Review by J.H. Westbrook

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

 Russell Shorto

Hardcover
400 pages
Doubleday
ISBN: 0385503490

Not a historian but a writer, Shorto sets out to tell the story of the 17th century Dutch founding of New Netherland in middle America, of which Manhattan Island was the fulcrum, and of the consequences that pervade to this day. The book consists of 15 chapters grouped into three parts, as well as a brief epilogue describing the history of the early documents on which much of the book is based, 26 pages of informative notes, a 21 page bibliography covering both primary and secondary sources that Shorto used, a couple of dozen illustrations, and an index.

This is not the usual dry chronological history but rather concentrates on people (both the well-known, e.g. Hudson, Minuit, Kieft, and Stuyvesant and the important but little-known, e.g. van der Donck, Melyn, Downing, and Usselincx) and on the Dutch origins of enduring concepts, familiar terms, and place names. This legacy is especially remarkable inasmuch as the Dutch ruled the area for only about 40 years until superseded by the English 340 years ago. Among the terms we have: boss, coleslaw, cookie, kill (stream), landscape, and Santa Claus, not to mention the derogatory Dutch courage, Dutch treat and similar others emanating from English antipathy. Place names persisting from the Dutch period include Yonkers, Staten Island, Rhode Island, Spuyten Duyvil, Wall Street, and Saw Mill River.

Most significant, however, we learn from the book are the concepts and attitudes the Dutch brought with them early in the 17th century. In contrast to the New Englanders the Dutch came, not as settlers or for religious freedom, but as traders and businessmen. Other characteristics apparent early on were the independence of Dutch women, the Dutch concept of home, their attitude toward children; their tidiness, and their tolerance of different customs, religions, and origins. From the outset, New Netherland was a cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic society. The immigrants to the Dutch colony were not exclusively Calvinist ethnic Dutch but Norwegians, German Lutherans, Africans,  Spanish Jews, and French Huguenots, a reflection of the extreme religious and ethnic tolerance that existed in 17th century Netherlands. The cosmopolitan nature of what was then New Amsterdam was evidenced, for example, by a 1646 report of a Jesuit priest that he found some 18 languages spoken there. From the outset, New Amsterdam, located at the southern tip of Manhattan Island was a lively, rowdy, busy place, made so by pirates, prostitutes, and politicians, as well as ordinary citizens. By the late 1640's Manhattan had become a major shipping center and place of business.

Shorto tells an intriguing story with much insight and wit, colorfully sketching the personalities, character strengths, and foibles of many individuals, both those famous, infamous, and forgotten. He gleaned the historical facts from numerous interviews with professional historians in Albany, New York City, Europe and elsewhere as well as from the extensive works referenced in his bibliography. It is also to be noted that, in collaboration with Howard Funk, Shorto has produced for the New Netherland project in Albany a fascinating Internet visual, "The Virtual Tour of New Netherland" (See: www.nnp.org). This reviewer's interest in the book was also heightened by the fact that Shorto mentions five of the reviewer's ancestors.

The book has already drawn considerable critical acclaim. It has gone into its 5th printing, with 47,000 copies now in print! It is a selection of the History Book Club, Book of the Month Club, and Quality Paperback Book Club. 

J.H. Westbrook
Brookline Technologies
Ballston Spa, NY

Dr. Westbrook is an engineer and materials scientist with an avid interest in history. He is the author and editor of numerous books, journal articles, and over 100 book reviews

 
 

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