Sunday, July 26, 2009

Flemish Fathers of America - Emanuel Van Meteren

To understand the Founding of America one must know the story of the American Pilgrims. To understand the story of the Pilgrims one must understand the story of the English Reformation. And to understand the English Reformation one must know the story of those men and women whose fiery convictions crossed the Channel with them and seeded Britain’s Protestant Reformation.

That story thread is entwined with and inseparable from the struggle of the Dutch-speaking peoples for independence.
[i] For much of at least the first half of the Eighty Years’ War (1566-1648), from the initial smash of porcelain religious statuary in Flanders in 1566 to the final triumph of arms of the grandsons of Flemish Protestants in 1648, the combined region of the Netherlands with the British Isles, might, as one historian has described it, be considered one country with two languages (Dutch and English). These ties were close enough for the Flemish dominated leaders of the Dutch Revolt to consider asking Queen Elizabeth to be their new sovereign, in 1583. These ties extended to the cultural, familial and even linguistic. As the contemporary “Dutch” historian of this period, the Antwerp-born Emanuel Van Meteren, once stated, the English language was, in his view, no more than “broken Dutch”.

In fact, few men embody this transition of the 16th century for the Anglo-Flemish Protestants more than Emanuel Van Meteren (1535-1612)
[ii]. Sometimes written to or about with name variations such as Emanuel Meteren or Emanuel Demetrius[iii], Van Meteren was prominent at the nexus of scholarship, politics, religion and business between the Low Countries and England. Critically, Van Meteren left a lasting impact not only on his times and place but also in the wider world.

Late in his life Van Meteren identified and engaged an unemployed English captain for a mission that required secrecy and bravery. On behalf of a loose coalition of Flermings – nearly all passionate, Protestant refugees from Antwerp – Van Meteren convinced Henry Hudson to sail under the Dutch flag. The VOC (Vereinigde OostIndische Compagnie – Dutch East India Company)
[iv] sought to fulfill patriotic impulses through the pursuit of profits. Their goal: to seek an unguarded (by their Iberian enemies, the Spanish and Portuguese) route to Asia and thereby capture for themselves the lucrative spice trade in Europe.[v]

Upon Henry Hudson’s return from America, Van Meteren took the primary role of disseminating the knowledge of this New World discovery in Europe. Since there are only three primary source accounts for Henry Hudson’s voyage to America
[vi] – and only Van Meteren had access to both Henry Hudson as well as his journals – understanding who the man behind the Discoverer will help us understand the discovery itself. In other words, if we wish on the Quadricentennial to honor Henry Hudson’s discovery of the river and valley that bear his name, should we not at least pay tribute to the man who not only provided the opportunity but also publicized his accomplishments?

Emanuel Van Meteren’s critical involvement at the very beginning and at the very end of Henry Hudson’s Third Voyage earns Van Meteren the first place as a Flemish Father of America and of course the reason for the biopic. Later, I hope to add other, “Flemish Fathers of America” to this gallery.
[i] My reference here to the “Dutch-speaking peoples” is of course intentional. The Netherlands-speaking peoples of the current Low Countries – Belgium and the Netherlands – were united in their efforts to free themselves from Spain and in fact it was the fiery efforts of the Flemish that provided leadership, finance, men, and materiel for a good proportion of the first half of what we know as the Dutch Revolt and what the Dutch-speakers call de Tachtigjarige Oorlog. A good starting point is Hugo DeSchepper, Belgium Nostrum' 1500 - 1650. Over Integratie en Desintegratie van het Nederland, (Antwerpen: De Orde van de Prince, 1987). Note also that a disproportionately large proportion of the non-local troops were Walloons, not Flemings, serving Spain’s reconquista of the Low Countries (cf the various military units composition at the Battle of Nieuwpoort in 1600
[ii] Van Meteren according to Dutch sources [W.D. Verduyn, Emanuel Van Meteren, (‘s-Gravenhage: Martinus Nijhoff, 1926), p.37] was born July 9, 1535 (Gregorian - which calendar change did not take place in the Low Countries until 1585). One online Dutch source depicted his birthdate as 09.06.1535 which American usage interprets as “September 6, 1535”. This sloppiness has passed into the English version of Wikipedia ( ) and its clones: the utterly false and fanciful ( and the sloppy plagiarism - hence the confusion around birthdates.
[iii] Men of letters in late 15th century Europe – or even merchants with a scholarly bent like Van Meteren – often Latinized their names at this time since Latin was of course the lingua franca of the Christian world at this time. Many of these Latinized names – e.g., Mercator for De Kremer, Ortelius for Ortels, etc. – survive as the preferred name we know these figures by today.
[iv] The best study in English I am aware of the study of the West India Company’s birth is Simon Hart, The Prehistory of the New Netherland Company, (Amsterdam: City of Amsterdam Press, 1959). The classic (although light on details) study in Dutch is W.R. Menkman, De Geschiednis van de West-Indische Compagnie, (Amsterdam: Van Kampen & Zoon, 1947).
[v] For the spice trade there are innumerable books but starting points might include Jack Turner, Spice: The History of a Temptation, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004). For an interesting angle on spice history please see Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants, (New York: Vintage Books, 1992).
[vi] The three primary sources include only one English account: that of Hudson’s prime mutineer, Robert Juet of Limehouse. Juet’s account has issues partly because it was written more than a decade after the fact (1625) and partly because of course he was directly responsible for Hudson being set adrift in the Arctic in 1610. Van Meteren had direct access to both Henry Hudson in person as well as his logbooks – as evidenced by the preciseness of dates and cartographic positioning. Johannes De Laet in his Nieuwe Wereldt ofte Beschrijvinghe van West-Indien, uit veelerhande Schriften ende Aen-teekeningen van verscheyden Natien, (Amsterdam, 1625). De Laet, in fact, most likely knew Van Meteren directly, from both his Anglo-Flemish in-laws, his connection with prominent Leiden humanists of the age, and his tenure in London as a merchant beginning in 1603.

Copyright 2009 by David Baeckelandt. No reproduction permitted without my express, written consent.


  1. Man, you are great !
    I'm learning a lot. Never had that history lesson at school !
    Thank you so much, David. :-)
    Thank you for supporting Vlaanderen mijn land, even more than I do. Lol.
    Can't wait ( AGAIN !)to read the next episode.

    Hope to read you back, soon.

    In the meantime, warm regards,
    Hugo Baeckeland.

  2. Hello

    I live in the flemish Village of Meteren (now located in the french part of West Flanders). I really enjoyed reading your blog


    1. Hi Phil,
      Thank you for your kind note. It is great to hear from someone in Meteren! I don't know if Meteren publishes any connection to the Van Meteren family but it would be great to know if there is something local. If so, I would be grateful for any forwarded links!
      Thanks very much for your kind note,

  3. I recently found a book in my Grandfathers stuff. His name was VanMatre, and it was titled Thomas Burris VanMatre Ancestors and Descendants. It is kicked up a new hobby of researching my ancestors. Thank you for this article

    1. Hi Bruce, Great to hear about your connection to the Van Meterens. Great family tree and stock.
      Thanks very much for both reading and commenting.
      Happy Fathers Day,

    2. Is it possible the nam VanMatre refer to Van Mater?
      Mater is a village near Oudenaarde in Belgium.