Stuyvesant Bound

Stuyvesant Bound is an innovative, compelling reassessment of the last Director-General of New Netherland. Donna Merwick employs a multidisciplinary approach to examine the layers of culture within which Peter Stuyvesant forged his career and performed his identity.

Stuyvesant Bound
An Essay on Loss Across Time

Donna Merwick

2013 | 248 pages | Cloth $65.00
American History / Biography
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Table of Contents

Preface: The Outcast

Chapter 1. Magistracy and Confessional Politics
Chapter 2. Conflicts and Reputation
Chapter 3. Protecting by Deterrence
Chapter 4. "The General"

Chapter 5. The Struggle to Believe
Chapter 6. Managing Conventicles
Chapter 7. Ordinances: The Needle of Sin

Chapter 8. To Suffer Loss, 1664-1667
Chapter 9. Dismissal and Return
Chapter 10. Stuyvesant Tattooed
Chapter 11. A Place in Early America


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

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 as progressive, 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 newly emergent (and therefore untried) dispensation of European Christian communities following the Reformation. He began his administration only ninety or so years after John Calvin himself drafted the last version of the Institutes (1559), that is to say, a mere four generations after the deaths of the great Protestant reformers. The1578 Alteratie by which the rule of the city of Amsterdam was transferred from Catholics to Protestants had been invoked only thirty-two years before Stuyvesant's birth, or sixty-nine years before his arrival on Manhattan Island.

Stuyvesant's determination to exercise his role as a magistrate, as he understood it, aroused sustained political opposition in New Amsterdam. This was especially the case during the first half-decade of his administration. This period of contestation from 1647 to 1653 requires close attention because in it lay the first and strongest ties that continued to bind him to a largely negative reputation among later historians and other commentators. From that half-decade forward, his responsibilities as chief magistrate took him to affairs beyond Manhattan Island. There he shouldered the company's obligation to institute successful networks of trade, settle orderly civil government, and defend the province's people against native and European enemies. So the decade from 1654 to 1664 allowed the Englishmen at Vlissingen to locate in his person the public will of New Netherland. Perhaps this personification was a myth to be peddled as necessary—for example, to satisfy expectations of leadership held by local natives. But in many ways, it was also a reality.

Stuyvesant used his oath as an enabling instrument of authority. But it would have lacked efficacy, would have had no justifying aura, had it not held a place within a wider structure of belief explored in Part II, Belief. I try to look at two dimensions of belief expression. First, there were the everyday, noninstitutional religious practices by which he and other New Netherlanders made efforts to access God in their everyday lives. In the first chapter of Part II, then, I consider the construction of a nonsecular cultural formation but focus on everyday practice, that is, personal spirituality. The evidence for individual expressions of belief is, of course, fragmentary. This is due to the character of the archives, the social construction of early Calvinist practice, and the taken-for-granted enactments of religious belief. But much can be learned.

One of these fragments of belief can be found in a 1638 document. In that year, a wealthy and tough-minded Dutch merchant took up a sheet of paper. At the top, he wrote, "In the Name of the Lord . . . in Amsterdam." In my judgment, the merchant was momentarily making God present to himself. He was trying to establish or reconfirm a relationship, using inscription to arouse presence. This performance brings to light something he took for granted. It is something about life lived in plural temporalities. From the analytic viewpoint, such a performance is mystifying. But this is so only if some modern logic is allowed to override the evidence, translating it as somehow incidental or dismissing it as if just formulaic. Or it is dismissed if everyday secular practices and religious belief are taken to be fixed opposites rather than interpenetrating. The unexpected presence of the fragment of spirituality is, in other words, an inconsistency. It either needs to be explained away as a cultural oddity or must be recognized as exceeding the generally accepted secular categories of the social sciences. The fragment opens the possibility that the merchant was neither hopelessly tethered by the obligations of belief nor burdened by religious practices. Instead, he was empowered to consider himself made whole.

Second, Stuyvesant and his council issued provincial thanksgiving and fasting ordinances on a regular basis. These were political performances of belief. I introduce them in the third chapter of Part II. They were political moments made theological. In the ordinances, Stuyvesant called for a collective response to either tragedy or well-being. They activated a sense of divine presence. Each pronouncement also recuperated the force of previous proclamations. They bound his magistracy to the community in ritualizations of the inseparability of divine intervention and man-made law. He bound himself to performances that kept the distant provincial communities emotionally and spiritually connected to the sequence of dramatic events with which his administration was dealing.

The ordinances should be taken seriously. They are not decorative. They are not moments of time-out between the real business of business. Nor does reference to Stuyvesant's so-called stubborn Calvinism, I think, explain their style or substance. Instead, they present a range of meanings: medieval Catholic and Reformation survivalisms, characteristics particular to New Netherland culture, and (most valuable for this study) Stuyvesant's intimate implication in the initiation and production of these remarkable premodern texts. The ordinances are instances of the connection between political and providential histories consciously brought together in a plurality of rhetorical forms: didacticism, Reformation devotional language, encounter narrative, prayer, practical and biblical imagery, and so on. In wording and substance, they changed little over the seventeen years. In that, they provide insight into Stuyvesant's perception of himself, his people, and the course of New Netherland's history.

Thirdly, loss was central in the life of Stuyvesant and the history of New Netherland. There are several analytic orientations available and I offer them in Part III. Stories have been made of Stuyvesant's life for 350 years since the Long Islanders made metaphor of him in 1664. In one respect, the narratives represent what scripture scholars call backward formation. The earliest commentators on Jesus of Nazareth's life paid most attention to the last weeks of his life. Only gradually did they fill in and textualize the years of his ministry and, more latterly still, the birth and childhood years. So too and in many ways, it is Stuyvesant's last months as director general that have attracted attention. It is the period when he appeared to be an outstanding failure. And that has been allowed to set the stage for questions about the success or failure of New Netherland as a whole. Only in the late twentieth century have scholars begun to register their dissatisfaction with such incomplete representations of Stuyvesant. Jaap Jacobs, for example, has given us some of his early poetry, pinned down his place of birth, and joined others in filling in biographical detail. Willem Frijhoff has written beautifully about his Dutch pietism. Most important, Frijhoff has taken seriously the ways pietism informed the young lives of men such as Stuyvesant.

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. He was also fettered to the myth-making that plays its part even in social-scientific history writing and deserves greater attention. So in Stuyvesant Bound, I am writing about loss, failure, betrayal, and misrepresentation. I am not, however, writing about the tragic. Stuyvesant's life was not a tragedy. Being-bound, as Martin Heidegger has pointed out, is the positive meaning of human existence.

The final pages of Stuyvesant Bound deal with the ways in which the many meanings of loss, being-bound, the mythic, and tragedy come together for our present-day understandings. They may be of value for American readers should they experience a sense of loss as their cherished certainties fail to "take" in the welter of today's complex global communities.

In the fragment of verbal graffiti, the abject outcast is not presented as an abstraction. The Long Island men situated his powerlessness in everydayness, in the experiential, in the emotive, and in his body. Their words call us to witness fluid relationships—Stuyvesant bound to the captors or captor who tied the ropes, Stuyvesant joined to the known land of the past and unknown land of the future, and Stuyvesant bound together with Englishmen and natives in the tangle of a cultural performance, the description of which is universal—the outcast—and yet true to the tragic singularity of the moment and context of its telling.

For a representation that is meant to function as an abstraction, we might turn to the seventeenth-century portrait of Stuyvesant ascribed to Hendrick Couturier. The painting presents him in control. It gives no hint of a man having experienced loss. Indeed it suggests command by portraying immobility. Its purpose is not to feature experience at all. Stuyvesant's body, in which relational existence takes place, is effectively erased in order to achieve a posture of authority. It is authority beyond the reach of historicity and contingency. It resists those particularized moments that might disturb invulnerability and self-assurance.

In this volume I use the description I am calling "graffiti" a recurrent motif. Its theater allures us into reflecting on the trope of loss. It points us toward a performance that makes present both the universal and the particular. In the words of Charles Altieri in 2007, a work of art should "put before our eyes a content, not in its universality as such, but one whose universality has been absolutely individualized and sensuously particularized." If universality is emphasized only with the aim of providing abstract instruction, he continues, "then the pictorial and sensuous element is only an external and superfluous adornment." No, the senses must be written-in as "an inseparable aspect of experiences that [then] take on metaphoric power."

In presenting Stuyvesant as a seventeenth-century individual undergoing the experiences of magistrate, believer, and defeated leader, I hope I have not made a pretense at understanding his life entirely. But I have attempted to offer his life as having meaning outside itself. I hope I have given it, in Altieri's words, metaphoric power. I mean: it has given some measure of meaning in your life.