Book Review: The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto

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Most people don’t know much about Dutch Manhattan beyond its first director, Peter Minuit, who made the $24 deal with the Indians, and Peter Stuyvesant, the governor who lost the island to the English in 1664. These were two of the most notable events that took place during this time period. The two well-known characters became popular in this novel, The Island at the Center of the World, along with a lot of other characters. However, the main purpose of Shorto’s book was to argue for the large debt Americans owe to Dutch Manhattan, the first location in the New World where women and men of various races and creeds lived. The following book review of Russell Shorto’s novel, The Island at the Center of the World, will include a summary of the book’s content along with personal opinions of the book and a survey of the major strengths and weaknesses of the novel.

Shorto desired to style his narrative around the personalities that mirrored the tensions within the colony itself, singling out the two best figures of the time: Adriaen van der Donck, who worked to sell a democratic vision better appropriate to the possibilities of the New World, and Peter Stuyvesant, who represented an autocratic, Old-World view.

In this book, the author follows Henry Hudson, who worked for the Dutch East India Company, a trading company that we discussed in class. Establishing the Dutch colony in Manhattan was actually an unplanned accident. Hudson was a visionary explorer who wanted to find a northwest passageway to the east for the Muscovy Company, but they denied him because his first attempt failed. However, the Dutch East India Company had more faith in Hudson, and in 1608, he set sail up the river that would later be named the Hudson River. He comes across the island of Manhattan and immediately knew that it was going to be a center of trade with Europe.

The company wanted to set up a whole colony instead of just a military outpost like how they usually do when establishing trading centers. Shorto discusses the story of Manhattan beneath the rule of the Dutch colony while this island in New York was still called New Netherland. This a part of history isn’t as heard about because the British Empire took over rule of New Amsterdam. The Dutch welcomed everyone to their island of all nationalities and religions, creating the unique town of Manhattan. Because it was ruled by the Dutch, New Amsterdam was modeled after the European metropolis. It became a various network that valued exchange and housed specific religions.

Compared to the British colonies, New Amsterdam become very exclusive when it changed to base its society totally on intolerance. The Dutch have been traders, not nation-developers. Therefore, they welcomed human beings from all over with all distinct backgrounds. The Dutch additionally had been friendly towards the Native Americans and used the Indians information to benefit the colony’s development.

All of these reasons collectively brought about how Manhattan ended up as the center of world exchange. Shorto declared that the Dutch colony of Manhattan produced a set of values that helped create this society, along with the intention to shape the basis of American tradition. This claim is the alternative of the more traditional claim of the ways American culture become largely installed through English settlers who inhabited the northeastern New England area.

Manhattan not only was the port for Dutch trade, but it was also centered around Dutch values. The Dutch were not alone on the northeastern coast. The English colonies in the north were also there; for example, Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay housed English settlers as well. In the beginning, New Amsterdam were friendly with the other colonies. However, when the colonies became increasingly expansive, tension between the Dutch and the English in the New World arose.

Adriean van der Donck was the Dutchman in the book who introduced liberalism to 17th century Amsterdam to the Dutch colony of New Netherlands. Van der Donck was known as “Jonkheer” or “young lord.” He built a saw mill on his estate on the Hudson river, and that is where people got the term Yonkers and how the Saw Mill Parkway was created. People today only know two main things about New Amsterdam and that is it was bought from the Indians in 1626 for the small amount of twenty-four dollars, and that New Amsterdam became New York when the English came in 1664 and took over.

The history of how Manhattan was a multicultural, liberal colony is taught today as an English history rather than how it should properly be taught, as Dutch history considering how the Dutch started all of this progressive movement. Van der Donck studied law at Leiden which had a very top-ranked university comparable to Oxford in the subjects of philosophy and logic. Inspired by his studies, he developed an eye for observation and objectivity. He became friends with the Indians, lived with them, studied the landscape of what is now known as Albany, and wrote a book describing the land. He was the one who brought principles of a representative government and religious freedom to New Amsterdam.

The second main character in the book was Peter Stuyvesant who was the opposite of Van der Donck. Stuyvesant fought the Spanish in South America and lost his leg to a cannonball. He also was the director of the Dutch West India Company which was, during the time, looking around the world for natural and human resources. Stuyvesant and Vander Donck used to be good friends until Stuyvesant’s heavy-handed way of leading the colony led Van der Donck and a few settlers to write protests including positive principles of secular governance for the colony. Stuyvesant had more of an authoritarian point of view on how to run the colony, but somehow together, between Stuyvesant’s strict governing ways and Van der Donck’s progressive views, New Amsterdam became a model for secular civilization that later turned New York City into a melting pot, welcoming people of all religions, cultures, and professions.

Cite this paper

Book Review: The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto. (2021, Feb 27). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/book-review-the-island-at-the-center-of-the-world-by-russell-shorto/

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