Seldom has the future appeared so bleak as for the inhabitants of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands in 1672, the Year of Disaster. This is revealed by letters written to family members and husbands overseas that were intercepted by British war ships. Dutch Studies specialist Judith Brouwer will be awarded a PhD for an analysis of post sent in the Disaster Year that never arrived. The letters provide a very valuable insight into the daily lives and how life was perceived by women, mainly from the province of Holland, in the Disaster Year. What is remarkable is that the lower social classes in 1672 were very interested in political news and had access to newspapers. Brouwer will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 12 September.
The year 1672 was not the best year to be posting letters to the East or West Indies. The Republic of the Seven United Provinces was at war with France, England and the sees of Cologne and Münster. At sea it was mainly British privateers who captured ships from the province of Holland and prevented the post ever arriving at its destination. Such practices were a normal part of how war was waged at the time. Ships were sold at public auction as soon as it had been established that they had been legitimately captured. The letters were kept because they functioned as proof for determining legitimacy. In some cases, captured post was sold back to citizens of the province of Holland, but most of the letters got no further than London (and eventually ended up in the National Archives) and would never reach their addressees.
Brouwer discovered that the letter-writers made extensive use of newspapers. Brouwer: ‘We never knew that people from the lower social classes also made conscious use of newspapers. We knew that merchants did, of course, but even the wives of seamen were interested in the available “news sheets” and read them too.’ About half of the letters investigated by Brouwer were written by sailors’ wives. Sometimes they sent a paper too, which is proof that these sources of information were accessible to them. We know that the oldest papers in the province of Holland were certainly circulating by 1618, and were available in cafés and often shared by several readers. The relationship was reciprocal, incidentally – the Oprechte Haerlemse Courant, for example, published extensive maritime information.
The uncertainty that was linked to war resulted in more people sending letters, and the conflict was often referred to in the letters. Some letter-writers sent newspapers to their addressees to keep them as informed as possible. Illiterate people also sent letters – they could make use of the services of a literate family member, acquaintance or a professional letter-writer. Sources where the ordinary people themselves can speak are very rare from this period. Brouwer: ‘The letters are unique because they reflect the personal world of the letter-writer. They are the first significant source that can bring us so close to ordinary people from the seventeenth century.’
The personal correspondence sometimes conjures up a gripping lively picture of the daily lives of women whose husbands were posted overseas for a very long time. Brouwer mentions the example of a woman complaining in a letter to her husband in Batavia about the dictatorial behaviour of her father-in-law, who is mistreating the children and has accused her of theft. ‘She really wanted to go to Batavia, but that was no easy matter due to the war. What makes this a good example is that I have been able to ascertain from other sources that she was in Batavia a few years later, so apparently she made it.’ The letters confirm the seventeenth-century image of the Holland woman as independent and enterprising, and who also calls a spade a spade. The lives of sailors’s wives was definitely hard and it was a constant struggle to survive.
The letters are a goldmine for researchers who want to know more about daily life in the uncertain times of the Disaster Year, given that the letter-writers constantly refer to it. The letters also contain important information about how citizens of the Republic viewed politically important events such as the Liberation of Groningen and the murder of the De Witt brothers. Brouwer: ‘For a long time we thought that the lowest level of the population, the mob, committed the murder. These letters, however, match new insights that it was the bourgeoisie who were responsible.’
Literary historian Judith Brouwer (Amsterdam, 1979) will be awarded a PhD on 12 September by the Faculty of Arts of the University of Groningen for her thesis ‘Levenstekens. Gekaapte brieven uit het Rampjaar 1672.’ [Signs of life. Captured letters from the Year of Disaster 1672] Her research continues on from her Research Master’s thesis at the University of Amsterdam, on a few dozen captured letters from Disaster Year 1672. Her supervisor was Prof. B.A.M. Ramakers. The thesis will appear in a commercial edition in December 2013.
Judith Brouwer, judith.brouwer79 [at] gmail.com
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