The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America
by Russell Shorto
In telling the story of the Dutch settlement of New Netherlands, centered at the town of New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island, Shorto makes a forceful case that they had a much greater impact on the liberal culture of the United States than has been generally acknowledged. He covers the colony from Hudson’s discovery in 1609 to the handover to the British in 1664 and its final gasp in 1673 when New York was briefly retaken by the Dutch during the Third Anglo-Dutch War.
While it is well known that there was an early Dutch presence in New York, about the only detail that is generally recalled is Peter Minuit’s famous “purchase” of Manhattan Island. Nearly everything else, he argues, has been forgotten due to the Anglo-centric view of the English colonists whose foundation myth focused on the ethics of the Plymouth Colony. Much of the recent understanding has come to light due to the efforts of Charles Gehring of the New Netherlands Project who has been translating over 12,000 pages of colonial records written in difficult Dutch script for over 30 years now. Other documents continue to be uncovered in Holland and elsewhere. Characters who would have otherwise been lost to history, such as Adriaen Van der Donck, who fought hard against Peter Stuyvesant’s autocratic governance both in America and back home in Holland, have been brought to light by Gehring’s efforts.
Significantly New York originated as a commercial enterprise and not a religious one, which has shaped the values of the city to this day. This specific point was made by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace in their recent book Gotham, but they didn’t tie it so directly to its Dutch origins.
Shorto shows that a multiethnic society was present in New Amsterdam from its very beginnings, reflecting the general openness of the mother country, which was accepting of other nationalities and religions. This is contrasted with the Puritanism of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was pressuring from the north. It’s remarkable to consider that values of a city as sprawling as New York or a nation like America could still be derivative of those of a few hundred colonists nearly four hundred years ago, but he develops these points well; for example, he says of the English:
Out of the Puritan’s 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 in a new world—grew the American belief that American society was similarly divinely anointed.
At times Shorto seems to minimize any negative aspects of New Amsterdam in his efforts to highlight its liberal nature, such as with his scant descriptions of slavery and the plight of even free blacks in the colony (I thought Burrows and Wallace did a better job in this regard). Also, he writes in a novelistic style which can sometimes seem overdone (how does he know the sun was glistening off the waves on that day?), but overall this was an eye-opening, well researched, highly-readable work.