Saturday, September 18, 2010

New Netherland

They say that the victors always write the history. Over the years of reading French North American colonial history I’ve come more and more to appreciate that fact. When I recently read Fur, Fortune and Empire I mentioned that I enjoyed reading about the Dutch colonization of what is now New York. I knew that the Dutch had a successful fur trade and I knew that many Dutch stayed on after England took over New Amsterdam and renamed it New York. I knew that they helped shaped New York and yet, since they were the losers, their history is not in the forefront of people’s minds. So I was pleased to pick up The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-Century America by Jaap Jacobs. I thought that understanding the Dutch in New Netherland would help me better understand the French in New France.

Before I talk about it, I want to talk a bit about my view of the Dutch from reading French colonial history. My favorite narrative histories of New France were written by W.J. Eccles and his The Canadian Frontier: 1534-1760 is very informative.

When the French and the Dutch began to settle North America they came during a time when the Iroquois Confederation, a great military power, were engaged in a war with the Huron/Algonquian for control over the St. Lawrence River Valley. Eccles writes about the 1609 clash between the Huron and the Iroquois where the Huron/Algonquian are aided for the first time by the French and their modern weaponry.

It is sometimes asserted that Champlain’s role in this brief clash was the direct cause of the ensuing long struggle between the French and the Iroquois. Although his role on this occasion did nothing to endear him to the Iroquois, too much must not be made of it. The French had established themselves in the St. Lawrence Valley and were allied commercially with the northern tribes, enemies of the Iroquois. Within a few years the Dutch established themselves on the Hudson River and provided the Iroquois with European weapons. Once this occurred the lines were irrevocably drawn, the ancient war between the Algonkin and Iroquois now became a war between two European powers and two economic regions for dominance in North America.

A few pages later, he writes:

The Iroquois, provided with weapons by the recently established Dutch at Fort Orange where Albany stands today, and paid high prices in trade goods for furs, were becoming increasingly bold, ambushing the northern tribes en route to trade at Quebec and pillaging them of their furs or goods.

The Huron/Algonquian knew the French wanted to be trading partners and the price of that partnership was assistance against the Iroquois. This seemed to shift the balance of power at first, when the Iroquois thought the French with their weaponry were invincible. But soon the French proved all too human and that gave the Iroquois new resolve.

If the Iroquois were to obtain supplies of firearms, they could retaliate, perhaps regain the lands they had lost. With the Dutch on the Hudson River willing to give almost anything to trade for furs, arms could be had. After 1615 the Iroquois took the offensive. To the end of the century, the French found themselves engaged in a desperate struggle to defend their fur trade empire against the assaults of the Iroquois, who were seeking to divert the trade from Montreal to Albany, ultimately from Paris to London, thereby making themselves the dominant power in the region.

Eccles goes into more detail later when he explains why, starting about 1625, the stakes began to be higher for the Iroquois:

The Dutch were now well established on the Hudson River. At Fort Orange the Iroquois could obtain European goods, including firearms. In 1626 they had traded over 8,000 beaver and other furs; it is estimated that by 1633 they were bringing nearly 30,000 pelts a year to the Dutch. This exhausted the supply of fur in Iroquois territory. The attempts of the Iroquois to obtain furs through trade with the Huron and Algonkin tribes came to naught. There was, then, no alternative now that they were dependent on European manufactured goods to maintain their recently improved standard of living, but to wage war to divert the flow of north-western furs from the French at Quebec to the Dutch on the Hudson, with themselves reaping the middleman’s profit.

The thing I’ve always liked about Eccles’ narratives is how he explains the motivations of all the parties. It was a complex situation. The French were greatly outnumbered by the Indians along the St. Lawrence. The Dutch were greatly outnumbered by the Iroquois. The Huron, Algonquin and Iroquois were at war before the French and Dutch intervened. The French and the Dutch felt compelled to assist their trading partners. But the mere presence of the French and the Dutch and their supply of European goods, especially weapons, changed the nature of the war. Eccles shows over the course of a couple of books how this adversely affected the French. So I was very interested in hearing about how the Dutch saw things and how they were affected.

Jaap Jacobs’ emphasis is not on the fur trade but on New Netherland as a colony. It is a valid point of view to take but since the entire raison d’etre of the colony was the fur trade I assumed it would be necessary for him to discuss it.

At an early stage, probably within a couple of years after the Mohawk-Mahican War ended in 1628, the area around Fort Orange became the center of the Fur Trade. Little is known about how trade was conducted there in the 1630’s and 1640’s.

Hmmm. Well that wasn’t encouraging. I suppose that means that he believes nothing was known about how the trade was conducted prior to the 1630’s? I found that hard to believe. But I don’t read Dutch so I could be wrong.

I looked in vain for any mention of the conflict between the Huron/Algonquian and the Iroquois in the early years. Finally, Jacobs points out that in 1634 the Dutch tried to discover why the fur trade had recently turned bad. Ah, I thought. It’s because the Iroquois had hunted out their territory and the Huron wouldn’t trade with them because they were mortal enemies. Right? Nope. “The cause turned out to be the competition from the French in Canada, who offered better rates.”

Ok. Maybe. But what about the war with the Huron? What about all the arms that the Dutch traded (and had been trading for 25 years) that were being used by the Iroquois in furtherance of their military and economic goals?

Even more unforgivable in the eyes of the authorities than providing the Indians with alcohol was to supply them with weapons and ammunition. Van den Bogaert reported that he and his companions were repeatedly asked to fire their guns [at their 1634 meeting with the Mohawk], which suggests that the Mohawks were not much acquainted with firearms at the time and did not yet possess them. This started probably to change around 1640, although it is possible that the Algonquian groups acquired firearms earlier. A 1639 ordinance required the death penalty for the sale of weapons and gunpowder and lead to Indians, an indication of how serious the trade in weapons was considered to be.

Wait. Was he trying to tell me that the Dutch never traded arms? I was beginning to lose faith in Jacobs. But then, a paragraph later, he wrote:

But once the Indians had discovered the advantages of firearms it was impossible to stop the trade. To keep the situation under control, the arms trade in New Netherland was the monopoly of the government. The directors in patria ordered director general and council not to risk war with the Indians by bluntly refusing to sell them arms and ammunition and ensuring that such trade took place as little as possible. But if the Mohawks would acquire their gunpowder and lead from the English, the beaver trade might be diverted. The authorities had to walk a fine line.

Right. There we go. They traded arms because their Indian fur trading partners demanded it. And they darn well knew that it was drawing them into a war with the French and their allies, right? Well, no. The above was pretty much all Jacobs says.

The French are almost never mentioned in this book. The Iroquois/Huron wars in which the Iroquois would eventually decimate the Huron are no more than a mention. There is no mention of the effect of the war on the French. But most importantly, there is no mention of the affect of the war on the Dutch. And, maybe, there lies the key. As far as Jacobs is concerned, there was no war with the French. And the Huron/Algonquian were certainly not at war with the Dutch. Why does he seem to conclude this? Because no real mention of it shows up in the Dutch records?

Maybe the French made the whole thing up. Or, maybe the Dutch didn’t write about it because they weren’t directly affected by the wars. They traded arms to the Iroquois and the Iroquois in turn traded them furs. It all worked out, no need to ask why the Iroquois tribes wanted the guns and ammunition. The fact that the Iroquois were arming themselves to make war on the Huron/Algonquians and French in pursuit of the fur trade was just not something the Dutch worried about. They themselves weren’t attacked so it didn’t affect them. Why should they think about it?

So, from their point of view if there was a war it was an “Indian” war. From the French point of view (and the point of view of the many French colonists who were being attacked by the Iroquois for being allies of the Huron/Algonquian) it was a real war, they new darn well that the arms were coming from the Dutch and that those arms were killing them.

Of course this is one man’s take on the Dutch colony. He makes the point that most of the leading Dutch citizens stayed on after the English took over and helped shaped the attitude of the commercial center that would become New York. And I have to say that once I got over my initial surprise at the lack of mention of the war, I thought this seems fairly typical of the American mindset about selling arms.

[Update: In the course of discussion in the comments I realized that there is one brief paragraph in which he dismisses the theory of overhunting and the tribal wars as the cause of the shortage of beaver. This conclusion is based on the 1997 work of Jose Antonio Brandao and reference to Brandao's work was relegated to a footnote in the book I read. It was given a paragraph in the earlier version of the book. Of course now I want to read Brandao. But whether the cause of the wars is disputed or not, it doesn't change the fact that from his point of view they didn't seem to directly affect the Dutch colonists. "