the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1714), had fled to Holland from Spain in the late seventeenth century. He would have known no Hebrew and relatively little Judaism, but he was a man of very wide horizons.” – “The Dutch Intersection” edited by Yosef Kaplan

According to a news article that ran in the Milwaukee Sentinel on Sept. 9, 1951 (the headline read “Presenting the Bill for a Throne” and the subhead said, “A Loan Allegedly Made to William of Orange May Soon Set Off a Legal Battle Involving the Ownership of Labrador”), “Labrador, Cortereal, and Estotiland” were repayment:

“Joseph de la Penha was a wealthy merchant and ship owner of Spain who fled the inquisition there in the 17th century and settled, with most of his money in tact, in Holland. He added to his holdings, and when William called on him for a loan he responded so generously that William got to England in style.

William then the paid off with Labrador, which had been claimed in William’s name by a Dutch explorer named de Hartog. Neither William nor de la Penha had any idea that Labrador was anything more than a rocky coast. It was purely a symbol.” – Milwaukee Sentinel Article: “Presenting the Bill for a Throne” by Booton Herndon

The article goes on to say how Isaac de la Penha (remember the guy who filed the original suit before the war?) had a great nephew named Maurice Groen, who was a bright student, and that Maurice was tasked with tracking down information and documentation to the family’s claim.

“In the archives of the Netherlands treasury he found a receipt for 10 coins, received from Daniel de la Penha. Attached was a copy of the grant to Labrador. Not long after that, Maurice turned up the original. The grants were specific the de la Penhas had indeed been given Labrador in perpetuity.”

Daniel de la Penha was the eldest of Joseph de la Penha’s sons and the land went to him after Joseph’s death. After Daniel died, William V updated the land deed for David de la Penha, according to the Milwaukee Sentinel article. And so, while I don’t think any of those three de la Penhas ever made it to Labrador, the family did receive funds from the property for a number of years.

The group that filed the suit, in a decision led by the elders, declined a deal of $50,000 and 2 percent of the profits before the war. When it was refiled following the war, in part by my great-grandmother Louise “Loes” Kool (n. Lopes-Cardozo) with many of the descendants killed in the Holocaust, it was denied.

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