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.