- Stuyvesant Bound: An Essay on Loss across Time by Donna Merwick
Through the centuries Peter Stuyvesant has been described in many ways. He is often portrayed as an uncompromising tyrant whose failures cost the Dutch their colonial American holdings. At the other end of the spectrum Washington Irving presents a congenial figure unable to adjust successfully to a changing world. In Stuyvesant Bound Donna Merwick describes [End Page 550] Stuyvesant as an experienced and savvy leader who for seventeen years capably performed his duties despite many difficult circumstances.
An Australian scholar who has built a distinguished career analyzing the Dutch experience in early America, Merwick portrays Stuyvesant as a company man whose military and political skills helped transform a settlement on the verge of ruin into a vibrant commercial outpost. Along the way Stuyvesant, while serving as New Netherland’s director general, adroitly maneuvered through several specific constituencies that regularly challenged his administration. Perhaps Stuyvesant’s most problematic test came from his fellow Dutchmen. The author describes the local population as a bit less rambunctious than she did in an earlier work, Possessing Albany (1990). Nevertheless it was a collection of avaricious entrepreneurs who periodically attempted to undermine their leader’s authority. Employing conciliation and compromise Stuyvesant was able to maintain civility. When dealing with another regular hurdle, the local Native American population, his policy was one of deterrence, essentially attempting to segregate as much as possible his countrymen from their Native American neighbors. Confronted by steady British encroachment Stuyvesant effectively resorted to diplomacy and avoidance. Ironically, it was his employer, the Dutch West Indies Company, which ultimately sealed Stuyvesant’s failure. Merwick convincingly argues that Stuyvesant expertly promoted the company’s interests despite minimal support. Finally, in 1664, amidst an imminent British attack, his employers all but ignored Stuyvesant’s pleas for assistance. Instead the Company formally accused him of negligence and initiating attacks that resulted in the transfer of New Netherland to the British.
At the heart of Merwick’s work, as the subtitle announces, is a story of loss. The author proposes to use “the trope of loss as a way into evaluating Stuyvesant’s career and that of New Netherland generally” (p. xii). She begins her evaluation near the end and a low point of Stuyvesant’s journey. A bound captive of local Native Americans, humiliated and powerless in the eyes of his countrymen, he awaits his British conquerors. In explaining how Stuyvesant fell to such depths the author uses three themes—duty, belief and loss—to assess his leadership. What emerges is a picture of a conscientious but wary employee of the Dutch West Indies Company who “learned to identify himself as the States’ and company’s servant” (p. 7). In fulfilling the duties embodied by the company’s oath, an oath he considered sacred, Stuyvesant used the authority that he believed came with his position. [End Page 551]
The relationship between Stuyvesant’s secular and spiritual administrative responsibilities is particularly interesting. The author narrates several episodes when Stuyvesant’s church related duties collided with local spiritual conduct. The solution required Stuyvesant to find a satisfactory middle ground that at times was impossible. During his initial five years in New Netherland Stuyvesant’s autocratic leadership proved successful but as conditions in New Netherland stabilized his methods became less productive. Ultimately it was his inability to evolve with circumstances he had helped to create that led to his loss. Stripped of his position and scorned by his countrymen Stuyvesant spent the last five years of his life as a humble farmer under British authority in New York.
In telling Stuyvesant’s story Merwick adeptly combines extensive primary research material with the interpretative techniques of a cultural historian and a dash of her own creativity. Part of that journey included wading through the voluminous collection of documents (which Merwick describes as “flat, repetitious, perhaps boring-maybe like most papers fed to a committee”; p. 132) that Stuyvesant used to defend himself against company accusations. The result is...