- The Shame and the Sorrow: Dutch-Amerindian Encounters in New Netherland
For most people life is lived somewhere in the space between their ideals and the less lofty experience of what they actually do when confronted with bewildering or difficult circumstances. Donna Merwick takes this gulf between ideals and reality very seriously, so seriously indeed that she offers it as the central interpretation of Dutch commercial and colonial activities in North America during the first half of the seventeenth century.
The Dutch West India Company (WIC), Merwick argues, never intended that its presence in North America would involve subjugating the native people. From the outset, Company officials received clear instructions to recognize natives' sovereignty and to live and trade peacefully with them. Over time, however, under-staffed and poorly supplied colony officials found themselves unable to restrain violent behavior on the part of colonists not employed by the WIC and unable to walk the fine line between defending the colony, presenting what they thought was a necessary show of strength, and respecting native peoples. The pressures proved in the end to be too great. As time passed, a quintessential maritime enterprise by people Merwick describes as "alongshore people" became overtaken by inland imperatives, including encroaching on ever-larger portions of native land. In the process, the peaceful intentions came to be subsumed by growing calls for land and dominion. And throughout, native peoples found their world turned upside down. That, laments Merwick, was "the shame and the sorrow" of New Netherland.
One of the great strengths of Merwick's work is the effort she puts into trying to enter the worlds of the people she studies, and she tells their stories in a way that seeks to make them alive, immediate, and fully three-dimensional. Her writing conveys a deep respect for the humanity of those she is studying. Merwick's goal to understand the world as her subjects actually lived it and to help her readers reach the same understanding is surely the classic goal of social historians. Interestingly, the techniques Merwick uses to try to accomplish this goal are at once experimental and extremely interesting, if not always entirely convincing. [End Page 449]
For example, Merwick often juxtaposes words from seventeenth-century participants with her own words and those of other earlier scholarship as a way to show her readers multiple versions of the same event. Merwick envisions the separate chapters "as part of a gallery's installation on Dutch-Amerindian encounters in New Netherland" (p.3). From that perspective the words of previous scholars function somewhat as the museum labels for each installment, and Merwick herself becomes the curator, giving her readers a tour of the installation. From another perspective The Shame and the Sorrow appears rather like a play, one that uses the device of a narrator to look over the shoulders of the actors and help the audience to see and understand things the characters themselves may not.
The Shame and the Sorrow is divided into seven parts with eighteen numbered chapters in addition to a prologue and an epilogue. It carries the reader from "Part I. Alongshore," where Merwick sets the context for her emphasis on Dutch intentions to create a trading beachhead rather than a settler colony, and the kinds of entanglements that native peoples and Dutch venturers experienced over time. "Part II. Shared Beaches" explores the beginnings of those entanglements, while "Part III. Staying Alongshore," elaborates on WIC intentions to remain apart from Native Americans by focusing on WIC arguments that the native peoples were sovereign and owned the lands in North America. "Part IV. Omens of a Tragedy Coming On," examines the ways in which actual events in North America served to undermine the WIC's official position as early as the 1630s, and "Part V. Deadly Encounter" explores the events and long legacy of the 1640-1645 Dutch-Algonquian war known as Kieft's War.
In many ways, "Part VI. Cross-Colonization" continues the theme of Kieft's War by emphasizing that the...