Gotham's tolerant fathers

The Island at the Centre of the World
January 20, 2006

Russell Shorto's The Island at the Centre of the World is a well-written and engaging book. It uses recently translated historical documents from 17th-century America, when Manhattan was New Amsterdam, to bring vividly back to life a series of colourful figures.

Shorto, pursuing a reasoned argument that English Puritans from Massachusetts were intolerant, postulates that present-day New York benefited greatly from a considerably different spirit - the far more tolerant Dutch. Such a theory intentionally confounds popular American historic method and is a breath of fresh air.

However, his assertion that al-Qaeda's attack on the World Trade Centre "was no coincidence", as this southern tip of Manhattan is where the Dutch first settled, goes too far in crediting historical knowledge to a most unlikely source. Indeed, if the book has any weakness it is the writer's occasional willingness to cast his net too widely to catch modern times in the past he describes.

Shorto argues that the cosmopolitan and liberal New York of today has its roots in Dutch law, social perceptions and legal traditions. He is honest in couching the Dutch willingness to accept diversity as practical and expedient, even when it was not fully embraced. Indeed, the author even carefully recounts how it caused direct tension between ruler and ruled.

Yet he asserts that Dutch models of law and redress had a lasting effect on US institutions, citing the First Amendment to the Constitution as a parallel to the Flushing Remonstrance, a legal action of 1657 brought by English Quakers in New Amsterdam that guaranteed legal rights to all and became a widespread American principle of governance.

The book abounds in astonishing historic detail: a Mohawk tribe performs cannibalistic rites on a European settler who unwisely became embroiled in native American politics; Henry Hudson, who gave his name to the great river adjacent to Manhattan, dies after being abandoned by his crew; the young Harmen Meyndertsen van den Bogaert makes an arduous trek through an icy wilderness to arrange fur trading rights with the Mohawks, assuring Manhattan a significant trade in a valuable commodity, and so on. Shorto, in particular, resurrects the reputation of Adriaen van der Donck, a brilliant legal mind. Peter Stuyvesant, the flawed, controversial ruler of New Amsterdam, is also painted with vivid colours.

The author concludes his book with a humble observation: "The story of the original Manhattan colony matters. Its impact is so diffuse that it would be perilous to declare and define it too concretely, so here is a modest attempt to encapsulate: it helped set the whole thing in motion."

This book, which is novel in its research, can be enjoyed by anyone interested in New York and its past. All who find history a captivating window on to their understanding of modern America will also enjoy it.

Christopher W. London is an architectural historian with a DPhil in history from Oriel College, Oxford.

The Island at the Centre of the World: The Untold Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Founding of New York

Author - Russell Shorto
Publisher - Doubleday
Pages - 432
Price - £18.99 and £7.99
ISBN - 0 385 60324 X and 0 552 99982 2

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