Emily's Reviews > The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America

The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto
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Nov 10, 09

bookshelves: 2004
Read in April, 2004

I picked up The Island at the Center of the World because it directly targets two of my own personal obsessions: New York history and Dutch language. Author Russell Shorto builds it upon thirty years of translation work by a man called Charles Gehring, a specialist in 17th century Dutch who resurrected the complete records of New Amsterdam, the Dutch settlement that is now New York City and environs. Shorto's thesis is that the Dutch colony was more successful and more influential than previously believed, unjustly forgotten because of the language barrier and because of Anglocentrist historians who both downplayed its significance and judged it a failure based on the criteria of the more religious New England colonies.

There is a lot here to satisfy the curious New Yorker--Broadway's origin as an Indian path, stories about the first Brooklynites--but what makes this worth reading is its portrayal of Adriaen van der Donck, who opposed the autocratic rule of Peter Stuyvesant and insisted that the inhabitants of New Amsterdam deserved the rights of Dutch citizens, as opposed to employees of the Dutch East India Company. Trained as a lawyer at Leyden University (possibly even under the tutelage of Spinoza and Descartes), he even sailed back to the Netherlands at one point to make his case before the States General. Shorto shows that the egalitarianism of the Dutch Golden Age was brought to America by van der Donck and how echoes of it even made their way, more than a hundred years later, into our founding documents. Despite all this, however, van der Donck was forgotten after his death in an Indian raid. The only sign of him left in New York is the town of Yonkers (New Amsterdammers called him "Jonker," i.e. landowner).

Most refreshing about this book is the vision it presents of a freewheeling, open society in early America--an attractive alternative for anyone who spent their school years learning about the prudent and stuffy Pilgrims. Shorto fittingly writes in a relatively breezy and unacademic style, a la Barbara Tuchman. Sometimes he takes the informality too far. On the whole, though, I found this a very worthwhile read.
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