Author: Russell Shorto
Review by: Trevor Williams, Managing Editor, Global Atlanta
Anyone who has been through fifth-grade civics would know that European thinkers incubated the American sense of reason and the religious tolerance enshrined in the First Amendment.
But most of us would likely pick Christian pilgrims or Enlightenment thinkers from England as the principal carriers of these ideas to the New World.
The evidence, after all, is in the name. After decades changing hands in the 17th century, the commercial hub that grew on and around the island of Manhattan would become known as New York. The founding ethos of the original New Amsterdam settlement and the greater New Netherland colony would remain largely unexplored by history’s winners.
Even the man who claimed the island for the Netherlands, Henry Hudson, was British, having come to Amsterdam after exhausting his patronage networks for another voyage in search of the Northwest Passage.
The Island at the Center of the World uses primary documents from the Dutch West India Co. and the early colonial government in an attempt to remedy this historical bias.
Author Russell Shorto weaves a story filled with larger-than-life but painfully human characters, from the heroically dogged and opportunistic young lawyer Adriaen Van der Donck to Peter Stuyvesant, the moralistic minister’s son and unswerving company man with an iron fist and a wooden leg.
He also tells the stories of the pirates, prostitutes, pastors and tradespeople who made up the early population. (In a way, historian Charles Gehring is also a protagonist, given that little of the history would be known without his ongoing work translating the official records of the Dutch colony in the New York State Library.)
The story takes us back and forth across the Atlantic to the sunsetting empire of Spain to the conflict for preeminence over the seas that pitted erstwhile allies England and the United Provinces of the Netherlands against each other.
The latter had become a magnet for thinkers and writers ostracized or misunderstood by theocratic governments in their home countries. Even the Puritans of England set out from the Netherlands seeking a new Promised Land.
The times were changing. After the Reformation of the 1500s, nobles and church leaders around Europe — both Catholic and Protestant — were starting to lose their hold on power. The Dutch provinces would become a proving ground for ideas like national identity, rule of law and skepticism over the royal Divine Right. Philosophers like Descartes and Hugo Grotius flourished in this open environment, their ideas influencing the young Van der Donck during his studies at the University of Leiden.
The book is at once a frontier adventure story (with particularly fascinating bits about the complex interactions between settlers and diverse Native American tribes) and a historical treatise that shows just how connected events in far-flung European colonies were to the realities of the early global economy.
Shorto provides evidence that a form of tolerance and representative government sprouted in this historical soil, but only after these new “Americans” refused to be governed with the heavy hand traditionally employed by Dutch colonial governors abroad.
He eventually zooms in on the conflict between Stuyvesant, emblematic of brittle tradition, and the upstart Van der Donck, whose activism and legal arguments formed the basis of petitions for relief to “their majesties” back home in Amsterdam.
Van der Donck wouldn’t see his main objective realized: leading the colony under the auspices of Dutch national law rather than the company’s whims. In fact, the winds of history would change, and the realities of preserving Dutch commercial interests in the face of England’s ascent would undercut his case and sideline him in the longer term.
But the complex legal tapestry he wove did lead to a proto-city council that would be the continent’s first true experiment in representative government, and the ideas unleashed during his time couldn’t be put back into the bottle.
Shorto is careful not to lionize these historical players, given the eventual Dutch and British role in the massive trans-Atlantic slave trade. He is quick to offer the caveat that their concepts of equality were still embryonic and prejudicial in scope.
Still, Americans have much for which we should thank the Dutch, from trivial things like cookies, Santa Claus, cole slaw and the concept of bosses to more serious institutions like district attorneys, which evolved from the Dutch position of schout. The book’s age, 14 years old, doesn’t undercut its weight, and I’m now tempted to pick up the “prequel” — a subsequent book about Amsterdam’s development as “the world’s most liberal city.”
In my recent interview with Dutch Consul General Ard Van der Vorst, who gave me this book earlier this year, he placed an emphasis on the economic benefits of diversity and the long history of Dutch-American collaboration.
As Shorto shows, it turns out these two themes have been inextricably linked from the earliest days of our countries’ intertwined histories.
See my previous reviews here:
Editor’s note: This review is part of Global Atlanta’s annual project asking influential readers and community leaders to review the most impactful book they read during the course of the year. This endeavor has continued each year since 2010. Purchases through the Amazon affiliate links at top will provide a commission to Global Atlanta. All books were chosen and reviews written independently, with only mild editing from our staff.