The Island at the Center of the World

clip_image002_0008Russell Shorto, Doubleday, 2004, 384 pp, ISBN 0385503490

This book tells the history of how the geographic area we now know as Manhattan Island or New York City was first settled by entrepreneurs from the so called low land countries of Western Europe, known today as the Netherlands.

The source of documentation on which this history is base comes from a little known research program operating out of the New York State Library in Albany, New York. The program is the New Netherland Project. Its web site is http://www.nnp.ong. This web site contains related information including many maps showing early 17th century depictions of Manhattan Island and the Atlantic coastal colonies.

The time period runs from 1609, when the explorer Henry Hudson first sailed into the mouth of the eponymous river on the west side of Manhattan Island, through 1664 when Peter Stuyvesant, the leader of the Dutch West India Company surrendered Fort Amsterdam to England’s King James commander Richard Nicolls.

This book is an easy to read, hard to put down account of the personalities and events central to the settlement of Manhattan. The author incorporates        abundant historical research to describe what transpired in the Dutch colony and the events in Europe and elsewhere that had a bearing on the outcome for New Netherland.

Skillfully written historical works enable the reader to experience the events of the past as if they were occurring in the present.

In this reviewer’s opinion, the author has accomplished just that. For example, what we consider today to be standard, common health and hygiene practices were unknown to the people if the 17th century. By understanding the conditions of everyday life on Manhattan Island in the mid sixteen hundreds the reader appreciates the difficulties encountered by those trying to establish the settlement of Manhattan.

The author depicts the everyday life of both the ordinary citizens and the economically privileged, showing how the changing events of the time motivated both classes, and how specific characters reacted to those events.

This reviewer found particularly interesting the different “management styles” utilized by several of the leaders of New Netherlands. The initial interest of the Dutch in New Netherland (Manhattan,) as exploited by the Dutch West India Company, was to take     advantage of the abundance of natural resources in this virgin land.

Unlike other European countries that were also establishing footholds in the New World by encouraging immigration and colonization as well as exploration, the Dutch West India Company viewed this solely as another part of their worldwide exploitation of valuable natural resources.

Over time, however, the inhabitants of New Netherland became increasingly more culturally and ethnically diverse and desired to have a more structured and recognized form for governing their new colony. The heads of the West India Company and their local administrators never shared this desire. The inevitable resultant conflicts of interest between the peoples’ desire and the goals of the Company, along with the events taking place in homeland Europe ultimately lead to England capturing the Dutch colony and renaming it New York.

Reviewed by Chuck Gray
From the Society’s October 2008 Newsletter