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

Book cover for The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America

You have no idea how hard it is for me to spell this title “correctly” (with the American spelling of centre). I have the forbearance of a saint, I swear.

The Island at the Center of the World is about the Dutch colony on Manhattan Island—New Amsterdam and its ancillary towns that would eventually be surrendered to the English and metamorphose into New York and New York state. Russell Shorto wants to bring to light the extensive new work being done on records from that period. For the past thirty years, a specialist in that period has been laboriously translating hitherto untranslated documents that help shed light on the character of the colony. This is revising historians’ opinions of New Amsterdam. Shorto essentially takes the position that history is written by the victors, and the victors being English in this case meant they had no shortage of bad things to say about the Dutch. So they downplayed the Dutch origins of Manhattan and New York, choosing instead to present a narrative of the United States springing forth from thirteen English colonies.

For Shorto, this is all about tracing the development of the colony and highlighting how the Netherlands’ colonial efforts differed so much from other European powers at the time. Whereas England, France, and Spain were all focused on claiming new land through settlement, the Dutch tended to stick with military outposts that enforced their monopoly on critical trade goods. I had never thought of it this way before, but it’s an important difference, and it makes New Amsterdam stand out as one of the few examples of true colonization/settlement from the Dutch. (It also helps explain why, while the Netherlands had outposts flung across the world, the Dutch language itself has not spread far and wide like English did.) So while this is a history of Manhattan, it’s also a history of seventeenth-century European power struggles, but told from a very different perspective than you might otherwise experience. I liked that aspect.

I haven’t read much in the way of colonial histories, so it’s difficult for me to compare this book to others like it. I appreciate how Shorto explores the nuanced relationship between Indigenous peoples in the area and the Dutch settlers. He is careful to point out the stereotypes in our present-day culture, and then he also goes on to explain how the relationship was different from the one that would develop in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth centuries. He explains how the Indigenous peoples seemed to view the land purchases made by the Europeans (or at least, he tries to given the evidence we have available to us), and how from a certain perspective, the Indigenous peoples could be seen as having the upper hand in those deals (i.e., they “sold” the land in return for a presumptive alliance between their tribe and the Dutch, notwithstanding the Dutch not necessarily understanding or caring enough to uphold this end of the deal).

I originally wanted to read this book—I think; it’s been a while since it made it to my to-read list—because I was curious about Manhattan the island. It’s just so crazy to think of New York, today a bustling metropolis carpeted by steel girders and people, as wilderness. Yet it was, four hundred years ago. And we changed that. It wasn’t a natural process that transformed forests into parking lots and shopping malls. This is a very potent reminder of the way human beings are reshaping our planet.

On a related note, The Island at the Center of the World is aptly-titled, because Shorto reminds us of how geography plays a significant role in shaping our society and history. I don’t subscribe overly much to hardcore, Guns, Germs, and Steel–style geographic determinism, but geography certainly has influence. Even discarding the fixation with finding a passage to China through the Americas, the harbour and river system around Manhattan was one of the premiere entrances into the continent. For an economy that relied so extensively on shipping, this was all-important. It’s no wonder, then, that even when it was under Dutch control, New Amsterdam was a hub for shipping English goods from Virginia and New England across the Atlantic. Centre of the world indeed!

Shorto looks at the colony’s history through a biographical framework, focusing on some of the important movers and shakers of the time. There are some great aspects to this approach. He emphasizes the way that the wild, untamed American continent seemed to affect people who settled there. Even though Peter Stuyvesant and Adriaen Van der Donck were ultimately on the opposite side of a lot of issues, both petitioned to be allowed to return to the colony and there live out their days. Shorto adequately portrays the romanticism of the period. Actually, he might portray it overly much.

I read the Large Print edition of this book purely because it was the only copy available from my library, and libraries are rad. I thought the larger type would be a boon—it’ll make reading this non-fiction book a breeze! Counter-intuitively, it took me longer to work my way through the book. The font is larger, yes, but the typeface is so plain it’s almost ugly; the margins are skinnier … the design of the book, in general, is just minimalist and underwhelming. You don’t realize how important these elements are until they are taken away.

So I plodded through it, and I started losing patience. Shorto goes into so much detail, examines every little nuance and development. In particular, he feels it’s necessary to explore the background of every bit player. To some extent this is useful and interesting. Taken altogether, however, and the effect becomes amplified and loses some of its power. I just feel like there might have been a way to tell this story in a slightly more concise, punchier fashion.

I guess that’s what the movie treatment is for, right?

Do you like the confluence of geography and history? Do you want to learn more about that Dutch colony that has not-so-secretly influenced American culture, even if American myth does not want to admit it? If so, The Island at the Center of the World is your cup of tea. For all its flaws stylistically, it’s a solid, slightly academic read about a subject that perhaps needs more publicity. It’s not necessarily going to awaken those interests in you anew, but it will speak to them and provide you with more background on an important part of North American history.

Engagement

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