Review by J.H. Westbrook
The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic
Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That
|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the area for only about 40 years until superseded by the English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.
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