In a landmark work of history, Russell Shorto presents astonishing information on the founding of our nation and reveals in riveting detail the crucial role of the Dutch in making America what it is today. In the late 1960s, an archivist in the New York State Library made an astounding discovery: 12,000 pages of centuries-old correspondence, court cases, legal contracts, and reports from a forgotten society: the Dutch colony centered on Manhattan, which predated the thirteen "original" American colonies. For the past thirty years scholar Charles Gehring has been translating this trove, which was recently declared a national treasure. Now, Russell Shorto has made use of this vital material to construct a sweeping narrative of Manhattan's founding that gives a startling, fresh perspective on how America began. In an account that blends a novelist's grasp of storytelling with cutting-edge scholarship, The Island at the Center of the World strips Manhattan of its asphalt, bringing us back to a wilderness island, a hunting ground for Indians, populated by wolves and bears, that became a prize in the global power struggle between the English and the Dutch. Indeed, Russell Shorto shows that America's founding was not the work of English settlers alone but a result of the clashing of these two seventeenth century powers. In fact, it was Amsterdam, Europe's most liberal city, with an unusual policy of tolerance and a polyglot society dedicated to free trade, that became the model for the city of New Amsterdam on Manhattan. While the Puritans of New England were founding a society based on intolerance, on Manhattan the Dutch created a free-trade, upwardly-mobile melting pot that would help shape not only New York, but America. The story moves from the halls of power in London and The Hague to bloody naval encounters on the high seas. The characters in the saga-the men and women who played a part in Manhattan's founding, range from the philosopher Rene Descartes to James, the Duke of York, to prostitutes and smugglers. At the heart of the story is a bitter power struggle between two men: Peter Stuyvesant, the autocratic director of the Dutch colony, and a forgotten American hero named Adriaen van der Donck, a maverick, liberal-minded lawyer whose brilliant political gamesmanship, commitment to individual freedom, and exuberant love of his new country would have a lasting impact on the history of this nation.
Filled with details about the lives and trials of famous historical figures such as Henry Hudson, after whom the Hudson River is named, Peter Minuit and Peter Stuyvesant, the one-legged governor who lost Manhattan to the English in 1664, this book also covers lesser known individuals such as Adriaen van der Donck, who proposed and fought for more representative government, free speech and tolerance.
This reads more like an adventurous novel than it does a history book, and I credit Shorto's wonderfully descriptive style for bringing to life the people, sights, smells, thrills and tragedies to the reader.
Quibbles for the weasally language (he must have seen...) for the details that there's no evidence for, and for the suspicion that he started with his premise and then looked for evidence to support it. A good writing style.
The writing is also marred by the use (abuse, really) of phrases such as "he must've been...", "he must have thought...", "he must have wanted...", and their like. Shorto uses these in an awkward attempt to enter the inner lives of some of the central historical characters he presents -- but the problem with this approach, of course, is that there's no way for us (or Shorto) to know what any of these individuals were really thinking or feeling at the time. Shorto would have done better to stick to relating the "facts" of the story, which are dramatic enough in their own right (not to mention highly disputed in some cases). His repeated attempts to portray the thoughts and feelings of his main characters has the weird effect of appearing to fictionalize them, ultimately detracting from the sense of the historical reality of these persons--rather the opposite of bringing history to life. Seems Shorto couldn't decide if he was writing history or historical fiction, and the result is somewhat irritating for the reader interested in history.
Despite these flaws, though, an informative and sometimes surprising look at a crucial period in the history of an important city (New Amsterdam/New York) and the development of what would become the United States.
The author's claim that the Dutch traditions and culture shaped the future New York are widely exaggerated. The original Wall Street may have given its name to the location but was in no way responsible for the future financial center of the world. Only as New York did the town gain access to the large British markets and become the center of the Atlantic seaboard.
The book also suffers from the author's muddled allegiance. His fervent promotion of the USA as the bestest and greatest-ever nation clashes with his equally fervent pleading for Dutch culture and civilization. He missed to learn that there are many great places to live on this planet. Not all roads lead to New York. Staying in Amsterdam can be just as pleasant. One constant feature of the Dutch project of New Amsterdam was that it relied on outsiders (Frisians, Walloons) because the Dutch city slickers preferred the riches and comforts of home. Demography made New Amsterdam English, as the Dutch lacked the English reservoirs of misery in Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The Thirty Years' War had depleted the German population which might have supplied the numbers for the Dutch. Overall, though the Dutch escaped without economic losses from their American colony as the English accorded them large trade privileges. The Dutch later repaid perfidious Albion by supporting the American Revolution from the beginning.
The narrative examines the history of the Dutch settlements between English New England and Swedish Delaware starting with the exploration by Henry Hudson of the river once named for him. Relationships within the colonies, to the Netherlands, with other European colonists, and with the indigenous peoples are explored. Some familiar names such as Peter Minuit and Peter Stuyvesant pop up, but the key figure is the less well-known Adriaen van der Donck, whom Shorto considers a candidate for the founding father of New York. He's remembered indirectly by way of his honorific Jonkheer, became the name of the city built on his former estate, Yonkers.
Shorto argues that what the Dutch created in New Amsterdam ended up having lasting influence on the future United States. Coleslaw and Santa Claus are just a couple of things that the Dutch colony introduced to the Americas. More specifically, Shorto illustrates how Manhattan became an early center of religious tolerance, cultural plurality, and free trade, all things embraced by Americans, albeit awkwardly in balance with the Puritan traditions handed down from our New England forebears.
There has been significant new research which helped the author tell his story in great detail. Since the 1970's the records of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam have been being translated and published. They figure prominently in the copious bibliography. The ample footnotes also attest to the amount of research that went into this book.
This was the beginning of the colonial era in the Americas. The Dutch had recently won their freedom from Spain and were getting wealthy from the spice trade. The colony was run by the West India Company and Peter Stuyvesant worked in Curacao before he took over New Amsterdam in 1647. There is a very striking portrait of him in the illustrations. He has dark eyes and a steely stare. His portrait is right above that of Adriaen van der Donck who led the opposition against Stuyvesant in a battle for self government by the colonists. That struggle is a large part of the story of the colony. In addition to self government the colonists fought for freedom of speech and dissent. The personalities of Stuyvesant and van der Donck and the political struggle dominated the narration. There was a foreshadowing of the American Revolution in the political struggle of the colonists.
I did not think that the writing gave justice to the story. At times the author seemed to just plod along filling in the narrative. It did seem to move better towards the end but I learned more from the book more than I enjoyed reading it. The one item that kept up my interest was the variety of items that this country inherited from the Dutch. Many of the boroughs of New York of course but odd items like the office of District Attorney which did not exist in English law. I did feel that I learned a lot. The Dutch were definitely a factor in American colonial life. They occupied all of New York and parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. To the extent the book satisfied my curiosity it was a worthwhile read. I don't think I would want to read it again.
I suppose this explains why I felt immediately at home when I moved to the Netherlands almost 20 years ago.
I found the Catholic and Protestant arguments fascinating- as well as the Monarchists vs Republics viewpoints.
The idea of a Dutch contribution to American history seems novel at first, but that is because early American history was written by Englishmen,
The Indians were as skilled, as duplicitous, as capable of theological rumination and technological cunning, as smart and as pig headed, and as curious and as cruel as the Europeans who met them.
On the difference between mainstream parenting elsewhere in the world and in the low countries in the 17th century;
The Dutch thinking was the opposite; they hugged and coddled their children, ignoring the scorn of outsiders and following their own experts.
He shows at least that some of the Dutch colonists were aware of the nuances in the Indians' understanding of property rights, noting that to the natives "wind, stream, bush, field, sea, beach, and riverside are open and free to everyone of every nation with which the Indians are not embroiled in open conflict."
In the early 1640’s, however, one of those epochal changes of thinking began to occur in the minds of men from different nations and traditions. The new mind-set had its intellectual origins, most notably, in the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius, the man who was the guiding light to Adriaen van der Donck and other law students of the era. Twenty years before, Grotius had put forth the idiosyncratic proposition that peace was the natural state of mature, civilized nations, an war ought to be considered only as a last resort, and even then should only be governed by rules to which all parties subscribed.
Even the Dutch vs English notion of 'who gets what' on discovering new land differs and opens ownership up to conflict.
Stuyvesant despised Jews, loathed Catholics, recoiled at Quakers, and reserved a special hatred for Lutherans. Which is to say, he was the very model of a well-bred mid-seventeenth-century European.
I find this totally repugnant;
Out of the Puritans' exceptionalism--their belief that the Old World had succumbed to wickedness and they had been charged by God to save humanity by founding a new society was similarly divinely anointed. In 1845, journalist John O'Sullivan coined the phrase that would carry this doctrine forward across the continent when he declared "the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole continent which providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self government."
What matters about the Dutch colony is that it set Manhattan on course as a place of openness and free trade. A new kind of spirit hovered over the island, something utterly alien to New England and Virginia, which is directly traceable to the tolerance debates in Holland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and to the intellectual world of Descartes, Grotius, and Spinoza.
This was just laughable (regarding that the Dutch hadn't made important contributions to America);
...he found it particularly ludicrous that so great and powerful a country as the United States could have gotten where it had by "following the example of the policy of the petty cheese-paring of the Batavian provinces, with their windmills, and barren soil, fit only for fuel..."
While interesting, Shorto's desire to place the Dutch at the center of American origins is overdone. Shorto is a journalist not an historian and it shows when he tries to directly connect New Amsterdam's diversity with today's ethnic and cultural pluralism. Fortunately, Shorto's book is good enough to easily overcome the distraction of that thesis.
Shorto also provides a lesson in the 'history of history' when he describes a circular process whereby this chapter has been overlooked because the raw materials had never been accurately translated until the 1970's and the materials were never sought because of the Anglocentric view of American history. These materials now allow the telling of a much fuller history of Dutch America.
All in all, a very worthy addition to your collection of American history and an enjoyable read. Highly recommended.
Even better were the litte 'extras' about how 17th century Dutch language and culture has trickled down to make up part of the American identity.
The American history I was taught started with the Pilgrims and then fast forwarded to the Revolution. The implication was that there was nothing else of interest.
This book starts in the 1620's covering the early colonial history with a focus on the Dutch settlement on what is now New York City. It is apparent that this colony had a dramatic effect on the personality of the English colony that followed and on the Democracy that was established to replace it.
Given my personal interest in history and the fascinating era this book covers I had high expectations that were not met. The author has a round about writing style that I found difficult to follow. He tends to skip around in time and geography following a thread that I was unable to see. When introducing one of the most influential characters it took two pages to get to revealing his name.
I found this book so difficult and frustrating I only made it half way through. Of the dozen people in the book group only two finished the book.
If you persevere you can learn quite a bit from this book, I just found that I did not have the energy to expend.
It is from them that we get boss, Santa Claus, coleslaw, cookies instead of the English biscuit.
The book "The Island at the Center of the World" was only possible thanks to the discovery of a large collection of first-hand documents relating to New Netherlands Shorto starts with a lengthy introduction on how the collection was found, how they found some one with exactly the right experience and knowledge to translate, how the salary to pay him was organised and then how he's been translating over the last 40 years. After a while you're thinking "just get to the damn history of New Netherlands." You'll be pleased to hear that Shorto does eventually start writing about the book's actual topic.
We then read of Manhattan's rise under the Dutch to what could almost be called a city before the English invasion. We get to hear a lot about the main figures in Manhattan's Dutch history, from the managers to the farmers, the brewers, the prostitutes and even the chap who used a stick to perform some eye watering damage to an Indian's groin. And then there is the reference to the amazing powers of beaver testicles.
A well-researched tome that I would have enjoyed more had I been a New Yorker but still worth the read.
Although I had read of Peter Stuyvesant, I had never heard of Andriaen van der Donck--and I suspect I am not alone. Because of him, I forgive the audible book its shortcomings. It is definitely worth the read, but be prepared to wish to skim certain portions.