“Maria Jansz: A Dutch Businesswomen on the Wrong Side of the Law” by Erin Kramer

In 1654, Maria Jansz, a tavernkeeper in the Dutch village of Beverwijck, was hauled into court repeatedly for selling brandy to an “Indian woman.”  The magistrates heard testimony from several Dutch men who alleged that Jansz filled a small pewter bottle with brandy for the Native customer, and one man even seized the bottle and drank from it to confirm its contents.  Maria Jansz initially denied the charges but finally relented and promised never again sell alcohol to Natives.  After a subsequent prosecution under the same ordinance a year later, the court fined her 300 guilders and banished her from the community for a year and six weeks.  Her husband successfully divorced her instead of following her into exile.

Stopping the alcohol trade with indigenous people became a serious offense at the end of the First Dutch-Munsee War (Kieft’s War) when New Netherland officials passed a series of laws restricting colonial interactions with neighboring Indigenous populations.  Prosecuting these offenses had become a preoccupation of New Netherland courts, particularly in cases involving local taverns.  Jansz’s case suggests the high stakes of such transactions; the ordinance she violated was intended to halt alcohol sales, certainly, but, further, to protect social norms and define community boundaries.  By breaking this law, Jansz had allowed an Indigenous woman to participate in the social activity of drinking in a Dutch tavern, a forbidden breach of community standards in the aftermath of Kieft’s War.

That Jansz’s punishment was extreme (banishment was more often a threat than a real sentence) points perhaps to another important feature of Dutch colonial society.  We know that a notable difference between women in New Netherland and the English colonies on its borders was the extent to which Dutch women—even married women—owned property and participated in the colony’s commercial life.  Women managed transatlantic trade networks, merchant accounts, and had small businesses, frequently conducted from within their homes.  Yet even though Dutch women had greater financial autonomy than their English peers, such freedoms created greater liability when women’s commercial activities skirted colonial laws.  In Jansz’s case, the court chose to punish the infraction to the fullest extent because it violated not only the ordinance, but social norms, as well. It would appear, then, that in business, Dutch women had to balance their economic interests with communal identity enshrined in law. 

My research investigates the extent to which Dutch women may have been held to a different standard than men and the ways in which prosecutions enforced standards of behavior towards the Native peoples who traded on the Albany frontier.

Erin Kramer earned her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in May 2018.  Her dissertation was entitled, "'The entire trade to themselves': Contested Authority, Intimate Exchanges, and the Political Economy of the Upper Hudson River Region, 1626-1713."  She is an Assistant Professor of History at Trinity University.

References and further reading

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