Archive | May 2014

Colombus revisited

Recently there was great news about the finding of one of Columbus’ ships, the Santa Maria off the coast of present day Haiti. While this event has made it into the internet mainstream news reporting, traditional media such as the television channels and daily newspapers in Europpe hardly commented on this extraordinary news item. It is perhaps telling about the state of affairs in 2014, and a contrast compared to the celebration of 500 years of the discovery of the Americas by Columbus. Who was Christopher Columbus? That question seems hardly relevant anymore in 2014. Yet, 22 years after the 500 years of the these days so called ”Columbian exchange” occurred, the person of Columbus is still mired in mystery. Yet it is still important, mythical defining archetype of Western civilization, to which almost everything good or bad can be attributed according to the world view of the modern historian. In the past 22 years Columbus has become neither hero, nor villain, and more and more a mystery.

Simon Schama, the famous historian wrote already in 1992:

Thus, in keeping with the neo-Platonist cult of sublime disclosure and revelation, we should perhaps take more seriously Columbus’s preoccupation with his own name, and especially with the cryptic way that he encoded it in the mystic triangle that, from 1498 onward, he commanded would be the only way his heirs should sign themselves. Though the precise meaning of the symbol remains obscure, we do know that the Admiral meditated, before his third voyage, on the marvel by which his name appeared to prophesy his life: a perfect neo-Platonist conceit. It was preordained, he believed, that he should be Christoferens, or the Christ-bearer, the carrier of the evangel to the nations of the world. In Spanish, moreover, he was Colon, the populator, not merely with new men but also indigenes who would be made new by their conversion to the true faith. And the name Columbus, most miraculously of all, echoes the apparition of the Holy Spirit, who had appeared to him in the form of a Dove to announce his mission and to declare that his name–that is, interchangeably the dove of the Holy Ghost and the clove Columbus–would resound around the world.

Foulke & Sons company owners of Bonaire 1810-1816


Image: an American Schooner (Source: Wikipedia) 

The islands of Bonaire and Arubawere never Dutch colonies in the traditional sense as actual colonization as known of for example by the Spanish in Mexico or by the British in Virginia never took place in the 17th and 18th centuries. The center of Dutch activity and commercial hub in the southern Caribbean was the island of Curaçao which is located right in the middle between Aruba to the west and Bonaire in the east. Curacao’s adjoining islands were merely controlled and occupied by the Dutch West India company in order to serve mainly as a buffer against hostile navies and privateers and as supply stations of Curaçao. Bonaire was in fact a big plantation used for salt making.


Image: The House Flag of Foulke & Sons of New York

(Source: ”Private Signals of the Merchants of New York’ by ……as retrieved on “FOTW Flags Of The World website at

 In 1807 – during the Napoleonic Wars- the British Royal Navy took control of the Dutch Caribbean, actually for a second time. Between 1810 and 1816 the island of Bonaire the British did not really care for the island of Bonaire. From 1810 the island was in its entirety leased by Joseph Foulke & Sons, a trading company established in New York. The principal of the company was Joseph Foulke (1768-1852) who has founded the Company at the end of the 18th century. Foulke conducted a commission shipping business in the Caribbean. Foulke’s enterprise centered strategically on Bonaire and Curaçao. During the time of the lease Foulke lived in Curaçao.  As a business lord he rules the island from a distance. Curaçao remained the center of this acticites as he had established strong business ties with the ruling business elite such as the Brion family, having married Charlotte Brion, sister of the Admiral of Venezuela Pedro Luis Brion. Brion himself was a Dutchman from Curaçao who, besides being a soldier and Admiral, had also accumulated wealth as a merchant across the Caribbean. While engaging in war, and notwithstanding being a true war hero, Brion never left out an opportunity to conduct his business as usual. Undoubtedly family ties with Brion benefitted either Foulke and vice versa.

Even more so than the Dutch West India Company had done before, Foulke exploited the island for profit. Bonaire served as a source of brazil wood and Foulke mad this into his core business on the island. Unfortunately Foulke’s practices had a negative impact on the island as he deforested the island almost completely and sold the lumber. In 1823 Foulke was wealthy enough to acquire the Gracie Mansion – now the official residence of the Mayor of New York – from Rufus King. The estate was built in 1799 by Archibald Gracie. After Foulke’s retirement he spent the rest of his life there. Between 1816 and 1818 Foulke returned to New York, serving as a Director of Hope Insurance Company and on the board of the City Bank.


Image: Gracie Mansion by Abraham Honer, c.a 1830-1833

After Joseph Foulke Sr. had retired the business on the islands was continued by his sons Joseph Foulke Jr. and William Foulke. Yet the company never became as successful again as before and ran into financial troubles. Bonaire in the meantime suffered a somewhat similar fate as the Dutch did not change the economic and land tenure system in 1816. The brazil wood that was remaining in 1816 was sold to another merchants from Curaçao, C.L. Parker and later to I.N.C. Jutting. Event after the abolishment of slavery in 1863 the former slaves’ lives did not change significantly. The people of Bonaire remained tied to the colonial Dutch government as employees of the government. In 1868 the government finally divided the public land in parcels and sold most of the public lands by public auction and in 1870 sold the salt pans. Thus the entire population became dependent on two large private landowners. The northwestern part of Bonaire was called Slagbaai and was bought by Moises Jesurun and John, August, and Casper Neuman. That part of the island was eventually to become a national park: ‘Washington Slagbaai”.

In many ways Foulke’s venture on Bonaire foreshadowed later events that were to occur all across Latin America in the course of the 19th century whereby American, British and other European government and private owned companies acquire(d) territories overseas in order to exploit them for business without acquiring sovereignty, acting as mere investors aiming at fast revenues. The 19th century would become an age of unlimited growth of merchant empires all over the world, holding land titles across Latin America and Africa. When imperial and colonial governments finally started to act against this kind of rogue capitalism the genie was already out of the bottle. Sound familiar?



The Métis nation and the making of Canada (part I)



Colonial societies don’t always follow the boundaries and pathways laid out by imperial motherlands overseas. If anything can be said about the similarities between colonial systems across the American continent or even beyond, it is exactly the dichotomy between the legal system as designed in the European capitals and the colonial regimes themselves that stands out. This is a constant element throughout the history of both North and South America and has been studied amply by historians. Research however does remain necessary with regard to the relationship between colonial administrators in the colonies and their subjects in these colonies. Nowhere does the tension between colonial capitals and the ”boundaries” of their influence become more clear than in the interior parts of the American continent. From a legal or constitutional perspective the remotest territories remained often undefined, yet settlements did take place in some extent, long before legal structures by means of charters, land sale contracts or public documents such as treaties or constitutions even appeared.

In the interior parts of both continents social interactions between native and immigrant populations occurred often on the basis of trade and mutual benefit, at least in the early days of the Colonial Era,  yet alliances could easily shift. In this strange diplomatic game European powers more often than not ignored previous alliances and loyalties easily as it suited them and often deliberately used a divide and rule approach. Yet individual colonists and settlements developed their own dynamics at the fringe of the colonial spaces. Europeans intermarrying with natives did take place at a large scale in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies. Stories or Spanish men married native Mexican or Inca women abound. In Atlantic North America however populations mixed to a lesser extent than in the Spanish colonies. Albeit colonial Canada does – at first glance-  not really evoke images of creolization of or of mixing populations, mixed marriages and concubinage in the French, Dutch and English did occur. Not only in the case of the famous Pocahontas, but more significantly and more substantially also in the interior of present day Canada where a whole ”halfblood” people developed, the Métis. In this article an attempt is made at determining in which way the Métis people played a role in the making of Canada from a historical point of view.

The word ”Métis” is derived from the French word for exactly that: ‘Mestizo’, i.e. a person born of mixed Indian-European origin. The native element of the Métis heritage was Cree and Ojibwa, the European element was mostly French Canadian and to a lesser extent Scottish (Scots by the way were also the ones who intermarried with other Indian tribes such as de Cherokees in the American Southwest). The Métis originated with the fur trade and French trappers or ”voyageurs” intermarried with Indians from the north Central part of the continent, centered on the Red River in modern South Manitoba. Thus a bi-cultural people came into being of mixed descent. They were mostly hunters and trappers. In the middle of  the 19th century they adopted the Catholic faith and had a share language ‘Mitchif” which consisted of a mixture of French and Cree language.

The Métis traded in the interface between the woodlands in the north and the Great Plains to the south. An important mean of living was the buffalo hunt, which took place at the end of the summer. The Métis were excellent businessmen and traded intensively with the Americans at Fort Union and later St. Paul, exporting buffalo skins. The Métis combined skills used by different peoples around them: they were avid horsemen comparable to the Plain Indians, yet just as easily shifted to trapping as their French and Cree ancestor did, going in and out of the forests. The Sioux or Dakota were their rivals on the plains, which led to a conflict resulting in the Battle of Grand Couteau in 1851. Miraculously this battle agains the feared Dakota was won by the Métis who were afterwards respected by the Dakota leaders as a tribe to be reckoned with. By the 1860-ids the Métis thereafter controlled much of the trade in the central part of North America and trading with the Americans who were settling into the area west of the Mississippi in ever larger quantities and whose industries needed buffalo skins for their machines. the Métis filled a vacuum that had existed in an area that had not yet been settled by immigrants of European origin, yet close enough to enable trade and commerce. Yet aound the time of the American Civil War their lifestyle was about to become seriously endangered.

To be continued in part II.

Source i.a.: J.C.H. King, First Peoples, First Contacts, Native Peoples of North America, British Museum Press, 1999.

Picture above: a Métis huntsman, around 1870 (source: Wikipedia)

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