Sunday, August 6, 2006

Review: The Island at the Center of the World

The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America by Russell Shorto. Recommended.

Before New York, there was New Netherland, claimed for the Dutch by English explorer Henry Hudson. At the heart of New Netherland was New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan—a frontier village and the gateway to the vast American interior, ripe for exploitation.

In The Island at the Center of the World, Russell Shorto makes the case for the influence of the Dutch and their colony on the future United States and for Adriaen Van der Donck, who tried to convince the Dutch government to wrest control of the colony from the inept hands of the Dutch West India Company. He failed, leaving the colony vulnerable to the British, who took it with little effort and made it a mere footnote in American history textbooks.

The modern perception of the Dutch colony seems to support the adage that history is written by the victor. Adriaen Van der Donck lost; Peter Stuyvesant won, so that it is the latter who has a place in the history books. It is not much of a place, according to Shorto; as the loser to the British, Stuyvesant is portrayed "as almost a cartoon character: peg-legged, cantankerous, a figure of comic relief who would do his routine, draw a few laughs, and then exit the stage so that the real substance of American history could begin."

Shorto covers the colony's history from the time Hudson "found" it to Stuyvesant's reluctant surrender to the British in 1664, as well as Van der Donck's career from his university days and the writing of his book to his efforts at The Hague, followed by speculation about his death.

In between, Shorto shows what was different about New Netherland from its encroaching Pilgrim and Puritan neighbors to the north. For one thing, the "Dutch" were not all Dutch in origin. They were Dutch, English, German, French, African, Jewish, Quaker, even Turkish. One of the founding couples of New Netherland was a "French-speaking teenager " and a "Flemish textile worker," ". . . two young nobodies" whose descendants are estimated to number more than one million. The Dutch, having been victims of religious intolerance, promoted an unusually tolerant society that naturally encouraged diversity, which continues today. Shorto notes that, where Peter Stuyvesant's farmhouse once stood, "The same view takes in an Arab newsstand, a Yemenite Israeli restaurant, a pizza shop, a Japanese restaurant, and a Jewish deli."

Perhaps the more important difference in the English and Dutch legacies lies in each colony's original reason for existence. The Pilgrims and Puritans sought to escape persecution and to establish a society based on their own strictly interpreted religious beliefs, which did not preclude the persecution of others such as Quakers. New Haven and other cities were to be their equivalent of a promised land. The Dutch and others who settled New Netherland had a different motive—they saw opportunity. Here, anyone could obtain land, work hard, and succeed in a way not possible in the Dutch republic, with its limited space and resources. When writing of the initial report on New Netherland, Shorto says of the Dutch merchants reading it, "What jumped out at them, however, were other words, sharp, money-laden nouns—'Vellen . . . Pelterijen . . . Maertens . . . Vossen . . .' —the report making a frank promise of 'many skins and peltries, martins, foxes, and many other commodities.'" He reminds us that the colony was not managed by the government, but by a profit-making concern—the Dutch West India Company.

It was the opportunity that drew the French-speaking teenager and the Flemish textile worker and that allowed their descendants to proliferate, together with the Dutch attitude of religious, cultural, and social tolerance. It is easy to see the seeds of a democratic society in New Amsterdam, where the rules are different, where colonists of all skill sets are needed, and where opportunity is not restricted by class or status. Even the militaristic Calvinist Peter Stuyvesant can't change the character of the colony that developed before his arrival.

The book would have benefited from quotations from primary personal sources, for example, letters and journals of Stuyvesant and Van der Donck. It appears that such historical riches have been lost or not yet translated. Shorto tries to fill in these deficiencies with colorful, evocative language and speculation about how these and other characters might have felt or acted at critical moments; for example, Van der Donck writes "like a man possessed," while Stuyvesant might "stump off" in a fit of pique.

Shorto does bring the colony to life, including interesting and sordid details about court cases, facts such as that one-quarter of all businesses on Manhattan were taverns or breweries at one point, and details such as that one prostitute preferred to be paid in otter and beaver pelts rather than with money.

His evident passion for the subject and his frustration with Anglocentric (and mythologized) history leads Shorto to overstate the case for the influence of the Dutch colony. The United States today is not as uniformly tolerant, even in the Dutch sense, as Short believes, or as multicultural except in urban areas. Each urban area has not necessarily modeled itself after early Manhattan, but has evolved in its own way, not always offering equal opportunity to every group of immigrants or every individual.

Despite the Pilgrim/Puritan myths left to us and to which we cling, however, the United States, like Manhattan, is a unique creation born of a unique set of circumstances. Like the Pilgrims and Puritans, the Dutch were founding colonists and be given their due as such. If you are interested in a more complete picture of early American history, The Island at the Center of the World should be on your "must read" list.

Sunday, 6 August 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.

No comments:

Post a Comment