- Brothers in Arms, Partners in Trade: Dutch-Indigenous alliances in the Atlantic world, 1595–1674 by Mark Meuwese
Much Atlantic history is focused on one place at a time, say, Bermuda, or Virginia, and elucidates how that one place is connected to, and embedded in, a larger Atlantic world. As a result, we have many anatomized studies of Atlantic locales, but relatively little comparative work of true breadth. Thus, Mark Meuwese’s new book is a bold exercise in creating a more robust Atlantic perspective, even if it remains wedded to a particular nation. His book examines and compares intercultural diplomacy and formal alliances in four different contact zones controlled by the first Dutch West India Company (WIC). Rather than separating the Americas from Africa, as is common in the field, the book pays close attention to Indigenous peoples around the Atlantic littoral.
The book’s organization is straightforward. It starts with a useful overview outlining the rise and fall of the WIC from its establishment in 1621 through bankruptcy and reorganization in 1674. A second chapter focuses on intercultural interactions in the region before the creation of the WIC. The next four chapters discuss, in rich detail, WIC-Indigenous relations in Brazil, Angola-Congo, New Netherland and the Gold Coast. The brief conclusion compares the four different sets of relations with each other, and contrasts them with the intercultural dealings of other European powers.
It is well-known that the Dutch were latecomers to the Atlantic. Not until the end of the 1500s did Dutch vessels venture west for sugar to Brazil, for salt to the coast of Venezuela and for plunder wherever they had a chance to attack the ships of their Spanish Habsburg enemies with whom they were locked in a hundred-year war for independence. In 1621, the Dutch formed the WIC to coordinate their interrelated military and commercial efforts in the South Atlantic against the Iberians, united under one king since 1581. In keeping with its foreign policy charge, the WIC was empowered to conclude treaties with native rulers. Reluctant to attack the Spanish in such strongholds as Mexico or Peru, the Dutch focused on less-well defended Portuguese colonies. In short order, the WIC muscled their way into trading posts on the Gold Coast and West Central Africa, conquered Portuguese Pernambuco in Brazil, established a few colonies on the Wild Coast of South America and settled several islands in the southern Caribbean. But their nascent empire fell apart just as quickly as it had been established. Unable to raise the money to protect its conquests, increasingly plagued by competition from private merchants, and internally divided, the WIC lost most of its colonies to various European powers and had to declare bankruptcy. It was reorganized in 1674 to continue as a purely commercial enterprise, losing its military charge.
But the Dutch stood out among its European competitors not just for entering the Atlantic late. Meuwese argues that the Dutch on the whole established strong military and trading ties with Native peoples that were absolutely crucial to any and all WIC ventures. The Dutch did not do this out of the goodness of their hearts. Rather, Meuwese shows, Indigenous peoples themselves repeatedly forced the WIC to negotiate, to adapt to their wishes and to recognize their sovereignty. Natives appreciated Dutch superior goods and prices, their willingness to sell guns. Moreover, they found the Dutch, experienced in decentralized government both at home and in the WIC, willing and able partners in the give and take of Indigenous politics and diplomacy. And while the WIC was not opposed to missionizing, the directors were willing to forgo evangelizing if it helped gain them commercial or political advantage.
The Dutch also put their own political conflicts with Iberians to good use. Throughout the South Atlantic, Meuwese shows, they managed to ally themselves with Native peoples against, especially, the Portuguese who had preceded them. In this respect, Meuwese nuances the perspective put forth by cultural historian Benjamin Schmidt, who in an influential book has...