The Shame and the Sorrow

During the forty years of the Dutch presence in colonial America, their intrusion led to the betrayal of their own values and the betrayal of the indigenous peoples. They reaped the shame of reproaching themselves for unjust wars and faced a native insurgency that they could neither negotiate nor satisfactorily quell.

The Shame and the Sorrow
Dutch-Amerindian Encounters in New Netherland

Donna Merwick

2006 | 344 pages | Cloth $55.00 | Paper $29.95
American History / Native American Studies
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Table of Contents


1. Alongshore: Stories to Tell of the Virginias
2. "The Island"

3. The Quarterdeck and Trading Station
4. Natives and Strangers

5. Sovereign People
6. Masters of Their Lands
7. Inland Drownings

8. Bells of War
9. "Only This and Nothing More"
10. The Connecticut Valley: The Strangers' Ways of Violence

11. The Indian War Seen
12. The Indian War Given Words
13. The War's Haunting

14. Watchful Waiting
15. Alongshore Compromised
16. Considerations on a Just War

17. Cultural Entanglement
18. No Closure

Weighing Up


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


This is the island. We view it as the mariner does. We see alongshore scenery: the sea edge, coastal craft and a wharf. Houses of shore—inhabiting people. The town seems timeless. It is still. Set before us like a coastal marker, it seeks only to resemble a profile view constructed long ago for seventeenth—century sailors. It rests in faint, unsteady light. Faded yellow and washed—out browns. "What belongs alongshore," one author has written, "is always faded, for the coastal realm fades everything, shades everything into glim."

The island hides the land behind it. The continent that we know to be there and to which the island is offshore is given no hint of presence. Perhaps we are to think that enough presence is here, here on the ribbon of land between the wilderness of the sea and that of the continent in—shore. Perhaps we are to think that the continent is somehow less valuable than the island. Certainly the houses have resolutely turned their faces from it. Perhaps alongshore is better than inland.

There is an inland and it is not as serene as the narcotic beauty of the watercolor would have us think. The town is, after all, not outside time but set in history. We know the artist sketched it around 1664 to depict the early 1650s. We've come to know something about the houses along the strand, something about the warehouses, the fort and windmill. Of this maritime people, we've now written life histories. We can give accounts of their politics and the ways of their daily lives. We know there were also those whom these alongshore people distinguished from themselves by calling them inlanders, natives. Here, in this scenery, the artist has given them only an incidental presence. A few paddle in open skiffs toward a vessel that is releasing a volley of fire to signal its departure from the harbor. It flies a Dutch flag. Perhaps the inlanders intend to trade. They appear to proceed without fear.

Fear is in fact the last thing this seascape wants to convey. There are no signs of conflict, not in the tranquil present nor left over from earlier years. No rubble of stone or wood, no older foundation stones tell us that this waterfront land was won from another people, those who called this place "the island of the hills." Nothing says that there is still violence between the islanders and inlanders. Like the harbor, the marginal lands that encompass it are all but empty. Set to left and right, they peter out into lowlands and beaches, bleached out and uninhabited for miles and miles, as far as the eye is given to see. No one is shown farming beyond the town, neither the alongshore people not the natives. No one toils in woodlands. There is a term these shore people like to use for their settlements in such places: quiet possession. Surely this is as quiet as quiet possession comes.

Yet being set in history, time will not let the dreamlike atmospherics of this place go undisturbed. Being the view of a real alongshore town rather than a make—believe one activates questions about presences and absences. What strange thing is the artist saying, what interpretation is he offering in declining to give any indication of the continent to which this place is only marginal, to which it is, or seems, only an entrepot? Even if he is following an artistic protocol, why is he satisfied to sketch a town that wants only adjacency, adjacency to the sea before it and to the continent beyond?

Of course, before Europeans first sighted it, this place had been interpreted. But now ordinary sailors were making sense of it as they hazarded closer and closer to shore, terrified of death on hidden rock ledges or shifting sandbars. They explored the edge of the New World with what the Dutch called a dieplood and the English a dipsey lead. A sixty- to seventy-pound weight attached to perhaps six hundred feet of line, the dieplood let them test the depth of the waters. But even more. Tallow or soap secured in its concave end allowed them to gather traces of bottom—sand or blue shells. Before their feet touched shore and before they erected their shore forts, the dieplood touched the indigenous Americans' ground.

Our artist has in fact denied us of some of the raw materials we might want for interpretation. He has not, for example, included the forests that covered much of this place, Manhattan Island, in the early 1650s. Both the Europeans and natives depended on wood for their survival. They sawed or bent it into shape for dwellings; they burnt it for fuel. They twisted and turned it into the ribs of boats and rigging.

Once set ablaze, wood was also the cheapest resource Europeans and natives had for killing one another. They themselves told stories about it. In the mid-1630s, about fifteen years before the scene our artist hoped to catch, a group of natives encountered some Englishmen. They met along another waterside, not far from the island and in the Connecticut country, already claimed by both the Dutch and English who were trading there. Agitated by some presentiment of danger, a native cried out, "what Englishmen, what cheere . . . will you cran us?" Cran may have been a corruption of the Dutch word, kwalm. It meant "dense smoke." In English it referred to an iron arm built for cooking over an open fire. Here it meant, will you kill us by setting our village ablaze and burning us alive?

Untold numbers of Algonkian-speaking men, women and children died when Europeans set their villages alight. During the same years, countless New Netherlanders died in fires set by natives. First it happened around Manhattan Island and then along nearby coasts. It was not just that fire was more easily available for killing than musket balls. It was so much more destructive. It could consume and destroy wildly: inhabitants and their houses and barns, stores of supplies, boats, animals and sometimes all the crops standing in a field. For powerful bands of men—Mohawks over Esopus, Dutch over Raritans—the power to torch a village was an extortioner's tool. Before it leapt from brands and torches, fire fueled their protection rackets: show yourselves to be on our side. Otherwise we cannot insure your safety against burning, not at the hands of your enemies nor our own. The Europeans had learned these war techniques in their homelands. So had the Mohawks in theirs.

The Netherlanders who first settled here wanted the peaceful encounters that this view suggests. They wanted to feel the New World like the sailor with his pebbles and blue shells, lightly in the hand. They wanted to think they could have only an anchorage alongside other peoples' lands and cultures and, by that, have the right to just a faded-out sense of responsibility for the people and things around.

But they betrayed the quiet occupancy this picture offers. They betrayed themselves—their ideals and values—and the indigenous people. There were moments when they publicly acknowledged this. For that reason, I have put these reflections under the words, the shame and the sorrow.

Perhaps you will think the words are too wimpish. They are too feeble to comprehend the consequences of the strangers' intrusion into North America. They are too exculpatory. In this, our time of postcolonialism and neocolonials, they are insufficiently accusatory. But if "the shame and the sorrow" are inadequately aggressive, it is because the records tell me neither of an aggressive invasion nor a determination to conquer the native people. Too often they point to Netherlanders convinced of their rights as traders but unconvinced of the sovereignty that circumstances were increasingly requiring of them.

I would like you to consider each of the chapters in this story as part of a gallery's installation on Dutch-Amerindian Encounters in New Netherland. Each picture in the exhibit asks for its own set of reflections. I've framed each of the objects, realizing that I'm defining the conditions of its representation and your contemplation of it. I hope I have done it faithfully.

Drawing a story under the words, the shame and the sorrow, is not entirely original. In 1971 similar words were the title of a film. The Sorrow and the Pity documented the memories of French men and women who'd lived through the German occupation during the Second World War. In remembering those year, French citizens were able to locate acts of valor and sacrifice: their own and that of others. But equally the documentary asked them to rediscover betrayal—betrayal of France's cultural past and humane values, betrayal of one another and themselves.

Their shame and sorrow, they knew, would be the years' ineradicable legacy.