Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Book Review: 'The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America' by Russell Shorto


Here, Russell Shorto, drawing on the 25 years of toil by researcher Dr. Charles Gehring, tells the story of how the Dutch colony of "New Amsterdam" actually became the renamed English colony of New York (named for James I, the Duke of York, brother of King Charles II). And after which, the context of the Dutch origins of Manhattan and New York City, were simply "air-brushed" out of history and promptly forgotten.

Like all narratives of American history should be, but are not, this revised story of New York is actually two stories rolled into one: the story of the personal lives of key players, embedded within the larger geopolitical context.

The second, arguably, the less important story, is about how a band of ordinary explorers, entrepreneurs, pirates, prostitutes, and assorted scalawags from different parts of Europe," were not only able to hack out an existence in the backwater wilderness of the island of Manhattan, but also in the process, were able to create a new society -- important vestiges of which still endure -- and which to a large extent, shaped the democratic institutions we now take for granted, and more importantly, those which, we have long mistakenly attributed to our later mostly slaveholding English born founding fathers.

The first, and arguably the more important story, is about the geopolitical context (which sadly is consistently an element typically missing in the stories of the other colonies, and in American history more generally) in which, as it turns out, this rough assemblage of pioneers were in fact mere bit players in a wider 17th Century geopolitical drama: a drama about the struggle for empire among Europeans, Indians, and Africans on the continent, a drama that incontrovertibly created the existing structure of the modern world.

In this first, arguably more important story, the author tells us about the time when the sun was about to set on the Spanish/Portuguese rule of the sea, and England and the Dutch were on the rise. It is an immensely rich geopolitical story about how these "true" dutchmen of the sea -- Europe's shipbuilders, suppler of sailors, pilots, and traffickers -- who had been summarily cut off from the world's richest center of trade, the port of Lisbon, in 1580 by the condominium that then ruled the sea, Spain and Portugal. The Dutch answer to this strategically imposed trade embargo -- was to sail completely around the globe (it took a year) with a fleet of gunpowder-laden ships, where they laid-waste to Portugal's colonies of Java, Sumatra and Malaysia, taking them over, and taking back to Amsterdam some 600, 000 pounds of the world's most valuable spices.

England, on the other hand, hadn't yet dug itself out of the Dark Ages. Its intellectual status was still suspect, and its economy was in shambles -- based as it was solely on the sale of wool. As Queen Elizabeth I came to power, Britain had no interest in exploration except our of a desperate need to free itself from the same Spanish trade embargo that had snared the Dutch, and more generally from forever living in Spain's shadow. With its spectacular victory over the Spanish armada in 1588, the latter would change. But it would take time and extra effort, and the help of Henry Hudson and his scientist friends, before the former would change, and before England would get into the exploration game with all four feet.

The author also tells us that the Dutch came to America purely on a private business adventure excursion, sponsored by the Dutch West Indies Company. The company's business, pure and simple, was to make money from the lucrative fur trade, not, as others were intent on doing, to colonize the continent. They were so wildly successful at fur trading in fact that they became the envvy and a target of all their intra-continental competitors. As a result of this success, they were constantly harried by the Indians from the West; a Swedish colony from the South, and were eventually forced to fight three wars with England before finally having to give up their stake in Manhattan in 1664.

Each of the struggles of these two nations, and the people at their center, as it turns out, represented important turning points that still make up the indispensable but hiterto, missing context to the American story.

Thus, the two stories, the first being the larger contextual story of geopolitics; and the second, a much smaller set of personal stories, of the struggle between two Dutch men over the fate of the colony and the meaning and value of individual liberty they would attach to it, merged on the geopolitical level as the climatic competition between them.

Their personal struggles helped ensure that New York City under the English would develop into a unique place fostering a melting pot of cultures involving the introduction of African slavery to the continent, embodying for the first time the principles of freedom and democracy, and ensuring that a wildly fertile intellectual, artistic, and business environment would become the hallmark of New York City for the rest of its existence.

The two competing personalities were: (1) Peter Stuyvensant, a complex pegged-legged cantankerous tyrant, a neo-racist and anti-Semite, who despite his narrow views, was nevertheless extremely sensitive to Dutch cruelties towards Indians. And the other was: (2) Adriaen van der Donck, a savvy Dutch-trained lawyer, whose specialty in today's terminology would have to be characterized as being America's first Civil Rights lawyer. For he went to bat for "citizens rights" at a time when the term "citizen" was used very loosely, and the term "Civil Rights" had not yet even been invented. Henry Hudson must also be mentioned if only in passing as he too played a seminal role in raising England from the slumber of the Dark Ages, and getting it into the exploration game, although he was eventually killed in a munity by his shipmates.

My "beef"

Much too often American historical narratives are willfully reduced to little more than self-serving patriotically satisfying myth-based melodramas about the personalities and often the much exaggerated personal lives of a handful of rich slaveholding Englishmen. In the process, these artful -- but socially-edited stories -- often serve onlt to "air-brush-out" the most important part of the story: the complexity of the geopolitical and moral context.

It is to Mr. Shorto's immense credit, that he, like a number of other recent historians of his generation (Roxanne Dunbar-Otiz, Gerald Horne, Andrea Stuart, and Eugene D. Genovese, among them) have resisted this temptation to take the "socially-approved" shortcut to glory, and instead, give us more full-bodied, unalloyed, fully contextualized authentic narratives that include moral warts and all.

By embedding the smaller personal stories of the individuals inside the larger geopolitical context of the times, arguably, such upgraded narratives, greatly open up space for deeper interpretative understanding, understanding that invariaby lead to entirely new historical vistas, vistas in which the wider contextualization begins to do most of the heavy-lifting. In doing so, it takes a great deal of the burden and temptation to take the socially-approved shortcut, off of the writer's need to have the narrative rely solely on patriotically inspired melodramatics.

Here, the reader will see unmistakably how the dots are connected through a re-contextualization of the New York origin story. And how doing so, actually pumps vital new life into the 350-year old excavated facts that make up the substance. And how does it do this exactly? By connecting what goes on at eye level -- between the personalities of Peter Stuyvensant, Adraien van der Donck, and Henry Hudson, with what is also going on at the time above their heads at the geopolitical level. With this connection between the facts on the ground and the context above it securely made, there can be no mistake that this narrative is authentic history in the making, rather than just socially safe patriotic storytelling.

I would hope, and would like to think, that in addition to the author's exquisite prose, it is as much his way of embedding the two stories into one, that is most responsible for this book being awarded both the "Washington Irving Prize for contribution to New York History," as well as the "Gold Medal of the Holland's Society for Literary Excellence." Ten stars



Editor's note: This review was written by Dr. Herbert L. Calhoun and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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