Stuyvesant Bound: An Essay on Loss Across Time (Early American Studies)

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9780812245035: Stuyvesant Bound: An Essay on Loss Across Time (Early American Studies)

Stuyvesant Bound is an innovative and compelling evaluation of the last director general of New Netherland. Donna Merwick examines the layers of culture in which Peter Stuyvesant forged his career and performed his responsibilities, ultimately reappraising the view of Stuyvesant long held by the majority of U.S. historians and commentators.

Borrowing its form from the genre of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century learned essays, Stuyvesant Bound invites the reader to step into a premodern worldview as Merwick considers Stuyvesant's role in history from the perspectives of duty, belief, and loss. Stuyvesant is presented as a mid-seventeenth-century magistrate obliged by his official oath to manage New Netherland, including installing Calvinist politics and belief practices under the fragile conditions of early modern spirituality after the Protestant Reformation. Merwick meticulously reconstructs the process by which Stuyvesant became his own archivist and historian when, recalled to The Hague to answer for his surrender of New Netherland in 1664, he gathered together papers amounting to almost 50,000 words and offered them to the States General. Though Merwick weaves the theme of loss throughout this meditation on Stuyvesant's career, the association culminates in New Netherland's fall to the English in 1664 and Stuyvesant's immediate recall to Holland to defend his surrender. Rigorously researched and unabashedly interpretive, Stuyvesant Bound makes a major contribution to recovery of the cultural and religious diversity that marked colonial America.

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About the Author:

Donna Merwick is Senior Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Melbourne, Long Term Visiting Fellow at Australian National University, and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Swinburne Institute for Social Research at the Swinburne University of Technology. She is the author of many books, including The Shame and the Sorrow: Dutch-Amerindian Encounters in New Netherland, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press, and Death of a Notary: Conquest and Change in Colonial New York.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Preface: The Outcast

A haunting representation of Peter Stuyvesant rests among the documents relating to New Netherland. Stylistically it is similar to a line drawing. Spare, sensuous, and provocative, it is like a simple piece of graffiti. It is only forty-nine words.

Stuyvesant is described as a captive. He is a lone figure being driven across the land with his hands bound behind his back. Nothing indicates the cause of his enforced journeying. Whatever his past in the country from which he is being driven, it is over. His future is commented on. His journey could end in one of three outcomes. He might simply be banished. Or, should his captors become impatient and see no value in him, he might be killed. But if, wherever he finishes up, he lives quietly, that would be allowed. He could remain "in his own house and on his land, like any other man."

The tethered figure would have been known to local natives, some of whom were present to hear the description. He has a wooden leg. Whether this had previously inspired a sense of awe in them or aroused an uneasy awareness of something specially chosen about this figure—a strange version of a man—is hard to tell. They did notice it. And often other natives took the opportunity to refer to it. For seventeen years, the defeated and humiliated outcast had been the director general of Dutch New Netherland. The storymakers preferred to call him just "Stuyvesant."

The image of rejection and loss is an accurate one. It was constructed on January 1, 1664, just eight months before an English fleet entered the harbor of New Amsterdam and forced the surrender of the city and province. A number of Englishmen had gathered at the Long Island village of Vlissingen (Flushing) in order to convince nearby natives to sell them tracts of land previously sold to the Dutch. They warned that many Englishmen were soon coming from overseas in three ships. The Dutch would be made to leave. The lands would become English: best now to be on the winning side.

At that point, the Englishmen personified the loss of New Netherland in the figure of Stuyvesant. "If Stuyvesant tried to do anything," the men told the natives, "they would bind his hands on his back and send him out of the country or kill him, but if he kept quiet, it would be well and he might remain in his own house and on his land, like any other man."

They knew the image would evoke scorn. It would resemble the visual impersonations occasionally drawn by the natives themselves. The powerlessness of the man is easily read. His body wears three markers of defeat and loss. Each is within the possible experience of mid-seventeenth-century North Americans. He is chained or bound with ropes. He is forced to be on the move. He is subjected to captors who will finalize his fate but are presently enjoying his suffering and in no hurry to do so.

The final months of Stuyvesant's administration had been a series of losses. Councilors and subordinate officials had lost confidence in his ability to administer the province and guarantee its security against the neighboring English and natives. In Hartford, Connecticut, officials were refusing him the right to the title of governor. And why not? They were already dismissively declaring that they "knew no New Netherland." By the early 1660s, it was clear that he had lost the loyalty of English Long Islanders. In 1664, he showed himself unable to maintain his authority over outlying Dutch settlements. This was especially evident when he most needed such towns as Beverwijck (Albany) and Wiltwijck (Kingston). In the desperate days preceding the English attack, his efforts to draw together an assembly of representatives of the towns had failed. His military position was close to impossible. He had repeatedly failed to convince the West India Company that the garrison on Manhattan Island was in serious need of reinforcements should an English attack occur.

When the English fleet finally arrived in late August, Stuyvesant's efforts to mount defenses around New Amsterdam failed miserably. Diplomatic overtures to the fleet's leaders were equally useless. They were flung back in his face. His surrender of the province was a reluctant but inevitable acquiescence to too few resources, too little loyalty, and a loss of confidence in his leadership. In its own way, the Englishmen's bit of graffiti simplified all the history that has been made of the capitulation and subsequent transformation of New Netherland to English rule.

In a final irony, it was Stuyvesant's West India Company superiors in Amsterdam and the States General in The Hague who bestowed an aura of prophecy on the villagers' description of the solitary figure. In late 1664, they ordered him home to answer for the loss of the province. Humiliated and carrying sole responsibility for defeat, he boarded The Crossed Heart (Het Gekruyste Hart) and began a journey to the Netherlands and an uncertain future. We have only shadowy glimpses of his state of mind during that time. We know that he took up residence in Holland for three years while the States General and the company decided his fate. He knew that he could either be denied all compensation for years of service to the state and the company, or, worse, face severe fines and imprisonment. In the company's words, he would get what he deserved "on account of his neglect or treachery."

In 1667, he was found guilty of negligence and dismissed. His superiors conceded, however, that if he lived quietly, he could, wherever he chose to reside, remain in his own house on his land, like any other man.

Stuyvesant chose to return to Manhattan Island. There he lived peacefully on his bouwerie until his death in 1672. Yet even the courage required to make that choice has gone unrecognized by a number of later historians who have preferred to foreground the magnanimity of the newly appointed English authorities in allowing him peaceful residence.


In the reflections that follow, I want to offer the trope of loss as a way into evaluating Stuyvesant's career and that of New Netherland generally. I think it positions us to appreciate the precarious zone between failure and success in which Stuyvesant continually constructed his identity and that of New Netherland. It also illuminates the inner resources he had for coping with loss—or those he lacked. Historians are now agreed that were it not for his leadership, New Netherland might not have survived for seventeen years and, in its final decade, achieved considerable stability. Their judgment recognizes the constraints and moments of defeat that bound Stuyvesant tightly over nearly two decades. With hindsight, we can accept the message of defeat the English Long Islanders shorthanded in their depiction of him. We can also, however, extend it backward in time, even to 1647 and the first days of his arrival on Manhattan Island.

Hindsight is the easiest (and, by itself, the most unreliable) part of any historical analysis. But there is clear evidence that Stuyvesant himself recognized he had bound himself to a career with a company that was never without its tough competitiveness, volatility, and even treachery. He had also bound himself to a precariously placed set of trading settlements where failure was an ever-present reality. His presence in North America was dependent on the sudden withdrawal of support from company directors in Holland—perhaps because of him personally or because of the profitability of their investment. It relied too on their response to the force of local circumstances, always unanticipated.

In this uncertain space, Stuyvesant transformed into official practice and the dutiful performances of daily life the structures of feeling and reason available to a seventeenth-century Dutch man. They were not the lifeways of twenty-first-century North Americans. They were premodern structures, and failing to acknowledge this only adds a further dimension to loss. There is, then, something of a misconception in the way New Netherland is placed in the current historical narrative of the United States. In that account, the New Netherlanders (and Stuyvesant among them) were early modern achievers. They developed a successful entrepreneurial culture. By that, they made a positive contribution to and deserve inclusion in a nationalist narrative that accepts nation-building, capitalism, secularization, democracy, and progress as normative values. And each of these values is an element in a cultural phenomenon that we Americans think ourselves particularly well placed to celebrate: modernity. So, the New Netherlanders are precursors of us. They were not premodern. They were not the other. They were us.

Bringing Stuyvesant and the New Netherlanders under the mantle of modernity causes us, however, to lose sight of the fact that the affective and rational structures within which they gauged success or failure were premodern or pre-Enlightenment. Yet modernity is a powerful agent in acting as a differentiator between the modern asprogressive, secular, and rational, and the premodern as regressive, religious, and therefore irrational and oppressive of others. Identifying the New Netherlanders as people who were not acting out values that would satisfy our criteria runs the risk of opening them to the charge of being a materially and morally backward community.

A number of recent scholars have been troubled by modernity's categorizations. Their studies are important. Debjani Ganguly's work is an ethnography of the Indian caste known as the dalits. It is written from the viewpoint of theoretical developments in the field of postcolonial studies. In it, she points out that modernity is the staple of current academic social scientific and historical readings of caste. Yet the dalits still struggle to keep alive life-forms in ways where the questions of modernity "are not central to the ways in which . . . [they] make sense of their lives." Living in a culture that is an assemblage of secular and nonsecular practices puts them outside the "secular, progressive, rational way of being, for which the term 'modern' is used as a shorthand for public spheres around the world." Their way of life is denied the moral force afforded to the modern material and moral cultures, because they apprehend being in the world differently from the modern and perform that apprehension in different religious and social ways. They remain the object of disrespect at the least and, at the most, make their eradication thinkable and admissible.

Ganguly's aim is not to reject modernity—nor is mine. (In a paradoxical way, a knowledge of modernity provides a significant way of understanding Stuyvesant and the narratives about him.) Her intention is to reject the way the nation-state and social sciences use its categorizations "to interpret everything in their own image."

David Lloyd's concern comes even closer to my own. He analyzes modernity as it is currently used to make sense of the Irish Famine of 1845-1851. In The Indigent Sublime: Spectres of Irish Hunger (2005), he found that modernity empowered a nationalist account that distorted the culture of the famine Irish as uncivilized and pre-political in order to legitimate the modernizing way of life that left it behind. In contrast, his research into the lives of the peasantry during the famine years uncovered a material and cultural space that sustained a viable mode of agricultural organization and a remarkably vital cultural formation. He found that in multiple ways—in modes of "landholding and cooperation," community recreations, and the "organized struggles and cultural activism that marked the century following the Famine"—the Irish retained the memory of "a richer Gaelic culture" than has been transmitted.

Lloyd's study presents a tug-of-war between an interpretation of a premodern Irish population whose vitality refuses to be laid to rest, and one that invokes modernity as the best tool for effectively denying that vitality by achieving forgetfulness.

In reflecting on Peter Stuyvesant and the New Netherlanders, I want to join Ganguly and Lloyd in rejecting the use of modernity as the consummate test for the vitality and moral worth of a people. I also want to apply Lloyd's thesis to the modernizing process in American history—contending that it too enacted a self-legitimation by achieving forgetfulness of New Netherland culture. That forgetfulness is not erased by selectively excising out of it a trace of protocapitalism. Doing that is, in fact, fixing one more chain to those already binding Stuyvesant to an enduring but skewed historiography.

The real test, as I judge it, should be to examine the degree to which Stuyvesant and his contemporaries lived good lives within the limits of their times. For them, those times were largely premodern. Nation building, capitalism, secularization, democracy, and progress were not normative values. In Stuyvesant's case, the loyalties he required of himself, especially to the West India Company and the States General, were central and were more post-Reformation than they were modern. So too was the constancy with which he acknowledged the force of tradition and the presence of the supernatural and providential. These were binding obligations and binding beliefs that he allowed to direct his life. With them, he would have measured his own success or failure and, I suspect, would in the end have judged himself a success—as I do.


Stuyvesant constructed his life on many fields of experience. I am aware that in this essay I am neglecting several possible ones—for example, his immersion in networks of family and friends or the sphere of diplomacy to which he put considerable energy. I am, however, asking you as readers to consider three. Each pressed heavy obligations upon him—especially because he was a dutiful man. They are: first, his responses to the duties his oath as a senior officer in the West India Company entailed; second, his experiences as a believing Christian; and, third, his life as encounters with loss. I am asking you as readers to consider these—duty, belief, and loss—as major narrative themes in this book. Here they are presented sequentially, but not meant, by that, to be free-standing or independent of one another. On the contrary, and as I hope you will discern, they are substantially interwoven.

For the seventeen years when he was administering the province of New Netherland for the States General and the West India Company, Stuyvesant was scrupulous in his fidelity to his oath of office. He appears never to have questioned the sacredness of it. He never allowed himself to profane it. Rather, and in a way that we might find excessive, he accepted its binding power even though officials at The Hague and company directors seldom returned such loyalty and certainly deserted him in 1664 to 1668.

Stuyvesant's oath provides a way of coming to understand his seventeen years as chief magistrate in New Netherland. I write about that in Part I, Duty. From what the documents tell us, he was acutely aware of the authority vested in that role. His authority was dual in its nature. It was both civil and ecclesiastical. It was settled in a ...

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Book Description University of Pennsylvania Press, United States, 2013. Hardback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . This book usually ship within 10-15 business days and we will endeavor to dispatch orders quicker than this where possible. Brand New Book. Stuyvesant Bound is an innovative and compelling evaluation of the last director general of New Netherland. Donna Merwick examines the layers of culture in which Peter Stuyvesant forged his career and performed his responsibilities, ultimately reappraising the view of Stuyvesant long held by the majority of U.S. historians and commentators. Borrowing its form from the genre of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century learned essays, Stuyvesant Bound invites the reader to step into a premodern worldview as Merwick considers Stuyvesant s role in history from the perspectives of duty, belief, and loss. Stuyvesant is presented as a mid-seventeenth-century magistrate obliged by his official oath to manage New Netherland, including installing Calvinist politics and belief practices under the fragile conditions of early modern spirituality after the Protestant Reformation. Merwick meticulously reconstructs the process by which Stuyvesant became his own archivist and historian when, recalled to The Hague to answer for his surrender of New Netherland in 1664, he gathered together papers amounting to almost 50,000 words and offered them to the States General. Though Merwick weaves the theme of loss throughout this meditation on Stuyvesant s career, the association culminates in New Netherland s fall to the English in 1664 and Stuyvesant s immediate recall to Holland to defend his surrender. Rigorously researched and unabashedly interpretive, Stuyvesant Bound makes a major contribution to recovery of the cultural and religious diversity that marked colonial America. Bookseller Inventory # BTE9780812245035

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