While researching our latest episode, I stumbled across Knickerbocker’s History of New York.
This is a purportedly a serious history written by Dutch historian Diedrich Knickerbocker. It is actually a satirical history written by Washington Irving. The obvious joke is that Irving is mocking the style of contemporary history writing by turning the most picayune pottering into a life-and-death clash of titans; the subtle joke is that he’s mocking contemporary politics by inserting them into historical events.
As a history text it’s useless, but it is one heck of an entertaining read and I thought I’d share some of it with you. So here’s a passage about Peter Stuyvesant’s capture of Fort Christina in 1655. For those of you reading along at home, this is an abridged version of Book IV, chapters 6 and 7.
Just remember: none of this really happened. Or rather some of it did happen, but it definitely didn’t happen like this.
Like as a mighty alderman when at a corporation feast the first spoonful of turtle-soup salutes his palate feels his appetite but tenfold quickened and redoubles his vigorous attacks upon the tureen; so did the mettlesome Peter Stuyvesant feel that hunger for martial glory which raged within his bowels inflamed by the capture of Fort Casimir, and nothing could allay it but the conquest of all New Sweden.
He stumped resolutely on to gather fresh laurels at Fort Christina. This was the grand Swedish post established on a small river of the same name; and here that crafty governor Jan Risingh lay grimly drawn up, like a grey-bearded spider, in the citadel of his web.
He proceeded without delay to entrench himself, and immediately on running his first parallel, dispatched Antony Van Corlear to summon the fortress to surrender. Van Corlear was received with all due formality, hoodwinked at the portal, and conducted through a pestiferous smell of salt fish and onions to the citadel, a substantial hut built of pine logs. His eyes were here uncovered, and he found himself in the august presence of Governor Risingh. This chieftain, as I have before noted, was a very giantly man, and was clad in a coarse blue coat, strapped round the waist with a leathern belt which caused the enormous skirts and pockets to set off with a very warlike sweep. He was straddling in the attitude of the Colossus of Rhodes before a bit of broken looking-glass, shaving himself with a villainously dull razor.
On Antony Van Corlear’s being announced, the grim commander paused for a moment, and after eyeing him askance over the shoulder, with a kind of snarling grin on his countenance resumed his labors at the glass. This iron harvest being reaped, he turned once more to the trumpeter and demanded the purport of his errand. Antony Van Corlear delivered in a few words, being a kind of short-hand speaker, a long message from his excellency recounting the whole history of the province, with a recapitulation of grievances, and enumeration of claims, and concluding with a peremptory demand of instant surrender; which done, he turned aside, took his nose between his thumb and finger, and blew a tremendous blast not unlike the flourish of a trumpet of defiance, which it had doubtless learned from a long and intimate neighborhood with that melodious instrument.
Governor Risingh heard him through, trumpet and all, but with infinite impatience. Van Corlear having finished, he bluntly replied that Peter Stuyvesant and his summons might go to the devil, whither he hoped to send him and his crew of ragamuffins before supper time. Then unsheathing his brass-hilted sword, and throwing away the scabbard, “‘Fore gad,” quoth he, “but I will not sheathe thee again until I make a scabbard of the smoke-dried leathern hide of this runagate Dutchman.” Then having flung a fierce defiance in the teeth of his adversary by the lips of his messenger, the latter was reconducted to the portal with all the ceremonious civility due to the trumpeter, squire, and ambassador, of so great a commander; and being again unblinded, was courteously dismissed with a tweak of the nose, to assist him in recollecting his message.
No sooner did the gallant Peter receive this insolent reply than he let fly a tremendous volley of red-hot execrations, which would infallibly have battered down the fortifications and blown up the powder magazine about the ears of the fiery Swede had not the ramparts been remarkably strong and the magazine bomb proof. Perceiving that the works withstood this terrific blast, and that it was utterly impossible, as it really was in those unphilosophic days, to carry on a war with words, he ordered his merry men all to prepare for an immediate assault.
But here a strange murmur broke out among his troops, beginning with the tribe of the Van Bummels, those valiant trenchermen of the Bronx, and spreading from man to man, accompanied with certain mutinous looks and discontented murmurs. For once in his life, and only for once, did the great Peter turn pale; for he verily thought his warriors were going to falter in this hour of perilous trial, and thus to tarnish forever the fame of the province of New Netherlands.
But soon did he discover to his great joy that in this suspicion he deeply wronged this most undaunted army; for the cause of this agitation and uneasiness simply was that the hour of dinner was at hand and it would almost have broken the hearts of these regular Dutch warriors to have broken in upon the invariable routine of their habits. Besides, it was an established rule among our ancestors always to fight upon a full stomach, and to this may be doubtless attributed the circumstance that they came to be so renowned in arms.
The hearty men of the Manhattoes, and their no less hearty comrades, lustily engaged under the trees, buffeting stoutly with the contents of their wallets and taking such affectionate embraces of their canteens and pottles as though they verily believed they were to be the last.
Expectation now stood on stilts. The world forgot to turn round that it might witness the affray. The eyes of all mankind were turned upon Fort Cristina. The sun, like a little man in a crowd at a puppet-show, scampered about the heavens, popping his head here and there and endeavoring to get a peep between the unmannerly clouds that obtruded themselves in his way. Antiquity scowled sulkily out of its grave to see itself outdone; while even Posterity stood mute, gazing in gaping ecstasy of retrospection on the eventful field.
The immortal deities, who whilom had seen service at the affair of Troy, now mounted their feather-bed clouds and sailed over the plain, or mingled among the combatants in different disguises, all itching to have a finger in the pie. Jupiter sent off his thunderbolt to a noted coppersmith to have it furbished up for the direful occasion. Venus vowed by her chastity to patronize the Swedes, and in semblance of a blear-eyed trull paraded the battlements of Fort Christina, accompanied by Diana, as a sergeant’s widow of cracked reputation. The noted bully Mars stuck two horse-pistols into his belt, shouldered a rusty firelock, and gallantly swaggered at their elbow as a drunken corporal, while Apollo trudged in their rear as a bandy-legged fifer, playing most villainously out of tune.
On the other side the ox-eyed Juno, who had gained a pair of black eyes overnight in one of her curtain lectures with old Jupiter, displayed her haughty beauties on a baggage wagon; Minerva, as a brawny gin-suttler, tacked up her skirts, brandished her fists, and swore most heroically in exceeding bad Dutch by way of keeping up the spirits of the soldiers; while Vulcan halted as a club-footed blacksmith lately promoted to be a captain of militia. All was silent awe or bustling preparation, war reared his horrid front, gnashed loud his iron fangs, and shook his direful crest of bristling bayonets.
And now the mighty chieftains marshaled out their hosts. Here stood stout Risingh, firm as a thousand rocks, incrusted with stockades and in trenched to the chin in mud batteries. His valiant soldiery lined the breastwork in grim array, each having his mustachios fiercely greased, and his hair pomaded back, and queued so stiffly, that he grinned above the ramparts like a grisly death’s head.
There came on the intrepid Peter, his brows knit, his teeth set, his fists clenched, almost breathing forth volumes of smoke, so fierce was the fire that raged within his bosom. His faithful squire Van Corlear trudged valiantly at his heels, with his trumpet gorgeously bedecked with red and yellow ribands, the remembrances of his fair mistresses at the Manhattoes. Then came waddling on the sturdy chivalry of the Hudson. There were the Van Wycks, and the Van Dycks, and the Ten Eycks; the Van Nesses, the Van Tassels, the Van Grolls; the Van Hoesens, the Van Giesons, and the Van Blarcoms; the Van Warts, the Van Winkles, the Van Dams; the Van Pelts, the Van Rippers, and the Van Brunts. There were the Van Hornes, the Van Hooks, the Van Bunschotens; the Van Gelders, the Van Arsdales, and the Van Bummels; the Vander Belts, the Vander Hoofs, the Vander Voorts, the Vander Lyns, the Vander Pools, and the Vander Spiegles; there came the Hoffmans, the Hooglands, the Hoppers, the Cloppers, the Ryckmans, the Dyckmans, the Hogebooms, the Rosebooms, the Oothouts, the Quackenbosses, the Roerbacks, the Garrebrantzes, the Bensons, the Brouwers, the Waldrons, the Onderdonks, the Varra Vangers, the Schermerhorns, the Stoutenburghs, the Brinkerhoffs, the Bontecous, the Knickerbockers, the Hockstrassers, the Ten Breecheses, and the Tough Breecheses; with a host more of worthies whose names are too crabbed to be written, or if they could be written, it would be impossible for man to utter — all fortified with a mighty dinner, and, to use the words of a great Dutch poet, “Brimful of wrath and cabbage.”
For an instant the mighty Peter paused, and mounting on a stump, addressed his troops in eloquent Low Dutch, exhorting them to fight like duyvels and assuring them that if they conquered, they should get plenty of booty; if they fell, they should be allowed the satisfaction, while dying, of reflecting that it was in the service of their country; and after they were dead, of seeing their names inscribed in the temple of renown and handed down for the admiration of posterity. Finally he swore to them that if he caught any mother’s son of them looking pale or playing craven he would curry his hide till he made him run out of it like a snake in spring time.
Then lugging out his trusty sabre, he brandished it three times over his head, ordered Van Corlear to sound a charge, and shouting the words, “St. Nicholas and the Manhattoes!” courageously dashed forwards. His warlike followers, who had employed the interval in lighting their pipes, instantly stuck them into their mouths, gave a furious puff, and charged gallantly under cover of the smoke.
The Swedish garrison, ordered by the cunning Risingh not to fire until they could distinguish the whites of their assailants’ eyes, stood in horrid silence on the covert-way, until the eager Dutchmen had ascended the glacis. Then did they pour into them such a tremendous volley that the very hills quaked around. Not a Dutchman but would have bitten the dust beneath that dreadful fire had not the protecting Minerva kindly taken care that the Swedes should, one and all, observe their usual custom of shutting their eyes and turning away their heads at the moment of discharge.
The Swedes followed up their fire by leaping the counterscarp and falling tooth and nail upon the foe with furious outcries. And now might be seen prodigies of valor unmatched in history or song. Here was the sturdy Stoffel Brinkerhoff brandishing his quarter-staff like the giant Blanderon his oak tree and drumming a horrific tune upon the hard heads of the Swedish soldiery. There were the Van Kortlandts, posted at a distance like the Locrian archers of yore, and plying it most potently with the long-bow for which they were so justly renowned. On a rising knoll were gathered the valiant men of Sing-Sing, assisting marvelously in the fight by chanting the great song of St. Nicholas; but as to the Gardeniers of Hudson, they were absent on a marauding party, laying waste the neighboring water-melon patches.
In a different part of the field were the Van Grolls of Anthony’s Nose, struggling to get to the thickest of the fight but horribly perplexed in a defile between two hills by reason of the length of their noses. So also the Van Bunschotens of Nyack and Kakiat, so renowned for kicking with the left foot, were brought to a stand for want of wind in consequence of the hearty dinner they had eaten, and would have been put to utter rout but for the arrival of a gallant corps of voltigeurs, composed of the Hoppers, who advanced nimbly to their assistance on one foot. Nor must I omit to mention the valiant achievements of Antony Van Corlear, who, for a good quarter of an hour waged stubborn fight with a little pursy Swedish drummer, whose hide he drummed most magnificently and whom he would infallibly have annihilated on the spot but that he had come into the battle with no other weapon but his trumpet.
And now commenced the horrid din, the desperate struggle, the maddening ferocity, the frantic desperation, the confusion, and self-abandonment of war. Dutchman and Swede commingled, tugged, panted, and blowed. The heavens were darkened with a tempest of missives. Bang! went the guns; whack! went the broad-swords! thump! went the cudgels; crash! went the musket-stocks; blows, kicks, cuffs, scratches, black eyes, and bloody noses swelling the horrors of the scene! Thick thwack, cut and hack, helter skelter, higgledy-piggledy, hurly-burly, head over heels, rough and tumble! Dunder and blixum! swore the Dutchmen; splitter and splutter! cried the Swedes. Storm the works, shouted Hardkoppig Peter. Fire the mine, roared stout Risingh. Tanta-ra-ra-ra! twanged the trumpet of Antony Van Corlear, until all voice and sound became unintelligible; grunts of pain, yells of fury, and shouts of triumph mingling in one hideous clamor. The earth shook as if struck with a paralytic stroke; trees shrunk aghast and withered at the sight; rocks burrowed in the ground like rabbits; and even Christina Creek turned from its course and ran up a hill in breathless terror!
Long hung the contest doubtful; for though a heavy shower of rain in some measure cooled their ardor, as doth a bucket of water thrown on a group of fighting mastiffs, yet did they but pause for a moment to return with tenfold fury to the charge.
Just at this juncture a vast and dense column of smoke was seen slowly rolling toward the scene of battle. The combatants paused for a moment, gazing in mute astonishment until the wind, dispelling the murky cloud, revealed the flaunting banner of Michael Paw, the patroon of Communipaw. That valiant chieftain came fearlessly on at the head of a phalanx of oyster-fed Pavonians and a corps de reserve of the Van Arsdales and Van Bummels, who had remained behind to digest the enormous dinner they had eaten. These now trudged manfully forward, smoking their pipes with outrageous vigor, so as to raise the awful cloud that has been mentioned; but marching exceedingly slow, being short of leg, and of great rotundity in the belt.
Scarce had the myrmidons of Michael Paw attained the front of battle, when the Swedes, instructed by the cunning Risingh, leveled a shower of blows full at their tobacco- pipes. Astounded at this assault and dismayed at the havoc of their pipes, these ponderous warriors gave way and like a drove of frightened elephants broke through the ranks of their own army. The little Hoppers were borne down in the surge; the sacred banner emblazoned with the gigantic oyster of Communipaw was trampled in the dirt; on blundered and thundered the heavy-sterned fugitives, the Swedes pressing on their rear and applying their feet a parte poste of the Van Arsdales and the Van Bummels with a vigor that prodigiously accelerated their movements.
But what, O Muse! was the rage of Peter Stuyvesant, when from afar he saw his army giving way! In the transports of his wrath he sent forth a roar enough to shake the very hills. The daring Peter dashed, sword in hand, into the thickest of the foe. Then might be seen achievements worthy of the days of the giants. Wherever he went, the enemy shrank before him; the Swedes fled to right and left, or were driven, like dogs, into the own ditch; but, as he pushed forward singly with headlong courage, the foe closed behind and hung upon his rear. One aimed a blow full at his heart; but the protecting power which watches over the great and the good turned aside the hostile blade and directed it to a side pocket, where reposed an enormous iron tobacco-box, endowed, like the shield of Achilles, with supernatural powers. Peter Stuyvesant turned like an angry bear upon the foe, and seizing him as he fled by an immeasurable queue. “Ah, whoreson caterpillar,” roared he, “here’s what shall make worms’ meat of thee!” So saying, he whirled his sword and dealt a blow that would have decapitated the varlet, but that the pitying steel struck short and shaved the queue forever from his crown. At this moment an arquebusier leveled his piece from a neighboring mound with deadly aim; but the watchful Minerva, seeing the peril of her favorite hero, sent old Boreas with his bellows, who, as the match descended to the pan, gave a blast that blew the priming from the touch-hole.
Thus waged the fight, when the stout Risingh, surveying the field from the top of a little ravelin, perceived his troops banged, beaten, and kicked by the invincible Peter. Drawing his falchion and uttering a thousand anathemas, he strode down to the scene of combat with some such thundering strides as Jupiter is said to have taken when he strode down the spheres to hurl his thunderbolts at the Titans.
When the rival heroes came face to face, each made prodigious start in the style of a veteran stage champion. Then did they regard each other for a moment with the bitter aspect of two furious ram-cats on the point of a clapper-clawing. Then did they throw themselves into one attitude, then into another, striking their swords on the ground, first on the right side, then on the left; at last at it they went, with incredible ferocity. Words cannot tell the prodigies of strength and valor displayed in this direful encounter — an encounter compared to which the far-famed battles of Ajax with Hector, of Aeneas with Turnus, Orlando with Rodomont, Guy of Warwick and Colbrand the Dane, or of Sir Owen of the Mountains with the giant Guylon – were all gentle sports and holiday recreations. At length the valiant Peter, watching his opportunity, aimed a blow enough to cleave his adversary to the very chine; but Risingh, nimbly raising his sword, warded it off so narrowly that glancing on one side it shaved away a huge canteen in which he carried his liquor: thence pursuing its trenchant course, it severed off a deep coat pocket, stored with bread and cheese.
Enraged to see his military stores laid waste, the stout Risingh, collecting all his forces, aimed a mighty blow full at the hero’s crest. In vain did his fierce little cocked hat oppose its course. The biting steel clove through the stubborn ram beaver and would have cracked the crown of any one not endowed with supernatural hardness of head; but the brittle weapon shivered in pieces on the skull of Hardkoppig Piet, shedding a thousand sparks, like beams of glory, round his grizzly visage. The good Peter reeled with the blow, and turning up his eyes, beheld a thousand suns, beside moons and stars, dancing about the firmament; at length, missing his footing by reason of his wooden leg, down he came on his seat of honor with a crash which shook the surrounding hills and might have wrecked his frame had he not been received into a cushion softer than velvet, which Providence or Minerva, or St. Nicholas, or some kindly cow, had benevolently prepared for his reception.
The furious Risingh, in despite of the maxim cherished by all true knights that “fair play is a jewel,” hastened to take advantage of the hero’s fall; but, as he stooped to give a fatal blow, Peter Stuyvesant dealt him a thwack over the sconce with his wooden leg, which set a chime of bells ringing triple bob majors in his cerebellum. The bewildered Swede staggered with the blow, and the wary Peter seizing a pocket-pistol which lay hard by, discharged it full at the head of the reeling Risingh. Let not my reader mistake; it was not a murderous weapon loaded with powder and ball, but a little sturdy stone pottle charged to the muzzle with a double dram of true Dutch courage which the knowing Antony Van Corlear carried about him by way of replenishing his valor, and which had dropped from his wallet during his furious encounter with the drummer. The hideous weapon sang through the air and encountered the head of the gigantic Swede with matchless violence.
This heaven-directed blow decided the battle. The ponderous pericranium of General Jan Risingh sank upon his breast; his knees tottered under him; a death-like torpor seized upon his frame, and he tumbled to the earth with such violence that old Pluto started with affright, lest he should have broken through the roof of his infernal palace.
His fall was the signal of defeat and victory; the Swedes gave way, the Dutch pressed forward; the former took to their heels, the latter hotly pursued. Some entered with them pell mell through the sallyport, others stormed the bastion, and others scrambled over the curtain. Thus in a little while the fortress of Fort Christina, which, like another Troy, had stood a siege of full ten hours, was carried by assault, without the loss of a single man on either side. Victory, in the likeness of a gigantic ox-fly, sat perched on the cocked hat of the gallant Stuyvesant; and it was declared by all the writers whom he hired to write the history of his expedition that on this memorable day he gained a sufficient quantity of glory to immortalize a dozen of the greatest heroes in Christendom!