March Books 2) The Island at the Centre of the World

2) The Island at the Centre of the World, by Russell Shorto

This is, quite simply, a fantastic book.

It is essentially a micro-study of a small European country’s colony on an island off the North American coast, between its foundation in the 1620s and the moment when the British captured it forty years later. The author has gone through the surviving records, combined them with everything else available to him about the period, and come up with a cracking good yarn. He also argues (quite convincingly) that the specific cultural influence of the colony’s founders had a fundamental and decisive influence on North American and therefore on world politics.

A strong claim. But consider the unintended consequences of the colony’s newly created municipal council’s concern about a potential attack from the English in 1653. They built a defensive wall along the northern edge of the town. Shorto notes:

In the long term, what is notable about this first public works project orchestrated by the town government is not the wall itself but the street that ran along it. It’s a safe bet that no matter how wildly they tended to dream, the magistrates could not have imagined that this rough pathway would replace the gleaming, colonnaded bourse of Amsterdam as the centre of world finance.

For this is the story of New Amsterdam, the centre of the Dutch settlement on the east coast of America.

Shorto follows the careers of the main figures of the Dutch colony, Peter Minuit, who probably made the famous transaction of 60 guilders with the Indians as part of a plan to move the main settlement from what is now Governor’s Island to the larger island across the bay; Peter Stuyvesant, its governor for seventeen years; and Stuyvesant’s rival, Adriaen van der Donck, the colony’s first chronicler, hitherto forgotten by history, eventually meeting an obscure fate, the “jonkheer” commemorated in the name of Yonkers.

But he also follows the ordinary people – for instance, Catalina Trico and Joris Rapalje, teenagers hastily married in Amsterdam in early 1624 just before emigrating, who pop up again and again as minor characters in the story. He does his best to get into the mind-set of the Indians, who must have assumed that they were really in control right up to the end of this period. “The early seventeenth century was a much more interesting time than the Wild West era, a time when Indians and Europeans were soemthing like equal participants in a joint habitation of the land, dealing with one another as allies, competitors, partners.”

And most particularly, he makes the argument that the Dutch national commitment to toleration and diversity played out in New Amsterdam in making it a cosmopolitan society from the very beginning, where as early as 1646 the four hundred inhabitants spoke eighteen languages between them, and that the town’s location at the centre of the main land passage from the coast to the interior of the continent inevitably meant that its values would be transmitted more readily to future settlers than would the ethos of Puritan New England to the north or the plantation owners to the south, something that only the forgotten van der Donck appears to have foreseen.

It is topped and tailed neatly: topped by a fascinating introductory chapter on Henry Hudson, who led the Dutch-funded expedition that first charted the islands in 1609 and the river that bears his name, the year before his crew mutinied and marooned him and his son in a small boat in the bay much further north that also bears his name and contains his unmarked resting place; and tailed by a brief account of the years after the first surrender to the British and the renaming of the colony after the future English king who had masterminded the campaign, the Duke of York. Shorto notes that in order to maintain the value of their new asset, the British had to preserve the unique cultural character of the city.

Nice little throwaway anecdotes as well, such as this observation about a monarch who Just Did Not Get It:

Of course he believed in freedom for his subjects, [King Charles I] famously explained, “but I must tell you that their liberty and freedom consist in having government… It is not their having a share in government, that is nothing appertaining to them.” (He gave this explanation to the crowd gathered to watch his beheading.)

Or on an early Dutch negotiator with the Indians, who

was given a house, presents and thick portions of bear meat. Although he doesn’t mention it, he may have been given other things as well, for the detailed list of Mohawk vocabulary he compiled includes the words for “man”, “woman”, “prostitute”, “vagina”, “phallus”, “testicles”, “to have intercourse”, “very beautiful”, “When shall you return?” and “I do not know.”

And staying with the linguistic theme, it’s obvious, once Shorto points it out, that the island at the entrance to the bay was named after the Dutch parliament, the States-General, or Staten for short. That the Dutch koekje became the generic term for baked confectionery when it became a “cookie”. That the Dutch colonists’ cabbage salad, or kool sla, shifted its spelling more than its pronunciation to become “coleslaw”. That the Dutch managerial relationship with the baas, though slightly re-nuanced in meaning and sound by colonial circumstances, became the American concept of the “boss”. He also makes out a reasonable case for lingering Dutch influence in the origins of Santa Claus, the office of district attorney, and indeed the Bill of Rights.

There are one or two slips. I bristled a bit at Shorto’s use of the phrase “English Civil War”, which by his own account started in Scotland, and which had a significant Irish dimension here completely unreported. He also has Samuel Pepys buying a beaver hat in 1641, when the future diarist was in fact only eight years old. The IJ is technically the river at Amsterdam, not the bay (formerly the Zuiderzee, now the IJsselmeer). But these are minor quibbles.

As I said above, this is a fantastic book. Strongly recommended.

One thought on “March Books 2) The Island at the Centre of the World

  1. I have always loved the aspiration of that hymn. The only time it brought me to tears was at the funeral of Chris Lightfoot who, more than anyone else I know, put it into practice. He is sorely missed.

    Thank you for posting the lovely manuscript.

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