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  • Cosmopolitanism and Adriaen van der Donck's A Description of New Netherland
  • John Easterbrook (bio)

In 1655, Adriaen van der Donck published his promotional tract A Description of New Netherland in an attempt to attract settlers to the Dutch colony in North America. As its title suggests, Van der Donck's text is primarily a description of the land, resources, and opportunities that await potential colonists in New Netherland. For seventeenth-century readers, transatlantic emigration was an enterprise fraught with potential complications, not the least of which was the stability of national identity in an alien environment. To convince his readers that the environment on the other side of the Atlantic was suitable for Dutch settlers, Van der Donck devoted the first section of his tract to a discussion of New Netherland's landscape, flora, fauna, and climate. In a chapter titled "Of the Air," Van der Donck writes that "[t]he gentle governess of mind, strength, and form alike in humans, animals, and plants is the air, also termed the temperament or climate" (2008 ed., 64). Van der Donck here suggests the importance of climate as it relates to the problem of cultural assimilation and geographic movement. Seventeenth-century understandings of the relationship between identity and travel were based on the Galenic theory of the four humors, which held that the early modern body was subject to the influence of one's environment.1 Travel in the seventeenth century thus brought with it the potential for dramatic alterations in an individual's psychology and physiology. Van der Donck invokes this early modern scientific discourse in the opening lines of his chapter, only to assuage any fears of alteration when he writes that the air in the colony "is as dry, pure, and wholesome as could be desired"—so much so, in fact, that "people who are not at their best, whether in the West Indies, Virginia, or other parts of the world, soon feel fit as a fiddle when they come to New Netherland" [End Page 3] (64). "In short," he writes, "Galen has a lean time of it there" (64). The Description thus takes up the identity issues that accompany geographic movement in the seventeenth century, specifically the fear of physical and cultural assimilation brought about by travel, only to assuage those doubts and set up the colony of New Netherland as a geographic or climatological extension of the United Provinces.

While this rhetorical strategy is not uncommon in colonial promotional literature,2 I suggest that what makes Van der Donck's text unique is the way in which it struggles with the possibility of a cosmopolitan model of colonization that embraces circulation and difference, working within the humoral model to suggest the possibility of maintaining Dutch cultural identity despite travel and dislocation. The text experiments with a model of belonging that relies not on birth within the territorial borders of the Dutch Republic, but rather on residence in either the United Provinces or its colonies.3 Van der Donck, I argue, is thus able to transform the multiplicity of peoples emigrating to the United Provinces and its colonial holdings into a manageable and productive population that would secure Dutch interests within the European world economy.4 Even as the text encourages a sense of identity grounded in geography, however, it must reassure its specifically Dutch readers of the stability of Dutch cultural and national identity in the New World through its emphasis on the economic integration of emigrant workers into the Dutch colonial project.5 This tension in the text between embracing a diverse, mobile labor force and securing a stable Dutch identity, I argue, suggests the ways in which the Description imagines the economic and political security of Dutch nationalism as dependent on a population that must be constructed out of the cultural contacts and connections of the Dutch colonial project in the Americas. This tension in the text mirrors the ambivalence toward cosmopolitanism that we see on the ground, as new and more restrictive residency requirements were instituted in New Amsterdam in 1657. Rather than reading the text as simply another hyperbolic attempt at promoting settlement, then, we might consider the Description as attempting to...