DONNA MERWICK. Death of a Notary: Conquest and Change in Colonial New York. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999. Pp. xvi, 304. $24.95. Paperback. ISBN: 0801487889.

What happens to a people when they are conquered by a foreign imperial power? How are their everyday lives and the ways in which they are remembered changed by the circumstances of their conquest? These questions lay at the heart of Donna Merwick’s engaging microhistory, Death of a Notary. Merwick’s text is a narrative that uses the life of a seventeenth-century Dutch notary—named Adriaen Janse van Ilpenda, or simply “Janse”—as a metaphor for exploring the effects of imperial conquest generally, and the transition of power from the Dutch to the English in colonial New York specifically. Overall, Merwick’s work is a testament to the saying that a writer’s choice of subject goes a long way toward dictating the success of their project. As a low-level civil servant who spent his career documenting the ambitions and grievances of a largely forgotten community during some of its most turbulent years, Janse is a historian’s treasure. His biography has the potential to teach us volumes about the long- and short-term effects of imperial conquest.

Janse was born in Leiden, Holland, in the year 1618. He emigrated to the Dutch colony of New Netherland around 1647, living first at New Amsterdam before relocating to the small settlement of Beverwijck in modern-day Albany. Janse remained in this town until his death by suicide in 1686, at the age of 67. He held many posts and performed many functions during his four decades in the colony; however, what most concerns Merwick is his occupation as a town notary from 1669 until his death. In this context, Janse produced over 200 pages of local records that still survive in the NY State archives. Despite limitations inherent in their genre—and when supplemented by a variety of additional archival materials—these records provide an intimate and unparalleled look into the activities of the Dutch settler community during a crucial period of its history. In the summer of 1664, the English military occupied New Netherland. Over the next two decades, they consolidated their legal, social, cultural, and political power at the expense of the Dutch. In her best moments, Merwick is able to capture this dynamic, showing the ways in which an individual and his community are “inescapably entangled with the English conquest of New Netherland.”[1]

Merick begins Death of a Notary with a long chapter that immerses her readers in Janse’s first years as a notary public, from 1669 to 1676. Despite mounting difficulties stemming from the English occupation, these are arguably some of his best years. His work is steady, he manages to purchase land, and he is buoyed by the news of a family inheritance in Holland. Over the next five chapters, Merwick takes the narrative back to Janse’s birth and builds up to this moment. Then, in chapter seven, the reader watches Janse’s downfall over the last ten years of his life. About half of his struggles are associated directly with English conquest while half of them are indirectly related. In this latter category is the death of his wife, his regret at never having had children, his aging, his loss of sight, his failure to secure his inheritance, and his possible bouts with melancholia.

But Janse’s struggles are compounded by the short-effects of English conquest. According to Merwick, this conquest is the key to understanding his suicide. She concludes the English “imperial power’s designs for territorial acquisition, military invasion and occupation, [as well as] visions of hegemony…made a casualty” of him. After all, Janse was a person who made his livelihood by navigating the Dutch legal system, collaborating with Dutch contacts, and trading in the Dutch language. For this reason, the English conquest totally upended his social world. Conquerors mandated English as the new language and Janse failed to learn it; they adopted English common law and adversarial court procedures of which Janse was entirely ignorant; in fact, they even began to replace the job of the notary altogether with that of magistrates, justices of the peace, and licensed attorneys; and they forced the Dutch to rearrange their lives according to the Julian or “old style” calendar. More broadly, life under an English monarchy meant the Dutch currency lost much of its value, traditional markets were re-oriented, settlers’ taxes increased, and overseas trade with Holland was crippled by protectionist legislation. All of these factors combined with English prejudice to drive Janse to suicide. As Merwick writes, “The humiliation of Janse and others as they experienced the loss of language competence and cultural fluency under English rule was real.”[2]

Merwick uses her primary sources to trace these short-term effects of English conquest on Janse and his Dutch community. She uncovers his growing frustration in a variety of ways: a legal dispute he pursues with the new secretary of the colony, Robert Livingston; the increasing desperation of his letters sent back to Holland; and in his clumsy attempts to incorporate English formatting and spelling into his written work. But Merwick is not only concerned with Janse’s generation. On the contrary, Death of a Notary makes a much greater argument about the enduring legacies of imperial conquest. In particular, Merwick wants to demonstrate how imperial conquests can create historical narratives that serve to erase the history of their predecessors. To Merwick, the conquest of New Netherland is not simply an historical conquest of a territory but also an ongoing conquest of our collective memory. Ever since the late-seventeenth century, the English and their American successors have portrayed their Dutch predecessors as backwards, grotesque, uneducated, lawless, slothful, and primitive. The result is that Janse and his Dutch community appear strange to us now, even though they were not strange in their own time. Rather, they were “made strange as the [Anglo] visitors…exercised their power to retain or discard narratives, to be victors over knowledge and the story of the past.” By uncovering the story of Janse, his Dutch community, and their forgotten cultural world at Beverwijck, Merwick has helped to break open this narrative.[3]

Notwithstanding its many successes, there are several places where Death of a Notary warrants critique. Even though Merwick never explicitly refers to her book as a microhistory, the work exhibits the main qualities of that approach, and it is likely to be judged by its standards. The genre of microhistory is generally characterized by circularity, a concept that refers to an author’s ability to transition seamlessly between a subject of local history and the wider world in which it is situated. In this case, Merwick’s local-history subject would be Janse’s life and the Dutch settler community at Beverwijck; the wider world might be the Dutch Atlantic or Atlantic world, early North America, or the colonial Americas more broadly. But here in lies the central problem. Merwick never really defines the larger boundaries of her narrative, and she often seems content getting lost in the minutiae of local events without articulating their significance. For instance, she speculates at one point about the thoughts Janse may or may not have had during a five-month trip to Holland in 1668, in the context of a travelogue by Cosimo de’ Medici. Yet it remains unclear how these speculations—and many others like it—add to her argument about the short- and long-term effects of colonial conquest. Conversely, Merwick neglects to give the reader any wider context on international relations between the Dutch and the English in the seventeenth century. This would seem essential for understanding why the English conquered New Netherland in the first place, as well as why the Dutch were so willing to return the colony to England after reclaiming it in 1674.[4]

Indeed, there are a few moments when circularity is executed well, such as when Merwick contextualizes Janse’s origins in New Netherland within the greater history of his father’s overseas experiences in the service of the Dutch West India Company. However, for every moment like this in Death of a Notary there is also a missed opportunity. We learn almost nothing of the Mohawk or Mahican communities that seem to play such a central role in the politics of this region, of the founding of the Dutch colony before Janse’s arrival, of the Anglo-Dutch wars, or even of the Dutch overseas migration patterns that created New Netherland. Merwick says Beverwijck is positioned as the western most outpost in a colonial chain that stretches across the Atlantic Ocean to Amsterdam, but readers get little sense for how the various links of the chain are really connected. Finally, this lack of a focus on the wider world seems to be reflected in the formatting of the text, which could have been greatly enhanced by a few supplemental materials, like a timeline of major events, a map of the colonial region in question, and a breakdown of the main archival sources. The book does include a bibliography, but many of its secondary sources—such as Edward Said’s Orientalism—are never mentioned, and it remains unclear exactly how they are being utilized.[5]

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, there are several flaws with Merwick’s suggestion that Janse killed himself as a result of cultural dissonance brought about by the English conquest. This is a difficult critique to approach, in part because Merwick hedges her bets on the issue. At times she openly admits that “We know nothing of the circumstances of his dying.” Other times, as in her opening Epitaph and in her forceful conclusion, “The Costs of Conquest,” she goes in the opposite direction, whole-heartedly agreeing with the archivist Arnold J.F. van Laer and implying the English conquerors are Janse’s inadvertent murderers. In these moments, it is strange to witness Merwick coming on so strong in favor of a claim that she elsewhere admits is speculative at best and based only circumstantial evidence. Incidentally, Death of a Notary offers a lot of reasons why Janse might have been depressed enough to kill himself. Many of them, like his inability to recover his inheritance and the death of his wife, have nothing directly to do with the English conquest. Likewise, Merwick does such an outstanding job reconstructing Janse’s life that it is easy to forget how limited the source materials really are, and how little we can know with certainty about Janse’s inner world from a close reading of his notarial register. The possibility remains that Janse committed suicide for reasons that are simply not revealed in his papers. And last but not least, readers are bound to wonder about a few unexplored questions. Among them are two that seem most paramount to this reviewer: if cultural dissonance was such a devastating factor, then why did Janse not return to Holland, and why was he the only person in Berverwijck to resort to suicide?[6]

Despite these few critiques, Merwick’s Death of a Notary is an exceptional narrative. Readers do not need to believe that Janse had killed himself because of his lack of energy or interest for adapting to English society in order to appreciate the immense difficulties that he must have faced. More importantly, Merwick’s study has given us a detailed and intimate look at a community most of us have forgotten. In the process, she has reminded us that New Netherland was not the primitive backwater it was (and still is) made out to be in the incumbent narratives of colonial New England and Anglo-America. She has reminded us that conquest is an ongoing and imaginative project.[7]


[1] Donna Merwick, Death of a Notary: Conquest and Change in Colonial New York (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), 186.

[2] Ibid. xv, 185-186.

[3] Ibid. 184.

[4] Ibid, 137-143.

[5] Ibid, 95.

[6] Ibid, 175, xv, 185-186.

[7] Ibid. 151. Merick writes, “For some reason, [Janse] hasn’t the energy or interest to adapt as Cobus is trying to do.”