The Island at the Center of the World
Russell Shorto
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Buy *The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America* online

The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America
Russell Shorto
400 pages
March 2004
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Charles Gehring spent thirty years translating documents about the Dutch colonization of what would become New York, the state and, notably, the island of Manhattan. A few years ago his toils were finally noted by the author of this ground-breaking book, Russell Shorto. Shorto in turn spent three years digging through the archives created by Gehring, and together they created a detailed history of “the forgotten colony that shaped America.”

Schoolchildren learn that the Hudson River was discovered and charted by its eponymous first explorer, an Englishman. But most don’t realize that Hudson, who had driven himself literally around the bend trying to find a northern route to the legendary land of Cathay, was on the payroll of the Dutch when he sailed west. Hudson later died at the hands of a mutinous crew who correctly figured him for a madman, “set adrift in three hundred thousand miles of ice-choked sea” -- but not before returning to the Dutch merchants who employed him a report that included words that “jumped out at them…money-laden nouns…skins and peltries, martins, foxes and many other commodities.” A chance for the Dutch to be contenders in the competition for wealth in the New World.

According to Shorto, “English and Dutch colonies represented the extreme conservative and liberal wings” of American settlement. Growing up nearly simultaneously with the strict Puritan colonies farther north, and in contrast to them, the Dutch in New Amsterdam were tolerant, dealt honorably with the local native tribes, and raised considerable hell despite their Calvinist roots. The island at the center of the world was a raucous, lawless place, ungoverned and damn near ungovernable. Into the chaos stepped one Willem Kieft, determined to succeed in his mandate from the Dutch West India Company to get things running smoothly. Kieft wound up provoking a violent war with neighboring Indian tribes, resulting in “something that had heretofore been unachievable: the unification of area tribes…aimed at slaughtering Europeans," thus adding to instead of subtracting from the colonists’ list of woes.

Kieft’s management style having failed, there came the laid-back, tolerant Van der Donck who roamed the woods of New York living among and observing the Indians, their cooking, child-rearing, and ceremonies with a sociologist’s zeal. Diversity was a’borning, but there was still no orderly governance of the colony that wasn’t. Founded as a commercial venture, run by merchants with no particular moral code, the place that was to become The Big Apple was early establishing its right to be different.

In stumped one Peter Stuyvesant, the man with the wooden leg. He’d lost his limb battling the Spanish in the Carribean and he was nobody’s fool. Narrow-minded and one-sighted, he strove to make the unkempt territory a thoroughly Dutch, thoroughly obedient entity. And he failed. He lost the enterprise to the English, without a shot being fired. Even his own child refused to stand up and defend the island, since the merchants back in the Netherlands hadn’t even bothered to send reinforcements to help Stuyvesant hold on to their property. The English offered good terms and Stuyvesant would have been crazy to turn them down, though it cost him his pride to let go, and he declared, truthfully, “I would much rather be carried out dead.”

Given the designation “Manahatta” for the Delaware Indian word for “hilly island,” the city first formally named New Amersterdam became the anglicized “New York.” This led to the misperception that the east coast of North America was monolithically English, and New England, Puritanical. No so. Attesting to its origins in the Low Countries are the many Dutch place names in New York: the Bouwerie, Bruckelen, Jonckers, along with uniquely American slang that came out of Manhattan – boss, cole slaw, and cookie.

But more compelling is the difference in basic attitude that New York glories in to this day – it’s the melting pot of the melting pot, tolerant towards every new influx of immigrants, exuberant and tough, able to weather the worst shocks with a defiance all its own. “It was a society that was both haphazard and planned,” and both elements are apparent to residents and tourists alike. Ironically, the strike on 9-11 went to the heart of “the few square acres of lower Manhattan that was once called New Amsterdam.” That was a proving moment, and modern Manhattanites showed their stuff then as never before.

This new history book will do them proud.

© 2004 by Barbara Bamberger Scott for Curled Up With a Good Book

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