Academic journal article Early American Studies

"They Have Invaded the Whole River": Boundary Negotiations in Anglo-Dutch Colonial Discourse

Academic journal article Early American Studies

"They Have Invaded the Whole River": Boundary Negotiations in Anglo-Dutch Colonial Discourse

Article excerpt

The Hartford Treaty of 1650 constitutes an important moment in the territorial competition between the United Colonies of New England and New Netherland. The treaty's importance not only stems from the fact that it was negotiated entirely between two colonial administrations without interference or prodding from the mother country, but also results from the treaty's attempt to find a compromise between competing territorial claims and theories of possession. Yet, despite the significance that scholars have attached to the treaty and its role in the consolidation of English power in North America,1 little attention has been paid to the trans- Atlantic discourse concurrent with the treaty or the way in which the Anglo -Dutch negotiations of colonial territory manifested in the treaty are actually part of a much larger, global process: the development of ways to define both colonial territory and indigenous peoples' rights legally in relation to this territory.

From this perspective, the Anglo-Dutch negotiations of colonial territory taking place in the years surrounding the Harford Treaty are not as exemplary for the development of international relations in the colonial world as some scholars have argued. They constitute, however, one example of the way in which the colonial world in the seventeenth century was in fact a global world in which the meanings of territory and sovereignty were negotiated not just in individual colonies but, more important, among multiple colonial peripheries and centers. It is probably for this reason that the territorial debates that the Hartford Treaty was meant to settle continued unabated after 1650 not only in New Amsterdam and Boston but also in Amsterdam and London, metropolitan centers in which these debates became part of a larger discourse that extended into the East Indies and spanned much of the European-colonial world of the seventeenth century.

In this essay I will situate Dutch and English colonial writings reflecting the negotiations of colonial territory within a larger context: the transnational consolidation of traditional and legal understandings of territory in the mid-seventeenth century. To understand how Dutch and English colonial and metropolitan writers participated in the attempt to define colonial territory not just through national customs but through a legally codified system, I will investigate letters, reports, and pamphlets circulating within the Dutch and English métropoles around 1650 that document how writers in the métropoles and the colonies alike were contributing to the debates on colonial territory. I will show that writers from both nations, unlike their predecessors in the early seventeenth century, employed flexible notions of territory because of intercultural, global discursive negotiations. English and Dutch authors legitimized their nations' colonial possessions through cultural and legal understandings of territory that had developed dialectically from national and foreign concepts of colonial spaces and that depended on the cultural exchanges among and between colonial peripheries and European métropoles. In particular, Dutch and English writers worked to convince their readers at home and abroad of the legality of colonial possession, claiming first discovery and conquest, assigning names to places and landmarks, identifying supposedly empty and unused spaces, and engaging in notarized rituals of land sales; as such, their writings depend on and reflect ongoing attempts to theorize and codify colonial possession and sovereignty in international law. At the same time that constructions of colonial territory rely on a wide range of international sources and suggest the transnational extent of the debate, however, European competitors, like the Native Americans who also inhabited these spaces, were pushed to the margins of colonial society.

Historians concerned with contestations of colonial territory in North America have traditionally favored explanations that link territory to national characteristics or ideologies. …

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