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Uncommon Sense

By Martha Howard · October 22, 2015

Meet OI Fellow Deborah Hamer

fellowships 8 min read

Deborah Hamer BLOG postDeborah Hamer began her residency as the 2015-2017 OI-NEH Fellow on July 1, 2015. Her current work focuses on the West India Co and its attempts to instill proper sexual behavior in marriage. Here she discusses her research process.

So you have been working in the archives….

I have been in two archives mainly: one is the West India Company’s archive at the National archives in The Hague and the second archive is the Amsterdam city archives. In The Hague, I looked at documents produced by West India Company officials. People always say this archive is small but that’s just because it’s usually compared to the truly tremendous East India Company archive — it is actually quite a large archive with many thousands of pages.  In Amsterdam, I focused on the records of the Dutch Reformed Church, which corresponded with colonial churches.

What sort of items are there?

There are all kinds of different things, but the main categories are official correspondence between Company officials, records of the meetings of colonial councils or church councils, official reports about land explorations or military expeditions, and, of course, lots of different financial documents: records of accounts and bills of lading.  The challenge with most of these documents is that they were generally produced by people in power, so they often obscure the perspectives of ordinary people.

Are archives digitized?

Yes, the WIC’s are. The National Archives of the Netherlands has done a beautiful job and they are fully digitized.  They are also completely free to use!  Unfortunately, the Amsterdam archive has digitized less of its material, and it generally charges for the materials that have been digitized.

What are the differences between working with digital copies vs. the actual items?

It’s not always cost-efficient to go in person to archives, of course, but I love it when I can do that. It’s exciting to handle something you know these people handled. Plus there’s a materiality to it: you can feel the correspondents opening the letters and sometimes also realize things you wouldn’t if you were just reading in digital form. Sometimes I will encounter a letter that was sent, say, from the colonial government in Brazil to the Directors of the WIC and it will be a vast multi-page letter and there is a real heft to it. You can picture the colonial officials sitting down to write what is mostly a litany of complaints about how they aren’t being properly supplied and they don’t have enough soldiers to accomplish their aims and the like–and you can just picture them trying to overwhelm the Directors with this huge packet. You just don’t get that when you are clicking through the same letters online. So for me that’s the biggest thing—you really feel the weight of the intention.

What have you found that has surprised you?

The premise of the project that I started with was completely overturned in the course of research so I would say in some ways everything has been surprising! The premise was that there was a divide between the prescriptive literature and what was happening on the ground; the Dutch Republic has this strong literary tradition of emphasizing marriage and family and patriarchy but then the way that other scholars had approached this in the colonies was to suggest that this had been basically completely ignored in colonial society and that there wasn’t really that much social control because the colonies were small and struggling and there weren’t that many (European) women to marry anyway.  The premise of the original project had been to understand How did they justify this departure from European social mores of the time?  But then as I was researching I found that there was a great deal more effort to institute this kind of vision of family life that contemporaries believed would support order.  At the same time the social control wasn’t necessarily uniform across race and class. The brunt of the prosecution is on European soldiers and sailors and their lower status female counterparts, while people who were members of the Dutch Reform church or were part of the elite were much more insulated from prosecution because it seemed like bringing their misdeeds to the attention of the public would undermine social order more than allowing them to escape punishment.

What do you hope to accomplish while at the OI?

The initial plan is to do some more research in some archives that I didn’t have the chance to visit while I was working on my dissertation.  I’m especially excited about using the notarial archive in Amsterdam. The second major thrust of my time here is that I want to compare what is happening in the Dutch situation with other colonial situations, to bring the Dutch colonial historiography into dialogue with other Atlantic worlds. I’m certainly not the only one working on that but I think it’s an important piece of the project.  And I’m also looking forward to teaching William and Mary students.


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