Susanah Shaw Romney locates the foundations of the early modern Dutch empire in interpersonal transactions among women and men. As West India Company ships began sailing westward in the early seventeenth century, soldiers, sailors, and settlers drew on kin and social relationships to function within an Atlantic economy and the nascent colony of New Netherland. In the greater Hudson Valley, Dutch newcomers, Native American residents, and enslaved Africans wove a series of intimate networks that reached from the West India Company slave house on Manhattan, to the Haudenosaunee longhouses along the Mohawk River, to the inns and alleys of maritime Amsterdam.
Using vivid stories culled from Dutch-language archives, New Netherland Connections: Intimate Networks and Atlantic Ties in Seventeenth-Century America brings to the fore the essential role of women in forming and securing these relationships, and she reveals how a dense web of these intimate networks created imperial structures from the ground up. These structures were equally dependent on male and female labor and rested on small- and large-scale economic exchanges between people from all backgrounds. This work pioneers a new understanding of the development of early modern empire as arising out of personal ties.
New Netherland Connections was awarded the 2013 Jamestown Prize from the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the Annual Hendricks Award for 2013 from the New Netherland Institute.
In the following excerpt (pp. 41-43), Romney discusses how Dutch travelers across the Atlantic often depended on women relatives for management of their financial interests back in the Netherlands.
Eventually, soldiers, sailors, and travelers left the houses and inns of maritime Amsterdam behind and took their place on board ships headed to New Netherland and elsewhere. With the chartering of the [West India Company (WIC)] in 1621, the number of Atlantic-bound ships rose, and increasing numbers of Amsterdammers followed in Marritgen Wouters’s footsteps, waving goodbye to family, spouses, and friends sailing out across the Zuider Zee. As those ships began taking settlers to North America in 1623, more and more travelers needed someone to help them manage their newly transatlantic finances. They turned to their kin, immediate connections, and family. Ties within and between maritime families enabled people to negotiate the small-scale, informal, and grey economies that flourished in these years. Once the WIC changed its regulations to allow wider access to the beaver-skin trade in 1638, travelers used these same intimate networks to enter the transatlantic fur trade. Growing migration by middling families and the creation of a burgher population in New Netherland in the 1640s and 1650s caused an even wider range of travelers and Amsterdammers to become caught up in trading networks involving an ever greater variety of goods. Complex webs and financial instruments show that these networks developed into a functional Atlantic economy that ran in tandem with the economy of formal companies and larger interests. The structure of this new Atlantic economy paralleled that of the local early modern economy, from the participation of women to the reliance on face-to-face, personal systems of credit and trust. Thus, the intimate networks of travelers and Amsterdammers allowed for the development of a diffuse, participatory commercial economy that diversified the trade system beyond the large-scale merchant houses and equally helped establish the Dutch Atlantic empire.
When Amsterdammers and travelers waved goodbye to one another, the financial ties between them did not suddenly end; people continued to manage their personal and financial lives together. The wealthiest travelers left behind families and kin, houses and partnerships, accounts and credits due. The poorest left crushing debts and needy family members. People had to find someone they could trust to represent them honestly and further family interests in their absence. Travelers most often turned to the very family members, kin, and intimate connections who waved goodbye from shore. Relatives and in-laws, parents and spouses, friends and neighbors were among those whom travelers counted on most. For instance, Wouter Jansz, a sailor going to “the Virginias” in the service of the WIC in 1627, asked his two uncles to oversee the inheritance due him from the estate of his wife’s late grandmother. Both his financial capital and his financial representatives were drawn from among his close relatives.
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-  Empowerment, May 7, 1627, Not. Arch. 721, 158, Not. P. Carelsz, SA. ↩