No Country for Peter Stuyvesant: Loss Across Time

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15114The nation or country, what entity is of more importance to modern society? What about capitalistic economy, secularization, democracy, and progress as normative American values. All hold sway, for better or worse, on our perceptions of the world and our place within it. And it is from this vantage point in modernity that we look towards the actions of those who lived before us, reaching back through time to filter the past through the eyes of the present. This is history, and this is why the practice of history is an art and not a science. It is imperfect, an extension of the historian and the times in which they live.

But how then, asks Donna Merwick in Stuyvesant Bound: An Essay on Loss Across Time (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), can we better understand Peter Stuyvesant from our vantage point in the modern world, back to one that was premodern and existed between the post-Reformation and pre-Enlightenment periods. A world in which the United States of America cannot be predicted or imagined, though the history written about Colonial America often chooses a narrative that fits into a story of nationalistic genesis.

A creation story that makes the founding of America seem both inevitable and secularly divine. The histories of nations are filled with their own deities, prophets, and sacred texts. In America, one has to look no farther than the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. All this, a historian must weed through to find the North America of the seventeenth century in which the colony of New Netherlands existed, and where Peter Stuyvesant acted as Director-Governor for some seventeen years. It is to this place and time outside the confines of the nation state in which Merwick takes us.

Duty, Belief, and Loss

Merwick asks us as readers to consider Stuyvesant from three perspectives: duty, belief, and loss. The first topic of duty reflects his oath to the Dutch West India Company (WIC). An oath, as the one taken by Stuyvesant on July 28, 1646 before the assembly of the States General and “before God,” was a “sacred undertaking”  and gave him the authority to act as the personification of the West India Company itself. It bestowed on Stuyvesant the power to take action on the ground in the New Netherlands, while a “government-by-correspondence” was kept with the distant WIC in Holland. But Stuyvesant did not rule with as much authority as one would think, the Netherlanders never liked to give one individual too much power (to the frustration of some in the House of Orange), as the rule of government was usually local and comprised of civic minded citizens. Merwick writes, “The States General’s grant of a municipal charter to New Amsterdam in 1653 created solid grounds for that changeover. Self-government modeled more closely on practices in Holland gradually improved the lives of the city’s tradespeople and merchants. Many scholars have carefully studied this transformation. My concern here is to evaluate the repercussions of the charter on Stuyvesant’s subsequent career in New Netherland and his afterlives in historians’ evaluation of him. The charter meant that Stuyvesant was effectively stripped of his authority as magistrate of the city of New Amsterdam.”

Even as someone who has studied Dutch New York, I found the level of autonomy given to New Amsterdam surprising, and that Stuyvesant’s role in what would become New York City was mostly “consultative.” The government comprised of “Burgomasters and Schepenen” would only last for a little over a decade, until the city was ceded to the English in 1664.

Another obstacle Stuyvesant faced in his duty as director was the sparse population of New Netherlands, especially in his ability to negotiate boundaries with the surrounding English colonies which were more populous. Merwick cites a prominent Virginia Company colonist from 1659 concerning the “political logic” of the time, “saying that Virginia and New England were meant to touch.” If Stuyvesant had his hands full with boundary disputes with other colonies, his most pressing concerns were internal, as Merwick points out “Stuyvesant lived in an American Indian world.”

Multicultural from the Start

Citing statistics, Merwick explains why Stuyvesant governed New Netherlands with a strategy of peaceful deterrence: “In the mid-1660’s, there were about 8,000 men, women, and children, widely scattered in four locations: Manhattan Island and Long Island; Beverwijck (Albany), Wiltwijck (Kingston); and two primitively fortified settlements on the Delaware.” This is in comparison to an estimated 14,000 American Indians who lived within the territory of New Netherlands. The cultural interactions between various American Indian nations and the peoples of New Netherland were “constant if not daily.”

In 1643, reflecting the larger Atlantic world that it was part of, Stuyvesant’s predecessor Willem Kieft noted 18 languages spoken in New Amsterdam. Merwick writes that “like other leading historical figures, Stuyvesant has been chained to the vagaries of American historiography’s own history. As we shall see, he was tied to a paradigmatic conceptualization of American colonial history that severely limited the human diversity that marked the seventeenth century.” Addressing the myth of homogeny, the actual history points to a North America that was multicultural from the start, and has been continuously from our colonial past right through to the present.

Personal Spirituality

Merwick approaches Stuyvesant’s religious beliefs by recognizing the pitfalls of modern faith that operate from the perspective of the post-Enlightenment. Merwick writes, “New Netherlanders made efforts to access God in their everyday life,” as she considers “the construction of a nonsecular cultural formation,” one that focuses “on everyday practice, that is, personal spirituality.” Merwick continues by arguing against the historical stereotypes that depict Calvinists of Stuyvesant’s time as an antithesis to humanism: “I think it is our Enlightenment triumphalism that plays out here. Our analytical orientation to New Netherland’s troubles in the pre-1653 years is expressed in categories constructed in modern times—that is, as secular humanism/reason versus Calvinism/unreason. This is a false dichotomy. In the seventeenth century, a Calvinist was an individual who accepted Calvin’s teachings…that did not mean he or she thereby opposed the new humanistic sciences and arts embedded in the broader culture in Holland.”

What Merwick addresses here goes beyond history, to how we today interpret the art and literature of the past. Both are now analyzed through the lens of the time and place of composition, in combination with a biographical/chronological approach to an author or artists life, in an effort to gain a better understanding of their work. The key though is to try to understand what religion was to those in the past, not as it looks today to us from the vantage point of hindsight. This is of course an unattainable view, but recognizing this paradox gets us closer to a more accurate telling of past events and participants. Merwick is a masterful teacher as well as writer, and these attributes combine to give the reader a better grasp of this concept.

The Ghosts of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper

The history of the Hudson Valley is haunted by many towering figures, but no specters loom larger on this landscape than Irving and Cooper. These two apparitions are for the most part benevolent, but in the context of history, Merwick points out how authors often appropriate historical figures to fit into the larger narratives running through their work. “Irving expected that by elaborating on the dichotomy between the modernizing nineteenth century Americas and the seventeenth century New Netherlanders, each would make the other more real. And from the early Dutch history, the Americans would come to realize the availability of alternative political structures to those in which they were choosing so perilously to live,” writes Merwick. In short, Stuyvesant is cast as a historical actor in a fictional drama, one where “Irving was not writing to do justice to Stuyvesant, but to advance a more just American society.”

Like the idyllic shepherds of a bucolic Greece, created by Virgil in The Eclogues to serve as a contrast to the urban Roman society of the poets time, so too did Dutch New York serve as a metaphor to a more pastoral lifestyle. With Irving portraying in Knickerbockers History a fictional arcadia, in stark contrast to the New Yorkers of his own time. On this topic, Merwick draws one of the most insightful explanations I have come across concerning Irving’s critique of the American society of his era, one which he watched evolve over his lifetime: “Irving’s advice was that they should think carefully about modernization and how they were allowing disciplines to dictate the rhythms of their lives. Those disciplines were now apparent to him in four modes of behavior: acceptance of a frenetic economic, geographic, and psychological mobility; adoption of a work ethic that left little time for leisure and defined it as nonutilitarian in any case; an inclination for aggression in vicious factional politics; a popular distaste for negotiation in favor of warfare; and an uncontrolled thirst for territorial expansion, even to the point of finding it thinkable to exterminate rightful indigenous owners.”

I would only like to add that fiction, in the form of the novel in the early modern period can be at times considered historical. As there is history based on documentary evidence as put forth by Merwick, we can also ask ourselves if for the most part those concerned with documents in the past were not the most privileged in society, meaning those who were literate. As Stuyvesant was a privileged Dutch man, so he has a rich collection of historical documents to draw from, but the history that can be gleamed from older novels can reveal truths to the human condition. Is the work of Jane Austin or Daniel Defoe any less historical than document based research? And as Merwick shows with Irving and Cooper, we can sometimes gain a better historical grasp of certain times, not by how the authors wrote history themselves but how they appropriated history to their own ends. Merwick makes this point without addressing it, as her direction in the text is more concerned with the perception of Stuyvesant through time.

To Suffer Loss

Merwick explores the surrender of New Amsterdam to the English in 1664, and how Stuyvesant’s role in these events has been interpreted differently by various historians through time. But she also goes into detail on one of the most under studied but interesting aspects of Stuyvesant’s biography, the years 1665 to 1667, when he is put under investigation and must defend the loss of New Netherlands to the States General in Holland. As Merwick observes, Stuyvesant had a hand in writing his own history as he submitted seventeen years’ worth of documents, some “70,000 words” towards his own defense.

It was an impolite and at times ugly investigation, the West India Company (WIC) tried to lay all the blame of the loss onto Stuyvesant, to his former employer he became “a man who had failed to observe his oath.” The WIC’s argument to the investigating committee was that Stuyvesant “acted like a pawn of the burghers, that is like the city’s ‘militia captain and not a servant of the Company.’ Their conclusion: he should have defended the fort even though the city would have been reduced. In their words, ‘it ought to have been defended until the English had reduced it [the fort and the city] by their overwhelming force.” As we have already seen, Stuyvesant had the title of Director-Governor of New Netherlands but little power over New Amsterdam to influence the outcome of the English invasion. The city wanted to surrender, and Stuyvesant bore the burden of being the messenger who has no choice but to accept the weight of another’s decision.

Stuyvesant Bound: An Essay on Loss Across Time by Donna Merwick is academic with a capital A. I do not mean that it is too complicated a read or written over most reader heads. I mean academic in the words root form: that what Merwick writes will bestow not only a better understanding of Peter Stuyvesant the historical figure, but also in how we view the world around us that is created by the history of the past. It is higher learning, what those in a less ironic age would call wisdom. It is by no means an “easy read” because you will find yourself at times stopping to reflect, to wonder about those that once called America home. To think back on how we ourselves have been misled by certain historians and the histories they created, and how that affected our perceptions of the world and our place within it. To have been misled is to be part of a nation, it is mandatory; the choice of whether to accept mistruth is optional, that is citizenship.


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