BookReview: The Island at the Center of the World
by Russell Shorto, Doubleday, 2004, 0-385-50349-0

Shorto covers the history of Dutch Manhattan. The tolerance of the Dutch in the 1600's is contrasted with the intolerance of the puritans in New England. Many a puritan fled to Manhattan to escape persecution.

This book is more of a story than a history book, although it covers a great amount of history. Shorto's prose is elegant and imaginative. The book pits Adriaen Van Der Donck against the West India Company, and in particular, Peter Stuyvesant, the "autocratic director of the Dutch colony". Here's an example of Shorto's prose:

[p46] He was a serious young man -- thick-necked, with a piggish face and hard eyes offset by voluptuous lips -- standing on the high poop deck of a West India Company frigate, staring out into the humid air of the Caribbean Sea. On the deck below and on the surrounding ships, three hundred soldiers awaited his command. He was an administrative agent with little military experience, but West India Company officials, if they had ambitions, expected to see action. It was March 1644; he had left Amsterdam nine years earlier, and had served doggedly through the sticy malarial season, first in Brazil and recently on the Dutch-controlled island of Curacao. The company was a major means of advancement for a Dutchman. Not long before the young man had been a clerk; how he commanded a fleet, bearing down on the enemy.

[p241] So it was with some exuberance that Van der Donck appeared before the entire governing body on February 10, 1652, to make the final argument on behalf of his colony. His adversary had literally lied the field, and in the room were some of the most distinguished men in the country. Adriaen Pauw, who had hoped to retire after successfully concluding the Treaty of Miinster, had been called back into service in the aftermath of Prince Willem's abortive coup, and now led the Holland delegation. Pauw would have had some personal interest in the American colony; two decades earlier, his brother, one of the directors of the West India Company, had founded one of the early patroonships on the Hudson River, to which he had given the latinized form of his last name, Pavonia. (He soon abandoned the project and sold the land back to the company, but it was the first permanent settlement in what would become New Jersey, and eventually became the cities of Hoboken and Jersey City.) Also present was Jan de Witt, who would soon rise to become leader of the nation and one of the great European statesmen of the age. To these assembled worthies Van der Donck made an elaborate presentation energized by his and his colleagues' convictions: that Manhattan and its surrounding territory represented a vital foothold on the unexplored world of the North American continent; that the West India Company had squandered this opportunity, but that it wasn't too late to reverse things. What was needed was new thinking. The leaders should abandon the old ways that allowed the company's bureaucracy to treat it as a feudal possession, and instead take this land across the ocean into the bosom of Dutch law, give its people the rights of Dutch citizens, and give its capital the status of a Dutch city with all the rights and protections that that entailed. Then they would see it flourish, and the Dutch Republic would reap the rewards.

Sensing victory, Van der Donck struck hard on the negative tack, summarizing the case against the West India Company and Stuyvesant, and, in typical fashion, methodically supporting his case with letters,journal entries, resolutions from the Board of Nine, and sworn statements that his colleagues in New Amsterdam had sent him over the previous months, all of which showed that Stuyvesant had not only failed to carry out any of the reforms their committee had voted on but had taken to ruling by fiat. His justice had become summary and brutal, especially against members of the Board (he had confiscated property and threatened them with imprisonment or banishment unless they swore that they knew "nothing of the Director and his government, but what is honest and honorable"). He had even blocked the notary sent over by the States General, forbidding him from doing his job; this man had then joined the opposition, and his letters were included in the sheaf of complaints Van der Donck exhibited.

Nevertheless, the letters revealed that there was still great hope on Manhattan that Van der Donck's mission would achieve results. "The people here are somewhat solaced on learning ITom the despatch that the affairs of New Netherland are beginning to be thoroughly and truly considered by their High Mightinesses, but they anxiously expect absolute Redress," one letter read. "Whatever you have done there for the public interest, I, for my part, do especially approve," Augustin Herman wrote to Van der Donck. "We are anxiously expecting the approval of the redress and a change."

These updates on the situation in the colony had an affect on the assembly. Among other things, they drove home that the community on Manhattan could no longer be considered an ad hoc collection of soldiers, fur traders, and whores, for whom martial law could suffice.

Via Rob 2005