Book review: The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America

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

About a decade ago when I was living in New Jersey, I used to drive every weekend from New Jersey to Massachusetts to see my then-girlfriend. While driving back I used to take a road called the Saw Mill Parkway, near a town called Yonkers, on the way to crossing the Tappan Zee bridge. Both reference points seemed completely nondescript to me then. What I did not know until now was that both Yonkers and the Saw Mill Parkway are the only tributes in this country to a remarkable man and a lost time which, if it had endured, could have significantly influenced the history of this country.

The remarkable man was Adriaen van der Donck, a Dutchman who brought the liberal outlook of 17th century Amsterdam to the Dutch colony of New Netherlands, with its capital New Amsterdam. He was known as a 'Jonkheer' or 'young lord', and on his estate up the Hudson river he built a saw mill. Hence Yonkers and the Saw Mill Parkway.

Today about the only two things that most people know about the place was that it was bought from the Indians in 1626 for the seemingly laughably small sum of 60 guilders or 24 dollars, and that New Amsterdam became New York when the English took over it in 1664. During that period it became the most progressive European colony in America, reflecting the liberal, multicultural, intellectual and progressive spirit of the Netherlands, but its history is basically taught today as an English history. Russell Shorto's engaging book charts the history of this remarkable and forgotten colony, from the discovery of the location by Henry Hudson in 1608 (about the time that Jamestown was founded) to its takeover by the English.

Much of the book centers on two larger-than-life characters; Adriaen van der Donck and Peter Stuyvesant who were sort of opposites; the former is virtually forgotten while the latter lives on in the form of names like Stuyvesant High School. Van der Donck was educated at Leiden which then had a university rivaling Oxford in its embrace of natural philosophy and logic, and the Netherlands was already serving as a refuge for religious apostates like pilgrims and Rene Descartes. Inspired by his law studies at Leiden, Van der Donck had a scientists' eye for observation and objectivity. He made friends with the Indians, lived with them, studied the plants, animals, mountains and rivers in the vast landscape of what is now the Albany region and wrote a book describing the land that became a bestseller. He brought principles of representative government and religious freedom to New Amsterdam.

Stuyvesant who had fought the Spanish in South America and lost a leg to a cannonball belonged to the conservative old guard and believed in exercising the will of the company of which he was director - the Dutch West India Company which was then scouting around the world looking for natural and human resources. Although Stuyvesant and van der Donck were on good terms before, Stuyvesant's heavy-handed management of the colony led van der Donck and a select few settlers to write protests to the Hague laying out some remarkably forward-looking principles of secular governance for the colony.

And yet somehow, between Stuyvesant's authoritarian but dogged direction and van der Donck's progressive views, New Amsterdam for a few decades became a model for secular civilization that later defined New York City as a melting pot, a unique place with a ragtag band of seamen, traders, brewers, prostitutes, soldiers, farmers, freethinkers, frontiersmen and people from all countries and professions which encouraged multiculturalism and religious freedom, in significant contrast to the monocultural, religiously rigid Puritan colonies of New England to the North; in fact it served as a refuge for persecuted Englishmen and women from New England who settled mainly in Long Island. It also largely regarded the neighboring Indian tribes as equals and traded beaver furs and wampum with them, and unlike the English at Jamestown rarely engaged in murderous conflict with the natives. Under van der Donck's leadership, the Netherlands was going to institute a bonafide progressive government in the place - the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 had inspired a general sentiment of tolerance and peace - but sadly the beginning of the Anglo-Dutch wars led the country to again cede authority to the West India Company, and Stuyvesant again had the upper hand. Nonetheless the colony still flourished because of its decentralized nature.

The book describes how the colony bequeathed many Americanisms, among them "boss" (from "baas"), "coleslaw" (from "koosla") and "cookies" (from "koekje"). A lot of upstate New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, (the name Schuylkill is Dutch) and especially New York City have a deeply embedded Dutch heritage, and there's even a non-trivial amount of Swedish and Finnish heritage that came from a Swedish colony that endured for about twenty years in what's now Delaware before it capitulated to the Dutch. The end of the colony came when the English first under Cromwell and then under Charles II realized the lucrative advantage that the location would provide in exploring the interior up the Hudson river, along with a strategic waypoint for the then exploding slave trade. Van der Donck sadly died in an Indian raid while Stuyvesant lived out his life in his colony and was buried there in 1672. The golden age of Dutch civilization and free thought was on the decline, and England - and the English version of history - took over.

There is no doubt that New Amsterdam was a model of religious and cultural tolerance that needs to be remembered, largely because there was no system of top-down governance there for a long time, but perhaps Shorto overstates the influence it had on future developments in the United States including the Constitution; nobody knows how exactly history would have turned out had there been two dominant colonies - the English to the North and the Dutch to the South, but it would have been very interesting indeed. Ironically, in his zeal to demonstrate how forgotten secular New Amsterdam was, Shorto fails, even when mentioning New England in some detail, to mention even once the equally secular and remarkable secular experiment to the North which I wrote about earlier - Roger Williams and his founding of Rhode Island. Seems like someone's always forgotten.

1 comment:

  1. You may know the name Lynn Ten Eyck, who was the first to introduce the fast Fourier transform algorithm into X-ray structure refinement. (Lynn preceded me by several generations of graduate students in the Kauzmann lab at Princeton.) His family were New Yorkers of Dutch origin and Loyalists during the American revolution; at that time, they removed themselves to Canada. However, their name (which means "the oak" in Dutch) survives in the NYC area as a place name. Lynn told me that the town of Teaneck, NJ is named after his family.


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