the birth of the world’s city
I love to read about “old New York”. Something about the fortuitous combination of culture, location, geography and history that combined to create such a unique place seems like a microcosm of the world at large, to me. In this case, as in many, the phrase “it’s no accident” doesn’t apply. New York City, like life on earth, is a happy accident, and experiment in humanity.
Of course, as a self-described New Yorker, when you see a book entitled “The Island at the Center of the World“, you immediately think, “damn straight”. But the underlying concept behind this book, that the Dutch influence of the original colony of New Netherland has far more influence on modern America than we imagine, adds an even more interesting twist to this already epic story.
Henry Hudson, an Englishman, discovered the city and river that bears his name by accident – he was looking for the Northeast Passage to Cathay. He was sailing for the Dutch at the time, mostly because the English thought he was, to be blunt, a little crazy. The land from Connecticut to the Chesapeake Bay was all claimed by the Dutch, and the colony of New Netherland was founded by the West India Company, and thus was more of a corporate than governmental concern. Its job was to make money, and was therefore run as more of a dictatorial fiefdom than a true colony.
But the Dutch penchant for tolerance was what made it special, and has implications through the ages, down to the modern day.
Shorto’s book describes the findings and translation of thousand of pages of New Netherland records and, I assume, diaries and correspondence from figures like Peters Minuit and Stuyvesant. But his discovery and fascination with another man, Adrian van der Donck, is what makes this book stand out.
Van der Donck arrived in his mid-twenties at the private colony of Rensselaerwyck in upstate New York which would one day become Albany. He was a lawyer, but served as a sort of lawman until he was replaced for what can only be assumed as too much civic duty – he seemed to care more about the people, the welfare of the colony and, apparently, the Indian culture and its relationship to the newly arrived Europeans.
He was too liberal, even as part of a liberal community.
In New Amsterdam, however, he truly shined. From his political maneuvering, in which he ingratiated himself with Stuyvesant and then turned on him for the colony’s greater good, to the ten tireless years spent in the Netherlands fighting to attract (quite successfully) colonists to the New World, to his final, sad death on his Bronx estate, Van der Donck is a truly interesting and I daresay heroic figure.
But what is more charming about Shorto’s work is the fire it seemed to start – a burning for more knowledge regarding the forgotten Dutch colony. History is written by the victors, yet so much of New York and our whole society is informed by this lost settlement. Half of New York is named Dutch, and much of its attitude is clearly informed by its tolerant New Netherland roots. And language, from “Brooklyn” to “boss” to “cole slaw” comes to us directly from our Dutch past.
What Shorto is clearly saying is that, though (or perhaps because) the records are not yet fully translated, we have not only a great picture of what this past colony was like, but so much more to learn. Like modern New York, our view of the City is constantly changing and, seemingly, never complete.