Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Description of New Netherland
Original text by Adriaen van der Donck. New translation by Trans. Diederik Willem Goedhuys. Edited by Charles T. Gehring and William A. Starna
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, October 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-8032-1088-2, $40.00. 208 pages.
Review by Wendy Lewis Castro, University of Central Arkansas
Historians of early America have long lamented that so little extensive scholarly work has been done on the middle colonies, due mainly to language issues. This is particularly the case for New Netherlands, whose Dutch sources have limited American scholars of those texts that have been translated into English. One such invaluable source is Adriaen van der Donck’s A Description of New Netherland, which had been originally translated in 1841 by Jeremiah Johnson. Unfortunately, Johnson’s translation was riddled with errors, which the editors note in the preface, giving the following example: “Johnson translates this passage thus: ‘Their men on the breast and about the mouth were bare, and their women like ours, hairy.’ Diederick Goedhuys correctly translates the same passage: ‘The Indian men are entirely bald on the chest and around the mouth like women; ours, quite hairy’” (xviii). However, it is not only this accurate translation that makes this new edition invaluable, but also its detailed notes made possible by the translator’s access to the Woordenboek der Netherlandsche Taal (1889-1998), a massive Dutch dictionary, New York State Library’s reference collection, and the New Netherland Project’s seventeenth-century collection. The result is an annotated edition with new insight into the text, from natural history to linguistics, that had been lost in the previous translation. The addition of a brief biography of van der Donck and the original page numbers in the margin provide modern readers with an informative and user-friendly version of a much-overlooked guide to New Netherlands before it became the English colony New York.
Van der Donck dedicates the first half of the book to a physical description of the colony. Typical for this genre, Van der Donck describes geographic boundaries, rivers, soil, trees, vegetation, animals, and seasons among others that Dutch settlers encountered when they disembarked the Halve Maen in 1609. This section also describes how imported crops and animals fared in the new climate.The second section focuses on detailed ethnographic descriptions of Indians, whom the Dutch called wilden. It is this information that has provided ethnohistorians with a lens into the food, dress, housing, religion, rituals, medicines, warfare, agriculture, hunting, and laws of the group of tribes collectively known as the Iroquois. At the end of this section are two short pieces: the first on beavers (their habitat, medicines that can be made out of their testicles and urine, body structure, behaviors, homes, gestation, and how to capture), the second a conversation between a Dutch man and a Dutch colonist of New Netherland, which answers some questions the Dutch man had after reading van der Donck’s Description: for example, Is there danger being surrounded by both English colonists and Indians? Finally, an appendix with a list and identification of Latinized plant names found in the text completes the work.
Geographers, historians, and anthropologists will find this edition an invaluable authority for their own work on New Netherland, in addition to its use for undergraduates who would find the work both interesting and accessible. Its one weakness is the use of endnotes rather than footnotes, which, as the notes often contain critical pieces of information, makes it cumbersome to flip back and forth between them and the text. Long underutilized, this edition will place A Description of New Netherland alongside Thomas Harriot’s A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, John Smith’s A Description of New England, and William Wood’s New England's Prospect as essential primary-source narratives of the early days of the New World.