Martijn van den Bel, Lodewijk Hulsman & Lodewijk Wagenaar (eds.), The Voyages of Adriaan van Berkel to Guiana: Amerindian-Dutch Relationships in 17th-Century Guyana. Leiden: Sidestone Press, 2014. 279 pp. (Paper € 29.95)
It feels rather odd to be writing a review of a book that the founding fathers of modern ethnographically-inclined anthropology would have frowned upon. It has, indeed, become conventional to presume that the scientific approach to studying non-European “societies” gained its prominence precisely because of the obvious racially biased interpretations found in descriptions made by sociologically untrained travelers to foreign shores. Yet perhaps this initial cause for disapproval and prominence has never really been overcome—neither in science nor in anthropology. In which case, the eye-witness accounts provided by Adriaan van Berkel about life in seventeenth-century Guiana, remain just as informative and subject to critique as any modern-day ethnography.
By bringing this work to publication, Martijn van den Bel, Lodewijk Hulsman, and Lodewijk Wagenaar have performed a service truly worthy of praise. From the exemplary investigative research (in Part One) to the translated “Voyages to River Berbice …,” the controversial “Voyage to Surinam …,” and the complete 1695 Dutch text of “Amerikaansche Voyagien Naar Rio de Berbice en Surname” (in Part Two), this book stands as a massive offering to the scholarship of the region. Its centerpiece, nonetheless, remains Van Berkel’s eyewitness accounts of early settlement life on the Berbice River.
One cannot, in all fairness, accuse Van Berkel of being a gifted writer. Yet because he imagined writing and thoughts to reflect one another exactly, and observation and thoughts similarly to mirror each other, I think it safe to presume an honesty of description; whatever he wrote about the world around him was the world transcribed. One of the strongest impressions I take away from the book has to be the extremely powerful value and status attributed to literacy and numeracy, not only as markers of difference between Amerindian and European, but also as deliberative techniques for determining and maintaining the modernist supremacy of our planet.
If one follows the dogged detective work of the editors in Part One, it becomes rather obvious that tracking down the information and arriving at the evidence for their conclusions relied heavily on the documentary capacities of writing and counting. It is not just the newspapers of the period, the ship logs, the recorded battles and wars fought, the signing of treaties, or the written laws and contractual agreements over land and human bodies, but the very purposeful way in which all these nervous products of a cultural literacy are made to serve the European agenda of acquiring what Foucault (referencing Kant) describes as “an Ausgang ‘exit’ ” from a status of immaturity, or what Pierre Clastres enigmatically refers to as a means of becoming “grown-up”.1 To search and discover in text and in the world a passageway to Enlightenment enhances the European sense of mastery over the world. I am belaboring this point because, in a remarkably revealing way, it continues through Van Berkel’s descriptions all the way to the interpretations by this book’s editors.
A life of commerce drives the European imagination of the colony, its intellectual force that of buying and selling. Incremental profits determine its success. The initial rewards from constant warring over land and peoples appear as extensions of the Self—conceived if not yet in terms of hypermodern autonomous individuality, then at least as a selfhood on its “way out” of a theocentric immaturity, up the Chain of Being, and toward the prize of self and its commodities as private property. But because not all exchanges occur as expansions of private ownership or, indeed, as buying and selling, transactions among indigenous Guyanese and between them and the colonists should not be interpreted as singularly about commerce. Given the depth of current scholarship on theories about the Gift, bartering, and commodity transactions, it is difficult to accept the claim, for example, that “in the Amerindian societies of the Guianas … slavery was quite common” (p. 66). European chattel slavery and what the editors call “indigenous [Amerindian] slavery” (p. 66) have so little in common that it does not even seem worthwhile to describe them using the same word. It is precisely this kind of difficulty in interpretation that Van Berkel offers us when he assumes the “Ignorance of the Indians in counting” (p. 85) and when he considers that “The wild Indians are even more ignorant, and express great amazement when they saw me writing” (p. 86).
No question in my mind: this is an extremely useful book on a region and period about which we should know more. What it offers in terms of life from the viewpoint of Amerindians, is very little. Nonetheless, as a product for insights into the European—particularly Dutch—imaginings, it is truly a gem, one I am pleased to have on my bookshelf.
Pierre Clastres, 2000, Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians, translated and with a foreword by Paul Auster (New York: Zone Books).
Pierre Clastres 2000Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians translated and with a foreword by Paul Auster (New York: Zone Books).