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Book Review: The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto

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We all grew up in our American history classes with the image of peg-legged old Peter Stuyvesant ruling chaotically over the short-lived Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. They were a sorry lot, these Dutch, who didn’t understand what they had on Manhattan, an island that awaited the organizational verve of the English to finally get under way toward its present greatness.

Would you believe that this view of the Dutch is a lot of poppycock? According to author Russell Shorto, it is that and worse. His The Island at the Center of the World, published by Doubleday, tells the story of the Dutch colonization of Manhattan and large portions of the land around that island in the seventeenth century. Because the actual Dutch records of that colonization have only recently been unearthed from libraries, we’ve more or less accepted the view of Dutch incompetence that has been foisted upon us by history. That is, by English history.

As Winston Churchill famously remarked, history is written by the victors, and in this case, the English won the day when they laid a naval blockade on Manhattan in 1664 and took over the colony. According to Shorto, that triumph resulted in a very skewed and inaccurate presentation of what the Dutch achieved in Manhattan, and therefore of what American culture owes them.

The main character is, of course, Peter Stuyvesant, the man who surrendered to the English. When he arrived in New Amsterdam in 1647, the town had just a few hundred citizens and was located at the very southern tip of Manhattan Island, around the area of present-day Battery Park. It was low, rude and dirty.

Stuyvesant was the representative of the Dutch West India Company, which had founded the colony. Subject to very poor leadership, the town was in need of a clear-headed, strong-minded leader, and Stuyvesant certainly was both of those. He was also a company man, and the idea of the citizens ruling themselves in any sort of way was simply beneath Stuyvesant’s notice. It would be madness, the antithesis to the seventeenth century idea that God grants the right to lead only to the right sort of person and that all the rest should follow. The leveling sentiments of the American Revolution were 130 years away in the unforeseeable future.

But there were a few others in New Amsterdam who viewed themselves as viable contenders to lead the colony, and one of these was Adrian Van der Donck. An educated attorney who had taken full advantage of the new liberalisms of thought offered in Dutch universities by such as Descartes, Grotius and Spinoza, he had arrived in the colony some years before. The Dutch were already known for their tolerance of modes of thought and behavior other than their own. A great trading people, a people of the sea, the Dutch had for centuries been aware of the diversity of peoples elsewhere in the world. Amsterdam itself was noted for its polyglot, diverse culture, and Van der Donck had seen all this.

Van der Donck is the second protagonist of this remarkable book, and it is the ongoing struggle between these two men that fills its pages. Van der Donck and some others plagued Stuyvesant for years by pleading the case before him, and then before the Dutch Estates General in Amsterdam, that the Dutch West India Company’s rule was stifling to the citizens of the colony and, worse, lousy for business. Stuyvesant, in their view, ruled badly with an iron-hand. Commerce was stifled by his authoritarian rigidity. The rising English and Swedish power in the region, based in the sizable colonies that those two countries had established nearby, was a continuing threat. Van der Donck and his friends presented brief after brief to the Estates in an attempt to break the Dutch West India Company’s autocratic hold over Manhattan and to replace it with a more republican-style government devoted to open trade.

They made remarkable progress with this idea and indeed the Dutch government had arrived at the moment of voiding the West India Company’s contract in the colony. But ultimately these efforts failed because of England’s Oliver Cromwell and his wish to break up the Dutch influence on the seas. It began as a trade war and then became a real one when the First Anglo-Dutch War broke out in July, 1652. Van der Donck and the Dutch West India Company suddenly changed in the eyes of the Dutch government. War made the company’s seeming stability in the colony appear all-important. It also made them think that Van der Donck perhaps was not really the progressive man of brilliant ideas for commerce and governance, but rather a dangerous agent of change who could ruin The Netherlands’ efforts to defend its own territory.

Stuyvesant was back in charge. Van der Donck was out in the cold.

But the long-term effects of his efforts lasted beyond the war and beyond the Dutch colony itself. They resulted in much that became very important to the development of the American colonies and, finally, the United States. “Van der Donck’s dream became real in a way he never imagined,” Shorto writes. “The structure he helped win for the place grounded it in Dutch tolerance and diversity, just as he hoped it would, which in turn touched off the island’s rapid growth and increased the influx of settlers from around Europe, just as he predicted. What he didn’t predict was that the English would appreciate this fact, and maintain the structure, and that it would support a future culture of unprecedented energy and vitality and creativity.”

One of the most interesting stories in this book is that of what happened to the documents that were kept by the Dutch colony and its officers. This trove of papers that go so far in explaining the complexity of the issues of New Netherland lay unnoticed for a few hundred years in various libraries. Only in the 1970’s, when the translation of the papers to English finally began, did the importance of the Dutch influence in New York begin to get truly clarified.

The last chapter of The Island at the Center of the World is a little coda in which Shorto tells of the journey of the records of the colony over two and a half centuries, in the New World and the Old, always out of the public eye.

It is a riveting small essay on great good fortune. If you do not value librarians and those who care about the written record, you should read this chapter. It will certainly set you straight because these New Netherland papers survived through swashbuckling derring-do and because of a deep concern for history on the part of a very few individuals over the centuries.

The records were neglected, subject to mould, fire, wars and general indifference. But they remain more or less intact now because of the lucky interest of the few individuals that seemed to understand what they had in hand. Without them, the records would have perished, this book wouldn’t have been written and the ongoing revelations of the true importance of the Dutch Manhattan colony would have been lost to us.

For those interested in why New York is New York, and why the United States developed the way it did, those efforts – and this book – are invaluable.

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About Terence Clarke