Thursday, August 14, 2008

BOOKS: Island at the Center of the World

This last week my commute has been filled with fascinating stories of life on Manhattan in the early-mid 1600s, when the island was a Dutch colony on the frontier of a new world. I've been listening to Russell Shorto's book The Island at the Center of the World, and enjoying every bit. Shorto's account begins with the discovery of the Delaware and Hudson Rivers by the explorer Henry Hudson in 1609, who though himself British, was sailing under charter of the Dutch East India Company. He provides a colorful sketch of Hudson, a man doggedly determined to find the shortcut to India by trying in various directions, including through the Arctic (his theory being that the ice must melt in the summer because the sun shines all day and all night). The bulk of the book is a vivid account of the Dutch settlement of the New Netherland colony in the 1620s through 1660s, from the famed purchase of Manhattan for $24 (for which Shorto provides some useful context) to the loss of the colony to the British. In between is rich description of life in the colony, from dealing with the native Americans to the politics of the early colony, seasoned with stories of colorful characters including pioneers, prostitutes, and privateers. The thesis of the book is the intriguing assertion that the Dutch planted not only their people, but ideas, which made seminal contributions to the character of Manhattan and America. Shorto maintains that the history we traditionally hear is Anglo-centric (naturally, since the English were the winners of control of the American colonies) and tends to give all credit to the pilgrims and Puritans for creating the character of America, while the earlier Dutch colony is dismissed as inconsequential. Part of what made it easy to dismiss was the fact that the surviving records were largely neglected and untranslated out of 17th century Dutch (which even a modern Dutchman wouldn't understand) until quite recently. He makes a compelling case, showing the unique religious and cultural tolerance of the emerging Dutch nation in the 17th century, and how the early rational precursors of the Enlightenment (Descartes, Grotius, Spinoza all enjoyed the freedom of living in Leiden, in the Netherlands) were transplanted to Manhattan. Thus, the Dutch colony in Manhattan had a mix of nationalities and religions from the get-go, while the English colonies to the north were striving for a theocratic monoculture. The Dutch colony even included English residents, such as Quakers, who were outcast from the English colonies for their religious non-conformity. The thesis is brought to light as Shorto develops in depth two historical characters: Peter Stuyvesant, who was the governor of the colony on behalf of the Dutch West India Company, and a young lawyer named Adriaen van der Donck who actively politicked to secure a representative government for the town. While being careful not to overstep the actual sources, and being forthright about where he is filling in gaps, Shorto brings these two men to life, making both an engaging and persuasive account of how the Dutch in general, and those two men in particular, imbued Manhattan with its identity as a business and trading center and a multicultural melting pot, valuing religious tolerance as well as representative government and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. (Those ideas were certainly not in evidence in 17th century Boston or Richmond.) I enjoyed this history of people and ideas, and I also enjoyed, by way of backdrop, learning about the formation of the modern Dutch nation, as well as the English political history of the period. It was especially interesting to read this book of 17th century Dutch early enlightenment after having recently read Ayaan Hirsi Ali's book Infidel, in which the tolerance and multiculturalism of the present-day Netherlands was a major theme. Makes me proud to have Dutch New York ancestors.

1 comment:

Irfan Yusuf said...

Interesting blog. Thanks for the review.