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THE ISLAND AT THE CENTER OF THE WORLD by Russell Shorto

THE ISLAND AT THE CENTER OF THE WORLD

The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America

By Russell Shorto

Pub Date: March 16th, 2004
ISBN: 0-385-50349-0
Publisher: Doubleday

The all-but-forgotten origins of Manhattan, told with humor and an acute eye for primary sources.

It’s good to remember, the author suggests, that the early 17th century was the age of Shakespeare, Descartes, Vermeer, and Bacon, a time of change and tumult. Not the least part of that tumult was Dutch political and legal progressivism, “their matter-of-fact acceptance of foreignness, of religious differences, of odd sorts.” Tolerance, in a word, though Shorto (Saints and Madmen, 1999, etc.) is quick to point out that that meant “putting up with” rather than celebrating diversity. By the time New Amsterdam had been established, more as a business settlement of the West India Company than as a colony, its babel of nationalities were seeking balance between chaos and order, liberty and oppression. “Pirates, prostitutes, smugglers, and business sharks held sway,” he notes. “It was Manhattan . . . right from the start.” Despite the tyrannical leanings of the colony’s early directors, from Willem Kieft to Peter Stuyvesant, the crucial element that set New Amsterdam apart from its neighbors north and south was its striving toward democracy, largely in the person of Adriaen van der Donck, student of René Descartes and of Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius, of natural law and human reason. Van der Donck was a veritable Founding Father, the author asserts, though admitting that his authorship of many of the documents illustrating the push toward relative democracy in the colony can only be inferred. “Who was there, how they got along, how they mixed—that is the colony's unheralded legacy,” writes Shorto. A struggle played out among military and diplomatic maneuverings and the revamping of the colony’s political structure. It was a legacy lived by the gallimaufry of Manhattanites, and it was written by Grotius as much as by John Locke.

A bright social history of New Amsterdam that gives the Dutch their due as the first facilitators of its fabled diversity.