History Books


The Island at the Center of the World:
The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America
by Russell Shorto (2004; Vintage, 2005)

Russell Shorto's book about New Amsterdam is very hard to approve, but equally difficult to dislike. Lively and informative, it is also very enthusiastic, and prone to somewhat tendentious speculation: where the author finds himself without sources, he can be counted upon to assume, like the medieval forgers of monastic charters, that what ought to have happened is probably what did happen. No doubt it's because I grew up in the rigorous days of E F Jacob's history of Fifteenth-Century England, a thick tome that never once mentions "The Wars of the Roses" (think about it!), that I respond to Mr Shorto's imaginative flights with severe dyspepsia:

The family greeted the long-gone son. It was a different human being who had returned to them; the bookish boy had become a man, with a wider gait and firmer grip. He had tramped over purple mountains, slept on forest floors, shared meals in native longhouses. For nine years he had breathed a different air. It was in his eyes and voice: Van der Donck arrived in Breda irradiated with enthusiasm — whatever feelings he had over his parents' separation were not enough to quell it. To all his relations, he talked up the American colony that was his home and his cause as a land of opportunity. The only thing that was missing from this potential paradise he himself was in the process of arranging: good government. His passion, coupled with the admiration they must have felt for him — he who had gone into the wilderness and returned a leader of men, a statesman, presenting his case before the national government — swept his family members off their feet. Over the next two years, both of his parents — separately — would liquidate their holdings, pack up everything, and board ships for Manhattan. So, too, would go one of his brothers, his wife, their son, and several servants. His zeal seems to have engulfed everyone in his path. 

As this passage might lead you to believe, Mr Shorto would like to lodge the memory of Adriaen van der Donck in the same kind of niche that we have fitted out for the Founders; he is at least one of the prophets. I have no argument against this thesis, only with the author's repeating it in several variations.

The book also belabors a highly contrarian thesis:

If what made America great was the ingenious openness to different cultures, then the small triangle of land at the southern tip of Manhattan Island is the New World birthplace of that idea, the spot where it first took shape. Many people — whether they live in the heartland or on Fifth Avenue — like to think of New York City as so wild and extreme in its cultural fusion that it's an anomaly in the United States, almost a foreign entity. This book offers an alternative view: that beneath the level of myths and politics and high ideals, down where real people live and interact, Manhattan is where American began.

Although I agree with many of Mr Shorto's claims for the vitality of New Amsterdam, this is not one of them. As a native and a resident, I have always found that journeying a distance of ten miles from the Hudson River takes me to a foreign entity. Indeed, instead of claiming that New Amsterdam shaped the United States, I should argue — using this book as a brief — that allowing itself to be shaped by Knickerbocker values might be this country's last best hope.

Indeed, the first thing that I did after finishing The Island at the Center of the World was to pull down the first volume of Morison and Commager, too see just how "wrong" they were about New Amsterdam, how blind to Mr Shorto's alternative view. It turned out not to be at all inconsonant. Van der Donck is duly mentioned as "a prominent settler" who "drew up a remonstrance to the Netherlands government in 1649, begging it to take over the colony and establish schools, churches, and other apparatus of civilized life." Mr Shorto does not mention that this apparatus was already common in New England, and not unknown in Virginia. The venerable history concludes that, at the time of the handover to the English in 1664, "the Dutch stamp was already placed indelibly on New York."

So there are two ways in which to read Mr Shorto's book, and I expect that its best-seller success owed more to those who delighted in its forgotten stories and refreshed perspectives than to those who engaged with the author's theories about the true place of New Amsterdam in American history. Mr Shorto is a past-master at wringing the pathetic ironies of time:

A crier was sent out, declaring that the town council was asking for bids to carry out the work. Englishman Thomas Baxter signed on to provide the wood, and the thing was built by early July. In the long term, what's notable about this first public works project orchestrated by the town government is not the wall itself but the street that ran along it. It's a safe bet that no matter how wildly they tended to dream, the magistrates could not have imagined that this rough pathway would replace the gleaming, colonnaded bourse of Amsterdam as the epicenter of global finance. It's also worth noting that the wall along Wall Street was built not to keep Indians out, as folklore has it, but to keep the English out.

There are a lot of safe bets about things that the magistrates could not have imagined (the demolition of Pennsylvania Station? Eloise? the Internet?), but Mr Shorto pcks the best of the bunch.

As I say, this is a very hard book to dislike, and I decided early not to waste any time fulminating against the author's you-are-there methodology. The history in this book, although, tonally, somewhat anachronistic (did Griet Reyniers, the colony's first prostitute but by 1664 a wealthy grandmother, truly "abandon" the West India Company's support base in the city?), seems sound, and nobody is going to bother with the history of New Netherland if it's at all boring. And I'll concede to learning one big thing: I'd always thought that my island was ceded to the British as part of a peace treaty. In fact, the British seizure of New Amsterdam was an opening gambit in the Second Anglo-Dutch War. And I really did like getting to know Jonker van der Donck.

Aside from its manifest virtues as popular history, The Island at the Center of the World also serves as a sort of publicity release for the otherwise almost certainly overlooked project of Charles Gehring, a linguist specializing in Seventeenth-Century Dutch who, at the age of thirty-five, was enlisted to translate the surviving records of official New Amsterdam. This hoard of papers, which spent the American Revolution on board a ship in the harbor, and then in the Tower of London, appear to have come to light (not that they were altogether unknown) during the construction of Nelson Rockefeller's grandiose State Campus. The question must have arisen, where to put these inscrutable documents in the new New York State Library. Professor Gehring is still at it; thanks to Mr Shorto's book, he may not have to endure yearly budget threats.

What really happened, then, in 1664, when Peter Stuyvesant, the authoritarian director of the West India Company's New Netherland operations, decided not to give fight to the squadron headed by Richard Nicolls, the Englishman who would replace him as the first governor of New York? Immediately, the only thing that seems to have happened is that the company's operations came to an end. New York was not a company town. This was an extremely popular development; it is unlikely that even the most gemakkelijk burghers regretted the shift in allegiance now expected of them. The company had in fact stood squarely in the way of New Amsterdam's civic membership in the Dutch Republic. Its greatest miscalculation appears to have been that the settlement would never amount to much more than an outpost, like Curaηao or the ill-fated Pernambuco. The company's patroon program, moreover, suggests that, however forward-looking they might have been as merchants, the company's directors in Holland nursed dreams of feudal grandeur for the banks of the Hudson River; the greatest of all of these enclaves was the personal property of Kiiaen van Rensselaer. (Adriaen van der Donck's first job in New Netherland was as van Renssalaer's schout — a term that means not so much "scout" as "district attorney.")

From the very beginning, in the 1620s, the company displayed the retrogressive leanings of a typical extractive outfit, one geared to taking the money and running. Peter Stuyvesant was its ideal law-and-order man — in theory. In practice, Stuyvesant was hobbled by more than his peg-leg: he came to like the place, and even fought to return to it after a spell in the woodshed after the handover to the English. (He is in fact buried right where he ought to be, in the foundations of St Mark's-in-the-Bowery, on Stuyvesant Place.) Stuyvesant is usually the bogeyman of Gotham's early history, and one of the very best things about Mr Shorto's book is its humane kindness toward the complicated would-be dictator, who arrived in 1647, a smidgeon past the colony's halfway mark.

And then the regime began. The change from the old order was immediately apparent. Gone was the leisurely schedule of Thursday council sessions. The new director would be active on every front every day. Cornelis van Tienhoven got his wish — Stuyvesant kept him on as secretary — but he may have regretted it: the volume of paperwork in the secretary's hand — proclamations, propositions, resolutions, judgments, commissions, summonses — increased dramatically and at once.

Stuyvesant had known what the place needed even before coming: his few hours here only confirmed him in his conviction that order — the kind he could bring, a mix of military structure and corporate efficiency, all shot through with a heartfelt Calvinist focus on sinners groveling before a stern God — was the cure. A drunken knife fight broke out the Sunday afternoon after his arrival; on learning that such were regular occurrences, he issued a pair of commandments...

His justice was blind when it came to distinguishing between colonists and West India Company sailors and soldiers. No one could accuse him — as they had Kieft [Stuyvesant's muddle-prone predecessor] — of favoring company employees.

Mr Shorto so arranges his narrative that Stuyvesant's last appearance may burden sensitive readers with the weight of a hot tear.

He finished out his days as a resident of the rapidly growing settlement, a gentleman farmer, a grandfather, a man of renown always greeted by locals as "the General," a historical curiosity for to the incoming population. The capping irony of his life was that in surrendering the colony he had finally won himself the welcome of his fellow colonists. He had joined them at long last, but not as an inhabitant of New Netherland. He died — in 1672, at the age of sixty-two — a New Yorker.

Gulp. There is definitely a movie here, and I mean no disparagement by saying so. It may be slightly catty to say that this book has everything but the Statue of Liberty and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, but I'm sure that Mr Shorto would agree that mild but persistent disrespect is, on this island at the center of the world, the hallmark of respectability. (August 2009)

Permalink | Portico

Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press

Write to me