Peter Plockhoy's Unknown End
The founder of Zwaanendael imagined it as a utopia. His ultimate fate remains a mystery.
Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper
Perhaps Peter Plockhoy (ca. 1620-ca. 1670) should have considered it an omen when he saw the corpse of Oliver Cromwell dragged through London in 1660.
A Dutch utopian, Plockhoy spent three years in London, trying to drum up support for a colony in Delaware. That effort came to nothing, though Plockhoy later found backers in Amsterdam. In July 1663, he and 24 families arrived and settled near present-day Lewes, a place they called Zwaanendael, “Valley of the Swans.”
The settlement lasted a year. In 1664, English troops led by Col. Richard Carr seized Dutch-controlled Delaware and burned the Zwaanendael settlement to the ground. As demonstrated by the restoration of the English monarchy, England had lost its taste for counter-cultural ideas about living without kings or war.
“In Carr’s eyes, a bunch of weirdoes and seditious heretics, and his mission to root them out, was merely extending policies already enacted in England,” wrote historian Bart Plantenga. “To this end, he followed orders beyond any call of duty.”
Born in the port city of Zierikzee, Plockhoy came of age during the Eighty-Year War (1568-1648), during which the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands) struggled to escape Spanish rule. Spain was a Catholic country, so the resistance also took an anti-Catholic form.
“Science, logic and pragmatism threatened traditional orthodoxies,” wrote Plantenga. “Rampages of iconoclasm—the smashing of Catholic images—by roving bands led by Protestant nobles and Calvinist exiles occurred in Zeeland and throughout Holland.”
Little seems to be known of Plockhoy’s family background. He was, however, a childhood friend of Galenus de Haan, the son of a Mennonite preacher. At the time, the Mennonites were split between bickering traditionalists and a progressive, anti-sectarian wing that styled itself as “collegiants.”
Collegiants advocated replacing most of organized religion with informal meetings at which people of various faiths would gather to sing Psalms, read scripture, and discuss both the Bible and contemporary issues. Plockhoy and his friend de Haan became enthusiastic Collegiants.
From Zierikzee, Plockhoy moved on to Amsterdam, where he worked as either a tinsmith or carpenter. But that was only his day job. Plockhoy also became a fixture in Amsterdam’s intellectual circles, where the hot topics of the day were improving the lot of the poor and improving civic virtue. That seems safe enough, but Plockhoy seems to have attracted controversy. Dutch historian Henk Looijesteijn cites “loose sexual morals,” as well as a public defense of polygamy.
According to Plantenga, Plockhoy responded affirmatively when a Collegiant discussion posed a theoretical question: “When a man by marriage is bound to a woman, may he sleep with his maid-servant without transgression?” Plockhoy simply noted that the Bible cited several examples of polygamy without criticism. Some agreed, but conservative backlash may have been responsible for Plockhoy’s decision to move to London in the late 1650s.
England was in its Commonwealth period. The last king, Charles I, had been beheaded in 1649, at the end of the English civil war, and a republic had been declared. The power of the state church had also been reduced, unleashing a wave of sects and religious experimenters. In such an environment, Plockhoy thought he might win official support for a proposal to found an idealistic community, somewhere removed from the sins of the world.
“Looking round-about me, where to make a beginning to rectifie those evils, I found no better object in Christendome then the Lord Protector,” wrote Plockhoy, referring to Cromwell, who had taken the reins of government after the king’s death. Plockhoy won several audiences with Cromwell, lobbying him to replace the Church of England with a Collegiant system.
Cromwell was apparently sympathetic, but died in 1658 without acting on any of Plockhoy’s ideas. When Charles II, son of Charles I, restored the monarchy two years later, his vengeance for the execution of his father extended to plucking Cromwell’s corpse from his grave for a posthumous “execution.” He posted Cromwell’s head on a spike at Westminster Hall.
Plockhoy subsequently published their correspondence in a pamphlet, “A Way Propounded to make the Poor in these and other Nations Happy.” He envisioned the poor, rather than struggle individually, living communally according to Christ’s tenets and avoiding sin. Receptivity to such ideas declined rapidly after the restoration, however. In 1661, Plockhoy returned to Amsterdam and began to lobby the managers of the Netherlands’ American colony.
He got lucky. New Netherland had never attracted many farmers because earlier immigrants had preferred fur trading. So the magistrates of Amsterdam agreed to fund a colony “to work at farming, fishing, handicrafts, etc.” Plockhoy and his followers sailed in May 1663 aboard the ship St. Jacob.
It wasn’t quite utopia after all. The natives never attacked, but their reception of the newcomers was cool enough that Plockhoy eventually agreed to post sentries. The colony wrote a criminal code.
“Plockhoy also discovered, to his disillusionment, that he had to coerce others into rotating decision-making responsibilities and new tasks,” wrote Plantenga. Still, Zwaanendael survived.
Then came the English. England had long disliked having a Dutch colony located between New England and its southern colonies, so in August 1664, an English squadron seized New Amsterdam, which subsequently became New York. A month later, Carr’s detachment—small, but big enough to intimidate Zwaanendael—arrived to announce that the settlement would be burned.
“Some historians maintain that several settlers were slain, others driven into the wilderness,” wrote Plantenga. “As (Peter) Stuyvesant notes in his diaries, they had ‘demanded good treatment which, however, they did not obtain.’”
The fate of Plockhoy, who completely missed that omen in London, is unknown.