travel writing

New Netherland Colonial Beavers

[10 minute read]

The seventeenth century was a moment of exploration and imperial expansion for European powers; the Dutch were of no exception. In 1609, Henry Hudson landed in the New World after the East India Company’s failed attempt to find passage to India. Years later, the West India Company (WIC) would be founded in 1621, and played a crucial role in Dutch economic expansion during its Golden Age. As a chartered company primarily intended for economic extension and the accumulation of capital, the WIC set up outposts along the coasts of North and South America, as well as the Western African Coast. However, it was also politically motivated, with semi-sovereign colonial powers in these same locations. In North America, the WIC established a venture colony with Dutch merchants between the English colonies of Virginia and Massachusetts. Beaver pelts constituted their primary trade with the Algonquin Indians along the Hudson River Valley. The Dutch participated in a global trade of pelts, shipping furs to Muscovy and France to be processed into hats or liners for coats.

Adriaen van der Donck’s A Description of New Netherland was first published in the Dutch Republic in 1655, and reprinted in 1656, with the hopes of attracting emigrants to New Netherland. A Description of New Netherland is presented to the reader-observer not as an account of the conquest of the New World, but rather as a mix between an ethnography of the indigenous populations, and a natural history of the new world. An earlier travel account by Johannes de Laet allowed Van der Donck to move beyond descriptions of the coastline and water passageways and instead develop a more in-depth survey of the land’s resources. This survey covers the different rivers, the vegetables and minerals, the animals, and even the elements as they are found within the New World. It then moves on to deliver an ethnographic-like account of the indigenous population; their food, dress, living quarters, medicine and religion, among other facets of their societies. This cartography of resources extends to encompass the beaver, that semi-aquatic animal so highly prized for its pelt. Curiously enough, Van der Donck spends more time describing the temperament of the beaver and its medical properties rather than where to find it, how to capture it, and the process of removing its fur for circulation.


Van der Donck devotes one of the four chapters out of his travel narrative to the beavers of New Netherland. This chapter is entitled, “Of the Nature, Amazing Ways, and Properties of the Beavers.” It refences the global fur trade while examining the agency and complex rationality ascribed to the living beavers. However, the absence of the Dutch from van der Donck’s description of the beavers’ magnificently colored fur used in the hat trade is suggestive that the beaver meant more than a commodity to the New Netherland colonists. The text lingers over the beauty of “the very fine fur,” as it can exhibit the colors “ash gray” and “pale blue,” as well as exhibit “brownish” or “russet” tones, even fading into a “chestnut” or “reddish” warmth (118). The magnitude of colors that the narrator surveys is seductive for the reader-observer as they imagine what types of commodities that they can be fashioned into. The fur hat is the most desired, and the text claims that its popularity has extended across all of Europe stating, “The fur is made into the best hats that are worn, named beavers or castors for the material they are made of and by now well known throughout Europe” (118). Missing from this, however, is the explicit recognition of the involvement of the Dutch in the killing the beavers. The absence of the Dutch as a central node within the network of the capture of beavers, payment of the indigenous peoples, as well as the processing and transport of the pelts divests them of any responsibility in the violence inflicted on the beavers.

Throughout the rest of the chapter, the beavers are given human-like temperaments that eventually blur the human and non-human dichotomy. They are described as “timid” (117, 118, 119), “nonviolent” (120), and “gentle” (123), as well as being concerned about being “secure” and “safe” (118), “seeking refuge” (121) when danger is present. Beavers are, for example, likened to the most vulnerable members of the New Netherland community: “As soon as the young beavers come into the world, they cry like newborn children, so that a person coming to where there is a young beaver, and not being forewarned, may think that a small child is near” (123). Here, van der Donck relates misidentifications between beaver kits and newborn babies. In a similar fashion, beaver mothers are described like women, “the beaver has two teats as women have…the mother then raises herself like a human being sitting up and gives a teat to each of the kits, who lean against the mother’s body like children who stand and suck” (123). Beavers are ascribed the same physiology as women and their behaviors are only understood in relation to humans. This wording associates beavers with certain members of the New Netherland body politic such that the distinction between beavers, children, and women becomes unclear.

The beaver within van der Donck’s travel narrative is unique because it is the only animal given an anthropomorphic description. It has a certain type of excessive liveliness in its demeanor that prevents knowing the beaver as simply the fetishized fur commodity. Travel writing, such as van der Donck’s A Description of New Netherland, suggest that new forms of relationality between humans and animals are possible at the edge of empire.



Gainsford’s “Glorious” England

[5-7 minute read]

A quick look at popular TV programming might lead a person to think that Americans are obsessed with Britain. We watch sci-fi shows like Dr. Who? to feed our imaginations about the possibilities of alien life and technology, as well as shows like The Great British Bake Off that combine culinary delights with intriguing locales. Then there are the historical dramas that have their own allure. We’ve watched the tumultuous reign of Henry VIII in The Tudors (or maybe we were just watching Henry Cavill?), followed the lives of the Crawley family in Downtown Abbey, and fell in love with Margaret in The Crown.

While these programs may implicitly be trying to tell us that there is something about Britain that should be revered, earlier broadcasting was not so subtle. In 1618 Thomas Gainsford published a text titled, The Glory of England, or A True Description of many excellent prerogatives and remarkable blessings, whereby she triumphs over all the Nations in the world. This travel writing does just that; it outlines, in Gainsford’s opinion, why England was so magnificent in comparison to other polities in the world.

One might ask, “Who is Thomas Gainsford that he would write such a text?” Well, Gainsford was born in the latter half of the sixteenth century. Unfortunately, he was never very good with his money and tended to owe people a lot of debt. This led him in 1601 to join the English army in the Nine Year’s War, a campaign against an Irish rebellion. He travelled across Europe after his time in Ireland was completed, and in 1607 made the trip to Constantinople. Upon his return to London, sometime after 1614, he prepared the first edition of The Glory of England to be sold at Saint Paul’s Churchyard.

Saint Paul’s Churchyard provides us context for thinking about who may have encountered the text, and how many copies may have circulated. St. Paul’s was considered the place to go to hear news and gossip concerning the state. It attracted people from all classes. It was a place that people could go to hear news from afar as well as news from the state itself. Selling The Glory of England at St. Paul’s means that not only did the text circulate between the people on the streets, but also that it had the opportunity to come into contact with, and travel to, members of the Elizabethan court.

The text’s note to the reader, that the narrative is an “oculatus testis” (Preface), is the reason why The Glory of England can be categorized as a piece of travel writing. Oculatus testis, or an eyewitness testament, signals to the reader that the information in the narrative is intended to be interpreted as real observations. Like all forms of travel writing, Gainsford’s text is precipitated by the fact that he actually went somewhere, out there. The purpose of travel writing is to record the experience of encountering either unknown, or unfamiliar, lands and people. Hence, as we find in the title, it is call a “True Description.” It is through this first-hand account that The Glory of England is branded as an unbiased comparison and evaluation of other nations against England.

While travel writings proffer descriptions of different peoples and places, they can tell us something about the culture of the person who composed it as well. I am interested in the ways in which this military man’s narrative sculpts and courts its readership. The text, assured enough in itself to not doubt what it says is true, describes the type of reader that might doubt ‘th glory of England’ above other nations:

1.either you are a stranger: 2. Or have been a Traveler: 3. Or look no further, than on the scarred and deformed face of antiquity as Authors have wounded the same: 4. Or live discontented through particular grievances in your Country: 5. Or are willful and irregular by the impostures of superstition: 6. Or affrighted at the power and greatness of other Princes: 7. Or transported with a poor opinion of our wealth: 8. Or to conclude, are merely ignorant (para. 1).

A quick look at this list begins to form an image of the type of reader who would agree with the premise of Gainsford’s narrative. We see that it is someone born within the country who has not traveled far, and so from the start we might think that the text is oriented towards insular nationalism. Categories three and five suggest a more Protestant reader, as the ancients were Pagans and the Catholics were involved in hocus pocus. And finally, with category eight, we see that the reader who believes in the glory of England is an educated reader. Or at least, they are not ignorant. It is interesting to me how the circulation of this book, with the contemporaneous rise of literacy, may have functioned to produce ‘proper’ citizen-subjects who were able to embody the glory of England themselves.

Spatial Representations


[5-7 minute read]

When going on vacation these days, we take our cameras (or phones) with us to commemorate the places we visited, and the adventures that we embarked on. Contemporary phones and photos offer a way to share our experiences with friends and loved ones in a manner that allows them to imagine they were on the trip with us. Whether it is curating a collection on Flickr or Facebook, or even circling around a TV set hooked up to a DSLR, sharing pictures of where we have been and what we have seen enables viewers to put themselves in our shoes, and imagine themselves in our company. In this sense, others vicariously embody the same spaces we once did. Of course, what must be remembered is that behind every photograph is the person taking the picture. In this way, the photograph is not necessarily an accurate representation of an unmediated space, but rather an intentionally selected perspective. Think of your Instagram account – each photograph has a specific angle, filter, and caption to guide your followers into seeing you how you wish to be seen.

My interest in photos and vacations is actually just a thinly veiled obsession with space and spatial formations.[1] The type of space that can send me into an existential crisis (or epiphany, if we’re feeling generous) is the space that bodies occupy. I’m intrigued by how our bodies occupy spaces, and how we come to understand the type of spaces certain bodies are either allowed to, or barred from, occupying. Think of your friends describing that one place where people get drinks in that one part of town as “the gay bar.” The bar’s designation as a “gay place” invites bodies with certain orientations (notably queer) and repulses others. In fact, in this example we discover something curious: spaces can make different bodies experience different emotions and feelings.

However, as an Early Modern scholar, my obsession with space uses a slightly different framework than these contemporary examples. Instead of local gay bars that certain straight male acquaintances would deny feeling uncomfortable attending, or a series of photos from that person you knew in undergrad who decided to vacation some different country for the fact that “it sounded cool and was different,” I work with texts.

Well no, they didn’t have SMS back in sixteenth and seventeenth century either; I work textual evidence such as travel writings and plays. And yes, I can see where this might be confusing, “Tyler, how do you study space when you just read books?” Well the thing is that even within texts we have representations of travel and different spaces. We can see who is traveling in narratives such as Adriaen Van der Donck’s A Description of New Netherland (1656), as well as how other lands are imagined such as in Thomas Gainsford’s The Glory of England (1618). We can even see imagined responses to being shipwrecked in foreign lands in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1609).

Thankfully there are multiple social theorists who have spent an incredible amount of time conceptualizing what we mean when we say “space,” and even how space is produced. It is from theorists such as Lefebvre, Certeau, and Soja that we can begin to understand how it is possible to use the textual to study the spatial. Like a text, Lefebvre says that space can be read, decoded, and interpreted.[2] Certeau finds that the characteristics of any particular space are not stable, but in fact are produced through repeated performances.[3] As an extension of these assertions, Soja conceptualizes space being both real and imaginative.[4] So, when I read texts like A Description of New Netherland and The Glory of England, I consider what it means for readers to be reproducing, or re-performing, the spatial formations within the texts. I will ask, and attempt to explore the following questions: how do particular imaginations of certain spaces within these texts orient the readers towards certain bodies and spaces? What might the performance of courtly spaces within a text such as Twelfth Night inform us about the affects and feelings about certain courtly bodies?

Please join me this month as we explore the military exploits of an English soldier and his representation of the Ottomans, a colonist’s relationship to beavers in the New Netherlands, and the strange erotic nostalgia within courtly performances.

[1] While space as in space space – like outer space – is cool for its own reasons, that is not the type of space that I mean here.

[2] Lefebvere, Henry The Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson Smith. Malden: Blackwell. 1991.

[3] Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life [Trans. Steven Randall. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1984].

[4] Soja, Edward. Thirdspace. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999

Tyler Smart, an MA student in English at Syracuse University, is primarily interested how space produces certain subjectivities, locally and transculturally, in literary and cultural imagination. Other research interests include cross-cultural influences, queer theory and the history of sexuality, subjectivity, phenomenology, eco-criticism, and post-humanism.