D.L. Noorlander is Associate Professor of History at the State University of New York at Oneonta. This interview is based on his new book, Heaven’s Wrath: The Protestant Reformation and the Dutch West India Company in the Atlantic World (Cornell University Press, 2019).
JF: What led you to write Heaven’s Wrath?
DN: The project started when I was a graduate student at Georgetown University. I was reading a lot of colonial history for my classes and exams, and I noticed that British and Spanish topics tend to dominate the field. I had had an interest in Dutch history for a long time, partly because of my own family ties to the Netherlands (Noorlander is a Dutch name) and partly because I had lived there for two years and spoke the language, which is pretty rare in the United States! When the time came to propose a dissertation topic, there really wasn’t much question about doing something on the Dutch in early America.
At this point I honestly don’t remember how I came to focus on the Calvinist influence in the Dutch West India Company, but that’s what happened. In reading about New Netherland and other Dutch colonies, I think I just came to believe that American historians had paid a lot more attention to the former than it probably deserved, given its place of relative unimportance in the Dutch empire. And I came to see that historians had written a lot about Dutch commerce, but they had done less social, cultural, and intellectual history.
To give credit where credit is due, I think my eyes were also opened to all the rich opportunities in Dutch research by reading books like The Reformed Church in Dutch Brazil(F.L. Schalkwijk), Fulfilling God’s Mission(Willem Frijhoff), and Innocence Abroad religio(Benjamin Schmidt). They are very different books, but they all contained wonderful surprises regarding Dutch ideology, Dutch religion, and Dutch activities in West Africa and South America. The same company that oversaw New Netherland oversaw Dutch forts and colonies in these other places, too, so it just made sense to study them together.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Heaven’s Wrath?
DN: The Dutch Reformed Church and West India Company forged a close union, with significant consequences throughout the seventeenth century. Certain of those consequences were, from the Calvinist point of view, positive; but the union also encouraged expensive, destructive military operations and divisive campaigns against sinners and religious nonconformers in colonial courts.
JF: Why do we need to read Heaven’s Wrath?
DN: In my experience, Americans tend not to know just how active and influential the Dutch were in early America and the Atlantic world. Because they ultimately lost Brazil to the Portuguese and New Netherland to the English, it’s easy to forget that the Dutch once had an impressive Atlantic empire. Their endless attacks on the Spanish and Portuguese may have inadvertently assisted the English and French, as well, because the Dutch kept their enemies so occupied that they (the Spanish and Portuguese) couldn’t resist and quash competitors with the same vigor and capacity they would have had without having to fight the pesky Dutch for so many years.
In short, readers of my book will learn about a people who did far more than trade: They were pirates and privateers, they waged wars, they founded colonies — and yes, despite their reputation for pragmatism and tolerance, they pursued religious goals and exhibited the occasional streak of zealotry and intolerance. I’m not the only historian noticing and writing about these things today. But Heaven’s Wrath is unique, I think, as a history of the whole West India Company, no matter where it operated, and the book is unique in using the topic of religion to reveal and explore these diverse colonial goals and methods.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DN: I was an English major as an undergraduate student. I was a senior before I finally realized that, as much as I love literature, I was also reading a lot of history and a lot of biographies, even more so than fiction. So I took a year off after I graduated and I applied to an MA program in history. And I liked it enough that I decided in the end to pursue a PhD.
The more profound answer is this: I love stories, but sometimes the non-fiction variety of story is more fascinating than the made-up variety, maybe because with fiction, no matter how good and profound it can be, there’s always the slightly disappointing knowledge that “this didn’t really happen” and “this doesn’t involve real people” (except in the vague sense that fiction writers draw upon human experiences and the human condition). I also love the mystery and challenge of putting my “story” together, meaning searching it out in the archives and using scattered sources to reconstruct what otherwise isn’t clear. It requires a lot of patience and detective work and, yes, even a bit of imagination.
JF: What is your next project?
DN: Readers of Heaven’s Wrath will sometimes encounter a poet, lyricist, and colonist named Jacob Steendam. Over the course of his life he lived in Europe, Africa, America, and Asia. I’ve been collecting sources on Steendam for years, and I’m now going to write a whole book about his travels and writings. Because he’s such an obscure figure, it won’t be a simple biography. But I’m going to use him and his poetry to explore the many “worlds” of the Dutch Golden Age, meaning the places he lived and the less tangible worlds of early modern writing, publishing, music, and their place in colonial life and colonial thought.
JF: Thanks, Danny!