"DISREPUTABLE SEDUCTRESS OR DECEIVED VICTIM: MARIA BESEMS AND THE NEW HISTORIES OF WOMEN IN NEW NETHERLAND AND THE DUTCH ATLANTIC WORLD" BY DEBORAH HAMER

The voyage of the ship Beaver from the Netherlands to New Amsterdam in 1660 must have been an awkward one for those on board. Boudewijn van Nieulant, one of the ship’s passengers, was fleeing a woman whom he had impregnated in Amsterdam. Maria Besems, one of the other passengers, was the very woman he had impregnated.  Like many women abandoned by men that they thought were serious about marrying them, Maria instituted legal action upon their arrival in New Amsterdam to force Boudewijn to pay for the costs of her childbirth and to ensure future child support.  Among the obstacles that she faced was a letter from the orphanmasters of Amsterdam that characterized her as a disreputable seductress and Boudewijn’s flight to Virginia to evade the lawsuit.  But Maria was not without resources herself, displaying a document in court signed by Boudewijn that promised her marriage when he “enjoyed her virginity” and other attestations to her good reputation.  As a result of her persistence, Maria eventually secured what remained of Boudewijn’s estate in New Netherland.

At the same time, the directors of the Amsterdam chamber of the West India Company instructed Pieter Stuyvesant to keep an eye on Maria and send her back to the Dutch Republic if the orphanmasters’ characterizations of her proved to be accurate.  Doing his due diligence, Stuyvesant turned to the captain of the ship Beaver and to the Calvinist minister who had been on board for more information.  Based on their shipboard observations of Boudewijn and Maria, both men suggested that it was much more likely that Boudewijn had tricked Maria than the other way around, an assessment of her character that almost certainly helped her secure a good outcome in her case.

The case of Maria and Boudewijn ran on two parallel tracks.  On the one hand, both of them operated as individuals seeking to advance their own interests against one another’s claims in the formal setting of legal system and the informal court of public opinion.  On the other hand, the West India Company seemed less interested in the history of the couple and more interested in preventing future dishonorable conduct in its colony, giving Stuyvesant leeway to banish Maria from New Netherland if he deemed her to be a moral danger.  

What propelled both the interpersonal and the institutional drama forward was Maria’s decision to embark on a voyage to New Netherland.  Much research on New Netherland has focused on the unusual freedom and outspokenness of Dutch women in the colony.  Maria’s story adds to that familiar narrative by showing that this boldness was truly Atlantic in scope.  It started in the Dutch Republic, continued unabated during the sea voyage, and culminated on American shores.  For historians of Colonial America, it is always more difficult to find women than men.  Dutch language archives – whether in Albany or Amsterdam – offer an important opportunity to make women visible, and the women that we find in them open new questions about how women participated in the Dutch – and other – Atlantic empires.   

Sources

Berthold Fernow, ed., The Records of New Amsterdam, 1653-1674 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1976) volume 2, 189-190, 197, 251, 262-3, 297-8, 304, 334, 428-9, volume 3, 104-5 

New York State Archives, Series A1810 (New Netherland Council Dutch Colonial Administrative Correspondence), volume 13: 84, 85, 86, 116-7.

Bio

Deborah Hamer received her PhD from Columbia University and is currently a research associate at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.  She is working on a book manuscript titled Uniting Nations: Marriage, Sex, and the Foundations of the Dutch Global Empire.

About the New Netherland Institute

For over three decades, NNI has helped cast light on America's Dutch roots. In 2010, it partnered with the New York State Office of Cultural Education to establish the New Netherland Research Center, with matching funds from the State of the Netherlands. NNI is registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Contributions are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law. More

The New Netherland Research Center

Housed in the New York State Library, the NNRC offers students, educators, scholars and researchers a vast collection of early documents and reference works on America's Dutch era. More

 

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