The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America (Book Review)
Reviewed by Mike Oppenheim
By Russell Shorto
In 1609 Henry Hudson, an Englishman employed by Holland, sailed up his eponymous river past Albany. He didn’t find a route to Asia, for which everyone yearned, but he did report that the lands he saw were rich, fertile and unoccupied. This intrigued his employers, the Dutch West India Company, who sent a boatload of settlers to Manhattan, paid off the Indians and set up a colony that grew for 50 years until the English sailed in and took over without a fight.
Except for a few scraps from textbook history — the $24-purchase of Manhattan island and peg-legged Peter Stuyvesant, the last governor, for example — the Dutch contribution to U.S. history has virtually vanished. Partly, one can blame the 17th-century Dutch language, which is incomprehensible even to the Dutch. Only scholars can read it. But laziness is the primary reason — English material is so abundant that historians have often ignored everything else.
Thirty years ago, this changed. In 1973 New York State hired an American with a Ph.D. in Dutch history, Charles Gehring, to translate the 12,000-page mountain of documents from New Amsterdam that had moldered in Albany’s archives for 400 years. Now approaching retirement age, Gehring is still translating. Encountering him, journalist and historian Russell Shorto was inspired to write this book, which illuminates a shamefully neglected period in American history.
During its first 50 years, what later became the 13 colonies was divided into three areas. New England was settled mostly by English dissident Protestants. School histories devote most of the space to them, portraying them as persecuted idealists seeking freedom in the new world. In truth, they weren’t persecuted very badly. Despite admirable qualities, New England settlers were unpleasantly self-righteous and intolerant.
Far south, from Maryland to the Carolinas, various proprietary English companies and entrepreneurs established colonies based on single-crop agriculture, beginning with tobacco. Although more democratic and less intolerant than New England, southern colonies were poorer and had a stricter class structure, and they soon found slavery congenial.
Holland claimed the middle Atlantic area between Albany and Delaware Bay and was not happy when New Englanders moved into Connecticut. At the center of Dutch America was the Manhattan town of New Amsterdam, inhabited by a colorful mix of nations, races and religions that were largely engaged in making money. From the beginning, it was the trading center of North America, patronized and resented by all English colonies. The author reminds us that Holland was England’s major commercial rival during the 17th century. Hatred between the two powers was intense and led to several wars.
Shorto does his best work recounting why aspects of 17th-century Holland that seem admirable to us are not what they seem. Every reader acquainted with European history knows Holland was amazingly tolerant. Jews like Spinoza, Catholics like Descartes and English dissenters fled there to escape persecution. Holland was the world’s leading book publisher because there was so little censorship. And it was the richest nation in Europe. All this leads popular writers to portray those Dutch as a liberal people who would approve of our Bill of Rights. This is nonsense, Shorto insists, pointing out that educated Dutchmen “knew” Catholics were superstitious simpletons who worshipped statues and were slaves to the Pope. However, he adds, experience had taught the Dutch that forcing people to follow the “true” word of God resulted in social unrest and was bad for business, so they didn’t interfere.
Shorto’s analysis teaches two valuable historical lessons. The first is that 17th-century Dutchmen did not really tolerate other beliefs, they merely put up with them. The second lesson is more important. If pushed, humans tolerate opposing opinions — provided they don’t feel too strongly about them. This is as true today as it ever was.
Holland was an oligarchic democracy not much different from England, but New Amsterdam wasn’t. It was a company town with officials appointed by the Dutch West India Company and responsible to the head office. This didn’t work well. Colonists arrived slowly because the Dutch were prosperous and unpersecuted, and anyone who wanted to get rich in the new world had to work through the company. Settlers agitated for more influence and ignored inconvenient laws. Finally, its governor picked a quarrel with the Indians, who wiped out distant settlements and threatened Manhattan. By the 1640s, the colony on the island was barely surviving.
At this point, the company replaced the governor with a figure most of us vaguely remember: grumpy Peter Stuyvesant, who had served loyally throughout the Americas, losing his leg in a minor skirmish in the Caribbean in 1644. In 1647 he arrived in Manhattan to rule for the remaining 17 years of Dutch hegemony. Shorto reports that he did an efficient job, enforcing laws with a military zeal This worked in the short run, but with the return of prosperity came increasing pressure from the colonists for a say in their government. Rejecting all such moves, Stuyvesant quickly became so unpopular that he could summon no support when an English force arrived in 1664 to demand the colony’s surrender.
Shorto emphasizes that, despite the rhetoric of 1776, the English government was remarkably untyrannical. It interfered little in affairs of the theocratic New England colonies or the incipient slavocracy in the south. Taking over the Dutch colonies, it left their institutions intact. The Articles of Capitulation state that New Amsterdam colonists shall enjoy “liberty of their Consciences.” No English colony had that guarantee.
New York now became unique: the only port plugged directly into both of the world’s great trading empires. Commerce flourished, and Dutch notaries continued to write “New Netherlands” on shipping manifests for another 20 years. Immigrants to Boston and Charleston remained largely English until well into the 19th century, but they came to New York from all nations. Shorto’s book makes a convincing case that the Dutch did not merely influence the relatively open, tolerant and multicultural society that became the United States; they made the first and most significant contribution.