For much of the last twenty-five years, historians have been busy reassessing the importance that Dutch overseas activity in the Americas had for the Dutch Republic and the wider Atlantic World. That work, however, has garnered little attention from scholars outside the Netherlands. After Wim Klooster’s publication of The Dutch Moment: War, Trade, and Settlement in the Seventeenth-Century Atlantic World, it will no longer be possible to ignore that work. In his deeply researched and strongly argued book, Klooster demonstrates that the Dutch were a central force in the transformation of the Atlantic during the middle decades of the seventeenth century. Between 1620 and 1670, which Klooster calls the “Dutch Moment,” Dutch traders and settlers helped reshape European colonization in the Atlantic from an extractive enterprise most interested in harvesting bullion from the land into an agricultural enterprise concerned with exploiting enslaved labor to produce tropical commodities. In the process, the centers of the Atlantic World shifted north from Iberia to northern Europe and north and east from the Spanish Main to the Lesser Antilles and West Africa. The Dutch were central in these transitions; they provided the commercial links that enabled nascent English and French colonies and stagnant Spanish settlements to survive, and they paved the way with technical and commercial knowledge about navigation and the logistics of trade. The outline of this narrative is well known (though Klooster recounts it masterfully), but in turning his attention to Dutch ambitions in Brazil, Klooster moves beyond older characterizations of the Dutch empire as “commercial” to recover the militaristic and terrestrial origins of the Dutch Atlantic. In Brazil, the Dutch tried to build an agricultural empire through conquest, and it was only when those goals failed in 1654 that Dutch merchants turned to building the commercial empire that would make them wealthy. Klooster divides his argument into two parts. The first, comprising chapters 1 through 4, thematically develops Dutch imperial ambitions and warfare and centers on Dutch-Iberian military conflict in Brazil and West Africa. In this section Klooster charts the entry of ships from the northern Netherlands into Atlantic waters as a product of war with Habsburg Spain. Though this story is not unknown, Klooster emphasizes that past histories erred in casting Dutch adventurers as independent “raiders and traders” and thus missed the statist dimension to Dutch empire building (11). Developing from what were often ad hoc attacks against Habsburg settlements in Africa and the Americas in the early seventeenth century, the formation of the Dutch West India Company (WIC)—a chartered company to capitalize on Atlantic trade—in 1621 brought a new, more coordinated phase to Dutch militaristic expansion. As originally conceived the WIC was an instrument of warfare to aid the republic’s struggle against the Spanish by seizing “ships and property from the Habsburg king and his subjects” and capturing “his settlements” (35). “The main motive to stake money on this new” company, he writes, “was not to earn profit but to harm the enemy” (36). In this way the “WIC amounted to a patriotic lottery” (36). Key to Dutch ambitions to simultaneously enrich their own republic and cripple Spanish rule was the conquering of Habsburg-controlled Brazil. After first failing to do so in the early 1620s the WIC finally succeeded in capturing the sugar-rich province of Pernambuco in 1629–1630. Dutch ambitions soon spread to West Africa, where the seizure of the Portuguese slave-trading castle Elmina in 1637 enabled the WIC to become one of Europe’s most prodigious slave trading firms. With control of the Atlantic’s major sugar-producing region, several Caribbean islands, and West Africa’s foremost slave ports by 1642, the Dutch had created a territorial empire of conquest. Just three years later this achievement was destroyed when Luso-Brazilian settlers revolted and shattered Dutch ambitions. Within twenty years the Dutch territorial empire was lost. Rife with internal conflict and rising debts, the WIC collapsed, leaving Dutch imperial aims now to be carried out by private traders who sought commerce, not colonies. In the second half of the book, chapters 5 through 7, Klooster turns to Dutch entanglements with other Atlantic empires in the third quarter of the seventeenth century, describing Dutch interimperial commerce as well as the empire’s multinational and multidenominational character. The focus in these chapters is on the commercial connections that private Dutch merchants forged with settlers in English, French, and Spanish colonies despite mercantilist laws. In detailing interimperial trade Klooster continues to focus on the ways violence—against enslaved populations, Amerindians, and rival Europeans—remained a key feature of Dutch overseas activity in the Atlantic. Klooster’s narrative is based on rigorous research in multiple languages backed by wide reading in Dutch and English secondary sources. This deep research enables him to offer gripping accounts of military assaults and interimperial commerce, but sometimes the details of battles and commercial exploits he offers are overwhelming and the reader struggles to make sense of what the Dutch Atlantic empire was like on the ground. Even though Klooster refers to the cultural features of the Dutch Republic as the “building blocks of empire” we learn relatively little, beyond a general portrait of migrants and a thorough discussion of religious belief, about the experience of living and laboring in Dutch colonies (190). There is a lot more in The Dutch Moment about the “war” and “trade” of the title than there is about “settlement.” Most notably, Klooster’s book focuses almost exclusively on the experience of men even though scholars like Deborah Hamer and Susanah Shaw Romney have recently demonstrated how attitudes toward marriage and women’s maintenance of intimate networks underpinned Dutch colonies, both ideologically and economically. As a whole, The Dutch Moment is a powerfully argued, impeccably documented, and important book that recovers the martial origins of the Dutch Atlantic and persuasively demonstrates that the Dutch were at the center of the transformation of the Atlantic World in the seventeenth century. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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