The Island at the Center Of the World — Russell Shorto

This fascinating book is a new examination of the earliest days of New York City, focusing on its days as the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. While most NYC histories brush past this period pretty quickly, Shorto makes a convincing case that the Dutch origins of New York are responsible for its unique place in the country now and in fact for much of the modern American character. The flag of the City of New York got its colors from the seventeenth-century Dutch flag, and the influence goes much deeper than that. The story of New York’s founding and commercial origins has been told many times, but I’ve never read anything with as much detail and thought given to how the Dutch era influenced the political character of the city and of America.

In addition to a new perspective, Shorto made great use of a documentary treasure trove, the handwritten archives of the Dutch colony, being translated by Charles Gehring of the New York State Library’s New Netherland Project. Using the published and unpublished work, as well as Gehring’s expertise, Shorto paints New York as having had its unique character – “the first multiethnic, upwardly mobile society on America’s shores” – from the very beginning. He also finds a previously unheard-of hero, the Junker (landowner) who gave Yonkers its name, a lawyer named Adriaen van der Donck, a lawyer who petitioned European overlords for democratic representation 150 years before the Declaration of Independence was written.

The Netherlands (Shorto points out that “Holland” was just one of the united provinces that formed the country) was the center of multiculturalism and free thought in the 17th century. The melting pot of Europe, it welcomed refugees from the insane wars of religious persecution going on all over the continent at the time. Descartes lived there as did John Locke, and the focus of the entire country was on business. The Wall Street Journal’s motto of “Free markets, free people” was in effect in its original sense; the Dutch republic was the only republic in a continent of monarchies. One half of all the books published in the world in the 17th century were published in the Netherlands, [95] and religious tolerance was so pervasive that the Puritans, who’d fled persecution in England, fled the corrupting openness of Dutch society to found the New England colonies. The colony the Dutch founded in America was a businesslike trading center featuring people of every stripe.

The original Dutch colonists got along quite well with the Native Americans (Shorto refers to them as “Indians” throughout; interestingly enough van der Donck was the first to refer to them as “Americans”), learning their languages and respecting their cultures. English colonialism usually involved taking over the country; Dutch colonialism involved setting up trading outposts and doing business.

New Netherland became a refuge for those fleeing the religious persecution so common in the English colonies, all founded by refugees from religious persecution who, in turn, persecuted anyone they didn’t agree with. Anne Hutchison settled in the Bronx after being chased out of Massachussetts, and Lady Deborah Moody founded Gravesend, the first English settlement in what is now New York City, for the same reason.

Van der Donck describes one such refugee:

He came to New England at the commencement of the troubles in England, in order to escape them, and found that he had got out of the frying pan into the fire. He betook himself, in consequence, under the protection of the Netherlanders, in order that he may, according to the Dutch reformation, enjoy freedom of conscience, which he unexpectedly missed in New England.” [159]

Once it was declared a free-trade zone (meaning you didn’t have to sell only to the Dutch West India Company), it was somewhat successful, although not nearly as much as the company’s Caribbean and South American properties. Then Willem Kieft was appointed director in 1638. He ruled as an absolute dictator, and began picking fights with the local American tribes, beginning with an attempt to tax them. Soon he was embroiled in an all-out war, authorizing dreadful massacres of entire encampments, including women and children, and suffering the resulting reprisals. A group of colonists led by van der Donck wrote a series of letters to the directors of the company saying that Kieft was incompetent and needed to be replaced, and arguing quite eloquently for democratic representation. The company agreed that things were badly run, but didn’t necessarily see that as reason to create a representative government. Instead, they sent Peter Stuyvesant.

Stuyvesant was a different character entirely; a military man who’d cut his teeth in the West India Company’s Caribbean holdings, losing a leg in the process, he arrived in New Amsterdam, ended the idiotic wars with the local tribes, and rapidly squashed any idea of democracy. At first he got along well with van der Donck, who had first arrived in America as the local director of Rensselaerwyck, the private fiefdom of Kilaien van Rensselaer encompassing thousands of square miles around what is now Albany. He wrote a beautiful description of the area, which sadly remains unpublished, got to know the local tribes and languages very well, and in his writings and letters to the company, formed what one academic calls “a coherent vision of a new society, sprung up from an Old World-trained academic.” [142] Although he ingratiated himself with Stuyvesant at first, their ideas and visions could not have been more different.

As the war with Spain was settled and New Netherland became an increasingly important shipping hub, van der Donck continued pressing his case for representative government. Holland was, at this time, the leading shipper and the leading producer of manufactured goods in the world, and to its capital van der Donck sent the Remonstrance of New Netherland, arguing his case passionately in front of the States General, which at first sided with him and giving van der Donck papers to have Stuyvesant recalled in April 1652.

At the same time, Stuyvesant was building up the colony and successfully negotiating with the English colonies that surrounded him, concluding the Treaty Of Hartford, which drew a north-south line between the English and Dutch colonies, a line memorialized by the English-named Suffolk County and the Dutch-named Nassau County on Long Island. [239]

And in a roundabout way, the English saved Stuyvesant. Cromwell passed the Navigation Act in 1651, starting a full-fledged mercantile war between England and Holland. The States General suddenly needed the West India Company again, and needed military men like Stuyvesant, not free-thinkers like van der Donck. One Dutch leader at the time remarked, “The English are about to attack a mountain of gold; we are about to attack a mountain of iron,” [250] presaging the major shift this war would produce.

But van der Donck’s activism did have some results: In 1653 the city of New Amsterdam was formally chartered, and soon thereafter was charged with defending the city from a possible English invasion, for which purpose it built a wall along the city’s northern edges. (The wall along Wall Street was built to protect the city from invasion, not from local tribes, according to the Dutch records. [260])

Locally, residents of the colony continued complaining against Stuyvesant’s rule. History often paints the Flushing Remonstrance (a protest by Quakers in Vlissingen against Stuyvesant’s persecution) as an early example of English-Dutch tension, but in fact, as Shorto says, “there is no indication … of the English residents expressing a longing for English government. As they point out in their complaint, they had fled to these parts to escape it.” [264]

It’s important not to be too idealistic; Shorto mentions the Dutch West India Company’s move towards developing a thriving slave trade, a policy that Stuyvesant supported wholeheartedly. In general, the company was resented by many of the colony’s residents, but what is missed is that it was Dutch freedoms and the Dutch legal code that the colonists used to defend themselves against Stuyvesant and the company. [See 276 in particular.]

But finally, the company’s neglect combined with the English realization that Manhattan was the key to their colonies’ future resulted in the Dutch loss of New York. Confronted with a vastly superior force, Stuyvesant was ready to fight to the death but found himself standing alone, with colonists who’d been ignored by the company for years asking why they should die for it. [294-99]

This is a great story, and one that simply hasn’t been told well enough. Gotham brushes past van der Donck in a single paragraph, referring to him as the “suave young” “ringleader,” and The Epic Of New York City covers the entire affair in two pages (55-56). Shorto’s argument that van der Donck represents the Dutch character that would later inform America is well put and well-supported by his careful reading of documents most other historians seem to have ignored. His belief that Holland’s tradition of welcoming refugees would allow Manhattan to grow exponentially, his love for what would become New York, and his fiery advocacy of free expression and politicaly diversity make him indeed worthy of being called the first New Yorker.

In the final chapter, Shorto looks at the traditional historical view, of thirteen English colonies, and judges it an inaccurate history written by the winners. The Dutch colony covered parts of five of the original thirteen states, and after the takeover, the Dutch did not leave. Dutch legal traditions heavily influenced the New York City charter granted by James II in 1686,

acknowledging that citizens of the “ancient City … Enjoyed … sundry Rights Libertyes privledges [and] ffranchises” that derived not only from its English rulers but from the “Governours Directors Generalls and Commanders in Chiefe of the Nether Dutch Nation.” [315]

While phrases like “Dutch treat” and “Dutch courage” [319] show the history of English antipathy towards their former rival, the Dutch colony “set Manhattan on course as a place of openness and free trade” [310] with the freedoms James had left intact.

One has to keep in mind what an oddity the new city of New York was to people of the seventeenth century, with its variety of skin tones and languages and prayer styles coexisting side by side. The English leaders in Whitehall Palace were surely aware of this unusual characteristic of the island across the water, and they may have been confused by it, but at the same time they understood that it was part of what made the place function. [305]

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2 Responses to The Island at the Center Of the World — Russell Shorto

  1. nwhyte says:

    I thought this book was brilliant, too!

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