The Author’s Corner with D.L. Noorlander

Heaven's wrath.jpgD.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!

Are Dutch-Americans “The Most Conservative Americans?”

Coldbrook-crc

As some of you know, I have been making regular visits to Grand Rapids, Michigan these days.  (If you don’t know why you haven’t been reading this blog regularly enough.  Shame on you!  :-))  I have thus had an opportunity to learn more about the Dutch Calvinist culture that permeates much of Western Michigan.

So when my friend “Buffalo” Doug Anderson called my attention to Michael Douma’s recent blog post, I was intrigued.  Douma is a historian of the Dutch in America and the author of brand new book on historical thinking.  Here is a taste of his piece, “‘The Most Conservative Americans’?“:

An article in the The Economist titled “Why are Dutch-Americans so different from the Dutch?”  lumps together all Dutch Americans, by which it means a few Michigan politicians and the residents of the city of Holland, Michigan, to explain why they are such backward conservatives.  The article’s subtitle betrays the game the author wants to play: “The most conservative Americans, the most liberal Europeans.”

By what measure, I ask, are Dutch Americans the most conservative Americans?   Perhaps the author is not aware of Orthodox Jews or the Amish, or the average Southern or Midwestern evangelical, who, culturally, is likely to be more conservative than the Average Dutch American.

At any rate, to explain why Dutch Americans are so conservative, the author interviewed Dr. Robert Swierenga, recognized authority on Dutch Americans, resident of Holland, Michigan, and author of a three-volume history of Holland, Michigan. Oh my mistake.  They didn’t interview Dr. Swierenga, or any other of the dozens of historians who have written books on Dutch American history. No, to learn more about the topic The Economist interviewed Jay Peters, local Democratic politician and failed mayoral candidate.

Peters’ response is full of hyperbole.  “The people who left the Netherlands were some of the most conservative Dutch-speaking people on the planet.”  Well, since most of the Dutch-speaking people on the planet were in the Netherlands, this is hardly a surprise. Then again, it’s not even entirely true.  The Dutch-speaking Boers of South Africa, the colonial administrators of the Netherlands East Indies, the slave-holding plantation owners in Dutch Suriname were all in a variety of ways more conservative than the backwater peasants from the Netherlands who emigrated to the United States.

Read the rest here.

Calvin College in *The Atlantic*

calvin-sign2-s

Calvin College, a Christian liberal arts college in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has been getting a lot of attention lately since one of its alums, Betsy DeVos, became Secretary of Education. (I should add that DeVos is not the only Christian college graduate to serve as the country’s chief education officer.  Ernest Boyer, a graduate of Messiah College, was Jimmy Carter’s Commissioner of Education).  Calvin is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, a Protestant denomination founded by Dutch Calvinists.

Since Donald Trump picked DeVos, pundits have been trying to make sense of her connection to the Christian Reformed Church and Calvin College.  Some of the attempts at understanding her religious background have been more successful than others.  I still think Abram Van Engen’s piece at Religion & Politics is the best.  His piece is followed closely by Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s article in The Washington Post.

The third best thing I have read on Calvin and DeVos is Emily Deruy’s piece at today’s Atlantic.  Deruy’s essay treats Calvin fairly and does a good job of explaining the school to the left-of-center, upper-middle class, educated readership of the Atlantic. 

Here is a taste:

In more than a dozen interviews, professors, students, and alumni of all political stripes painted a picture of a college where intellectual diversity and thought-provoking debate are the norm, and where the belief that followers of the Christian Reformed Church, with which the school is affiliated, have an obligation to engage with the world around them compels both instructors and students to question what they think they know.

“Our faith commits us to engaging the world all around us,” said Kevin den Dulk, a political-science professor who graduated from Calvin in the 1990s, during an interview in the DeVos Communication Center, which sits across from the Prince Conference Center bearing the secretary’s maiden name. (Her mother, Elsa, is also an alum.)

Den Dulk’s words aren’t just PR fluff; it’s a concept borne out by the school’s 141-year history and the Dutch-influenced part of western Michigan it calls home. The Christian Reformed Church is a Protestant tradition that has its roots in the Netherlands and has been deeply influenced by the theologian Abraham Kuyper, a believer in intellectualism—specifically the idea that groups with different beliefs can operate in the same space according to their convictions while respecting and understanding others. “Fundamentalism is really anti-intellectual and Calvin is the exact opposite,” said Alan Wolfe, the author of a 2000 Atlantic piece about efforts to revitalize evangelical Christian colleges.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Willem Klooster

thedutchmomentWillem Klooster is Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Clark University. This interview is based on his new book, The Dutch Moment: War, Trade, and Settlement in the Seventeenth-Century Atlantic World (Cornell University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Dutch Moment?

WK: As a Dutchman working on the Atlantic world, it has always been obvious to me that a book focused on the Dutch Atlantic in the seventeenth century – the period in which the Dutch were so active worldwide both militarily and commercially – was missing. Dutch historians dealing with the wider world have traditionally privileged Asia, the domain of the Dutch East India Company, while North Americans have been mostly interested in New Netherland, which was actually fairly marginal to the main developments in the Dutch Atlantic. I felt that it was my task to right this wrong by writing a work that encompassed all aspects of the Dutch Atlantic in that century without making it a textbook.

JF:  In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Dutch Moment?

WK: In 3 sentences, if you don’t mind: The mid-seventeenth century formed a specific stage in Atlantic history that was marked by activities that connected the Dutch to other colonial realms, especially the infant English and French colonies that remained afloat in no small part due to Dutch commercial assistance. On the other hand the Dutch Atlantic had a distinctly violent side, as expressed in the endless battles with their Iberian enemies and Dutch relations with indigenous Americans and enslaved Africans. What helped undo the short-lived Dutch empire was not only Iberian fighting power or nonwhite revolts, but eventually the refusal of unpaid and poorly fed white soldiers and sailors in Dutch service to defend the imperial outposts.

JF: Why do we need to read The Dutch Moment?

WK: By following the Dutch around in the Atlantic basin, we get a new perspective on the Atlantic world at large, and not a peripheral one, since the Dutch were so entangled with other empires, either as warriors or merchants. More particularly, the book reveals the pivotal role of Brazil, where the Dutch elites were willing to wage a seemingly endless war in order to control the production of the world’s foremost sugar colony. This war was the largest conflict between European powers in the seventeenth-century Atlantic, which historians have underappreciated.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

WK: Although my Leiden dissertation dealt with Dutch trade in the Caribbean, it was not a traditional treatment of the flow of goods between colonies and metropole. Both the Dutch and Spanish archives suggested the existence of close, albeit usually illegal, commercial ties between inhabitants of the Dutch colonies and residents of other empires. I had therefore come to see my subject matter through an Atlantic lens by the time I finished my doctorate in 1995. That same year, I came to the United States as a Fulbright student, and soon found myself in the orbit of Bernard Bailyn, precisely when he started to organize his Atlantic History Seminars. I still think of myself primarily as an Atlanticist rather than an American historian.

JF: What is your next project?

WK: The next project is already finished: I just submitted the manuscript of The Second Dutch Atlantic, 1680-1815, a book that I coauthored with Dutch historian Gert Oostindie. It picks up where The Dutch Moment leaves off, taking the story of the Dutch Atlantic through the early nineteenth century. During my sabbatical next semester, I will embark on the following project, a biography of a well-traveled French marquis whose life intersects with the Age of Revolutions in surprising ways.

JF: Thanks, Willem!

New Netherland Institute Comes to New Jersey

dutchNew Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, NJ is hosting the 39th Annual Conference of the New Netherland Institute.  The topic is “From Pavonia to the Garden State: New Jersey”s Dutch Past.”  Speakers include Elizabeth Bradley, Willem Klooster, Evan Haefeli, Daniel Richter, Dirk Mouw, Liz Covart, Deborah Hamer, and Jaap Jacobs.

Here is what you can expect:

The conference and its companion events will take place over three days, beginning on Thursday the 22nd of September and concluding on Saturday the 24th. Friday morning’s session will explore the trials and tribulations of the early years of Dutch colonization in the region, with the afternoon session exploring the survival of Dutch heritage in New Jersey following the final transfer to the English. The program will be enriched with two additional sessions on Saturday morning, beginning with a panel discussion with NNI’s Emerging Scholars on their decision to study New Netherland. The morning will conclude with an edifying session on Dutch fortifications in New Netherland. Friday night’s dinner will feature a talk by Elizabeth Bradley, the author of Knickerbocker: The Myth Behind New York, a cultural history of New York’s first mascot.

Learn more here.

The Colonial History of My Home Town

Growing up in Montville, New Jersey I never knew (and probably didn’t care) that there were so many 18th-century Dutch houses in town. A recent article on the subject at the Alternative Press includes a few quotes from my freshman lacrosse coach, Michael O’Brien.  Here is a taste:

MONTVILLE, NJ – Perhaps you knew that Montville has more than fifteen Dutch stone houses dating back to the 1700s. Perhaps you knew that only three states have them – New York, Delaware and New Jersey. But did you know that the Dutch people didn’t build them in their own country, because there was not enough stone, which makes them unique to the world?
 
Montville Township Historical Society President Kathy Fisher has a lot to say about Dutch stone houses.
 
“They would always build them a certain way,” states Fisher. “They would be built to face the south so they would stay warm naturally. There was not a lot of wasted space; for example, the entrance to the house was into a room, not a hallway, in order to be efficient. And Montville is very lucky to have so many!”

Donna Merwick, Peter Stuyvesant, and the Past is a Foreign Country

James Blackburn has written an excellent review of Donna Merwick’s new book Stuyvesant Bound: An Essay on Loss Across Time.  What most captivated me about this review (and by extension Merwick’s book, which I now want to read) is the way Blackburn focuses his review on Merwick’s attempt to teach us something about historical thinking.  Here is a taste:

The 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 this place and time outside the confines of the nation state in which Merwick takes us.

New Issue of Early American Studies is Here

The new issue of Early American Studies is focused on “Anglo-Dutch Revolutions” in early America.  Here is the Table of Contents:
Anglo-Dutch Revolutions
Edited by Nathan Perl-Rosenthal and Evan Haefeli

Introduction: Transnational Connections
Nathan Perl-Rosenthal and Evan Haefeli

‘‘That Abominable Nest of Pirates’’: St. Eustatius and the North Americans,1680–1780
Victor Enthoven

Dutch-Irish Cooperation in the Mid-Eighteenth-Century Wartime Atlantic
Thomas M. Truxes

Did Dutch Smugglers Provoke the Boston Tea Party?
Benjamin L. Carp

A Tale of Three Patriots in a Revolutionary World: Theophile Cazenove, Jacques-Pierre Brissot, and Joel Barlow (1788–1811)
Annie Jourdan

No Extended Sphere: The Batavian Understanding of the American Constitution and the Problem of Faction
Joris Oddens

Conversations with the Classics: Ancient Political Virtue and Two Modern Revolutions
Wyger R. E. Velema