Charting the Dutch history of New York

Charting the Dutch history of New York

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The Netherlands lost the North American colony New Netherlands to the British in 1664, but the Dutch bestowed a powerful legacy on Manhattan - a belief in racial and religious harmony and a desire for democracy, according to a new book.

History is written by the winners, Shorto reminds us early on in his book, "The Island at the Centre of the World: The untold story of Dutch Manhattan and the Founding of New York".

We are used to thinking, says Shorto, of America's beginning being an English tale: "the 13 original English colonies form the basis onto which over time other cultures are grafted on, creating a new multiethnic model for progressive societies".

Shorto is aggrieved that the Dutch role in the history of the American colonies has been reduced to a caricature. 

The story goes something like this: the Dutch were there in the early days and were shrewd enough to buy Manhattan from the Native American population for NLG 60 or USD 24 worth of beads in 1626.

Just over 40 years later the "peg-legged and cantankerous" Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant was sent packing by English warships and after a brief war the Netherlands was forced to swap its North American possessions for Suriname.

With incomplete history like this, it is a wonder Stuyvesant isn't turning in his grave. Perhaps he is: Shorto notes that New Yorkers in the 19th century insisted the old Governor haunted St Mark's-in-the-Bowery church, which was built on the site on the Stuyvesant family chapel in Manhattan's East Village.

Shorto liberally sprinkles his impressive 430-page work with interesting nuggets such as this.

He also points out the misunderstanding about the price the Dutch paid to the naïve local population for Manhattan. Historians popularised the story in the 19th century.

It was based on a letter an official, Pieter Schagen, wrote to directors of the Dutch West Indies Company in 1626, in which he explained how original Governor Peter Minuit bought the island of Manhattan from the locals (Indians) in exchange for goods valued at NLG 60.

Later, historians did some dubious calculations and reckoned this was the equivalent of USD 24 in 19th century money.

To begin with, the Native Americans never adhered to the curious western idea that you could "buy" land. They saw themselves more in the role of landlords leasing a property to ensure friendly co-existence and an alliance against their enemies.

Shorto argues that far from being purely exploited bit players, the Native Americans played a much more complex role in the early history of the colony; they had their own agendas and hoped to use the newcomers to their advantage.

Ultimately, even more so than the Dutch, the "Indians" ended up as victims in American history.

While such information is interesting, there is little new here. Most considered histories have already traced the intricacies of how the Netherlands lost — and the British won — New York.

What is new, is Shorto's attempt to put flesh and blood on the flimsy history of the early Dutch settlement, using the transcripts of the colony's own records as his main source.

It is a pity Shorto did not write a book focused on the extraordinary history of these documents themselves, with scholar Charles Gehring as the hero of the piece. Charting the history of the documents is a tale that deserves its own book.

A specialist in the Dutch 17th century language, Gehring, then 35, was longing for a relevant job in the mid-1970s. Fortune smiled on him when he was given the task of sorting through a mass of "charred, mould-stippled" papers in the New York Library.

The documents, correspondence, court cases, legal contracts and reports that chart the history of the Manhattan settlement had survived the ravages of time, poor storage, indifference and a radical change of ownership of the colony.

The English pointedly decided not to include the archive in the first accounts of America's history. Later attempts to translate the archive had fallen prey to a fire which destroyed the State library in 1911 and a second attempt was also burned in the early 20th century.

Acknowledging Gehring's groundbreaking research on the archive, Shorto uses his labours to develop his own thesis: the Netherlands was the most progressive society in Europe and this rubbed off on the first settlers recruited by the West Indies Company to settle America.

He partially rehabilitates Stuyvesant, pointing out for instance he demanded the settlers deal fairly.

The best element of the book is the contrast between Stuyvesant's heavy-handedness and liberal Adriaen van der Donck. The latter clashed with Stuyvesant and penned a petition calling for the settlers to be given a say in the West India Company's control over the Manhattan town's governance.

While this is indeed a powerful plea for a degree of democracy, it is a bit of a stretch to try and extend this sentiment and argue the Dutch were the sole godfathers of New York's liberalism and multicultural society.

Shorto has done valuable work by resurrecting the Dutch contribution to New York in a scholarly, yet very readable book.

No doubt this contribution was an important ingredient in the region's social and political development — but set against the many more years of British and then American domination, followed by a mass influx of immigrants, the Dutch contribution remains a minority one.

Nevertheless, anyone interested in balanced history — and not just the history written by the winners — this is a very worthwhile read.

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The Island at the Centre of the World:
The untold story of Dutch Manhattan and the Founding of New York

By Russell Shorto
Doubleday, Transworld Publishers 2004
ISBN 0385 60324X

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10 August 2004

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