Theses Doctoral

Creating an Orderly Society: The Regulation of Marriage and Sex in the Dutch Atlantic World, 1621-1674

Hamer, Deborah

Historians have long connected the emergence of the early modern state with increased efforts to discipline populations. Allying with religious authorities to monitor private lives, states sought to limit sexual activity to marriage and to support patriarchal authority in order to create orderly societies and obedient subjects. Governments legitimated their increased intrusions into people's lives by arguing that it was their responsibility to bring about moral reformation in their subjects, but their new interest was also rooted in achieving more direct control over individuals for the purposes of preventing crime and disorder, rationalizing tax collection, eliminating legal pluralities, and inculcating military discipline.
This dissertation argues that the same motives that informed the policies of emerging states in this period lay at the heart of the Dutch West India Company's marriage regulation during its brief existence from 1621 to 1674. Company representatives sought to institute and enforce strict marriage discipline upon their colonists, soldiers, sailors, conquered subjects, and indigenous allies in order to transform them into proper subjects and to extend Company governance over vast, new territories. Like the centralizing states of the early modern period that justified their increased power by arguing that they were reforming their subjects, the West India Company responded to potential critics of their state-like power and their sovereign authority with the same rationale.
Company efforts to regulate marriage and sex were, however, challenged by the existence of overlapping jurisdictions emerging both from the Dutch Republic's own tradition of legal plurality and from the existing institutions of conquered European populations and indigenous allies. Whereas emerging absolutist states were able to either gain the cooperation of or eliminate institutions with competing claims to authority, examining the conflicts over marriage regulation in the Dutch colonies shows that the West India Company failed in its efforts to tame competing institutions and bring them under its authority. Looking at the Company's governance through the lens of its marriage and sex regulation, therefore, upends traditional understandings of the Company as a trading enterprise and suggests that its directors were engaged in the process of state formation. It also suggests a novel way to understand the Company's repeated setbacks and ultimate failure in 1674. Despite its claims to absolute authority and its efforts to negotiate and secure this authority, competing institutions never acquiesced to Company jurisdiction.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Howell, Martha
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 13, 2014