Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Island at the Center of the World

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

Non-fiction, American History

The prologue to this book states that most Americans think of the early Dutch colony of Manhattan as less than a footnote, a collection of unmotivated layabouts who did little or nothing until the English took them over. (I would argue that most Americans think little of pre-Revolutionary history at all, with the Pilgrims, Jamestown, and the Salem witch-trials alone rising out of the fog of ignorance.) This view is commonplace for two reasons: the English of the seventeenth century were largely at war with the Dutch, and would not like to give props of any kind to a defeated enemy, and the grand majority of records surrounding the Dutch colony were either lost (thrown out, in one famous instance of house-cleaning) or languished untranslated.

The lack of records has only recently been addressed, with one man, Charles Gehring, spending the last thirty years translating a huge number of records that have somehow managed to largely survive fires, mold, bad storage, and moves between continents. (One can only hope that someone is making facsimilies as well; two previous partial translations perished to fire, though one was so bad that its loss is probably a mercy.) It is on these records that Shorto bases his narrative and shows that, far from being a wasted effort, the Dutch colony laid foundations for much of what this country has become, including its religious tolerance, its upwardly mobile character, and its district attorneys.

Shorto traces the history of the colony from its discovery by Dutch-hired English explorer Hudson, to its settlement by the West India company (responsible for the historian-reviled housecleaning mentioned above), to the mismanagement by various company officials (and the development of the idea of an independent government because of them), to the final surrender to the English - by the will of the people, and contrary to the will of its governor. (The colony would go on to change hands again a number of times, something glossed over in standard histories.) The book touches on the few bits of history that somehow survived, including the infamous purchase of Manhattan for "twenty-four dollars' worth of household goods," a nineteenth-century historian's attempt to translated the amount into modern terms. (Two things are pointed out about that: the first is that the value of sixty guilders is much higher in today's terms, and the second that the Indians didn't just pack up and move away after the sale, but hung around, hunted, fished, farmed, and expected further presents and entertainment for up to fifty people at a time for decades after. As the author points out, the Indians of the area were not poor, simple, savages, but were a lot sharper than many histories give them credit for.)

Shorto makes a persuasive argument using material that has been largely unavailable before now. And as he points out, since its discovery, possession of Manhattan has been critical in world affairs. It was true in the seventeenth century, and it is true today.


(Please note that this book will not be published until mid-March.)

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