Up to now the preponderant view held by many historians is that Dutch contribution to American history and particularly to that of New York has been one of irrelevancy. As we no doubt realize, the winners write history, and unfortunately, whatever the losers may have contributed, it seems to be lost or forgotten in the shuffle.
Fortunately, during the past thirty years and thanks to the translation of many Dutch records that have been recently discovered pertaining to the early colony of New Netherlands, a different picture has emerged. It is this new perspective that author Russell Shorto has vividly and brilliantly captured in his latest gem of a book entitled, The Island at the Center of the World.
Shorto devotes considerable ink in defending his thesis that the success of Manhattan as a commercial center, or New York, as it was renamed after the British takeover, did not begin with the English but rather had very deep roots in the early Dutch community. It was in fact in the late 1640s that the city of New Amsterdam under Dutch rule began its rise to become North American’s shipping hub. Furthermore, one of the key actors who played a pivotal role in the community was, up to now, a long forgotten visionary, Adriaen van der Donck, who often found himself, locked in a power- struggle with Peter Stuyvesant. The latter has always been more recognizable than the former, particularly due to the fact that it was he who surrendered the Dutch colony to the British.
What was very little publicized up to now was that van der Donck had being heavily influenced by the more progressive thinking of some of Europe’s most enlightened thinkers as Descartes, Grotius, and Spinoza. It is the freedoms espoused by these thinkers that van der Donck believed in. Eventually, they would find root in the Dutch colony, ultimately becoming the foundation of many of the democratic principles forming the basis of the American cultural, economic and sociological psyche. On the other hand, Stuyvesant, who lacked the same formal education as van der Donck, was stuck in his old tyrannical concepts and narrow- minded prejudices, which effect was to stifle the aspirations of the inhabitants of the Dutch colony. It is fortunate for the USA that the theories and beliefs of van der Donck won out.
As a side note and to indicate the extent of the Dutch influence on American culture, Shorto also reveals such interesting tidbits as what settlers emigrating to the Dutch colony would bring along with them, the derivation of words such as cookies, cole slaw and Santa Claus, that can all trace their roots to the Dutch colony of New Netherlands. We also have an overview and some fascinating insights as to what actually transpired between the Dutch and the English at the time the latter took possession of New Nederland.
Shorto’s animated characterizations of individuals and events is consistently enlightening entertaining, informative and balanced, all of which make for a powerful analysis of events that have had an unbelievable influence on American culture, political and economic institutions.
The review was contributed by: NORM GOLDMAN EDITOR OF BOOKPLEASURES