arts 09.14.04

The Island at the Center of the World

Even in the 1640s, it was location, location, location. Russell Shorto's book, The Island at the Center of the World (Doubleday, $27.50), tells the story of the Dutch Manhattan, why it was such a key strategic settlement, why it's been overlooked by historians, and how profoundly the Dutch worldview has resonated locally down the centuries. It's no exaggeration to say that the tolerant, multi-cultural fabric of New York can be traced to some of its first European settlers: Claes Swits, Joris Rapalje, Catalina Trico, and the rest of the motley crew that you get to know in Mr. Shorto's compelling, revelatory account of Dutch Manhattan.

The story comes complete with a villain — Peter Stuyvesant — though there are enough shades of gray in his depiction for old peg leg to emerge more three-dimensionally than the usual cartoonish accounts. Crucial to the story (and to history) is the life of Adriaen van der Donck, a hero if there ever was one. Van der Donck jumps out of the book in a blaze: arriving in New York in his 20s, he falls in love with America, spends time with the Indian tribes to understand how they live, and becomes the passionate advocate for the nascent idea of participatory governance. None of this sits well with Stuyvesant, and Van der Donck's clashes with him are great historical drama.

One other hero comes to light in the course of Mr. Shorto's book. That is a man named Charles Gehring, who has been translating the Dutch records (which, miraculously, given their peripatetic existence, are largely intact) for 30 years, after an archivist in the New York State Library rediscovered the forgotten 12,000 pages of documents in the 1960s. For a number of reasons, it is difficult and painstaking work, and Mr. Gehring has been instrumental in bringing back to life a key part of the nation's history.

You can spend some time with the cast of characters, read an excerpt of the book, and take a virtual tour of New Netherland here. For anyone interested in the city's history, The Island at the Center of the World is endlessly fascinating and helps restore the Dutch colony to its rightful place in history.
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Charlie Suisman

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