New Amsterdam’s New Hero: A Stubborn, Brainy Young Lawyer

The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America, by Russell Shorto. Doubleday, 384 pages. $27.50.

Much in the way that it’s strangely easy, when you live in Manhattan, to go whole months without thinking about the ocean, it’s easy to forget that this is, at heart, a Dutch city. The great forward-facing metropolis never had much space or time for historic preservation, and although you might happen to know that, for instance, a “high stockade” once ran along Wall Street, you really feel the 17th-century Dutch influence only when you walk through one of those downtown neighborhoods where the regular, open light of the grid gives onto the shadows of the old layout; where your view unexpectedly narrows, and the buildings huddle together in a relative quiet that would have pleased the people we credit with having invented domestic intimacy.

Historically, too, New Amsterdam has long been obscure. One of the first things the English did when they captured the city in 1664 was to confiscate the public records, all 48 leather-bound volumes of them. These they proceeded to sit on for about 100 years. England was busy co-opting the Dutch trade empire and not eager to call attention to its predecessor’s bygone glories, except perhaps in the occasional pamphlet, such as one written in 1653 and titled The Dutch-mens Pedigree, Or, A Relation Shewing How They Were First Bred and Descended from a Horse-Turd Which Was Enclosed in a Butter-Box. The records passed from a colonial fort to the Tower of London to a succession of American libraries, more than once smuggled out in advance of an approaching army, barely surviving two fires. Within a very short time, the cramped, intricate script in which the documents had been written was all but illegible even to someone fluent in Dutch. Eighteenth-century attempts to have them deciphered petered out or, in one case, resulted in a hopelessly flawed version that hindered more than helped the scholarly cause. A later, more capable translator suffered a breakdown when years of his work went up in flames. In a final, pathetic twist, 19th- and even 20th-century historians lamented that there wasn’t more to say about Dutch Manhattan-the documentary evidence was too scarce! And anyway, the Dutch were in control for just 40 years, barely long enough to get things ready for the Duke of York. The average layman’s sense of New Amsterdam’s progress went like this: A man named Peter Minuit bought the island from some Indians for a pocketful of guilders in 1626. Later, Peter Stuyvesant showed up. He had a peg leg. Then the English took over.

This darkness lifted a little in 1974, when the state of New York hired a linguist named Charles Gehring to translate “the New Netherland Documents.” Mr. Gehring has been at it up in Albany ever since, working his way, with the help of a Dutch assistant, through 12,000 moldy pages of letters and contracts and official reports, producing scholarly volumes at the rate of about one every two years. His work is steadily trickling down into the academic literature, enlarging and transforming the field.

Now, for the first time, we have a popular history that makes use of this new resource. Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World is an attempt, in some ways, to give Manhattan back to its founders (its European founders, that is-the author responsibly tips his hat to the Lenapes, Mohawks and Mahicans, who were doing fine before Henry Hudson met them in 1609 and pronounced them “very loving”). Mr. Shorto has written a dramatic, kaleidoscopic and, on the whole, quite wonderful book. The author is made a bit breathless by his luck: Mr. Gehring gave him “free rein over the shelves” of material never before touched by generalist hands, and at times Mr. Shorto is so busy reminding us how amazing we’re going to find the stories he’s about to tell us that our curiosity wavers.

Something one notices early on about Mr. Shorto’s tale is how oddly non-Dutch it can seem. Though in the employ of Dutch merchants, Henry Hudson was an Englishman; the first “Dutch” settlers to arrive in 1624 were in fact Walloons, French-speaking Protestants from what is now Belgium; even Peter Minuit, the legendary purchaser of Manhattan, was a French Protestant who had grown up in Germany. And from the start, the Dutch proudly allowed groups of English-who had not found among their fellow Pilgrims the liberty they left home in search of-to settle within the boundaries of New Netherland.

Mr. Shorto frequently reminds us that this is what set Dutch New York apart from the English colonies: its diversity, its cosmopolitanism, its (to use the book’s fetish word) “tolerance.” Seventeenth-century Holland accepted and sheltered Descartes, John Locke, Charles II and its own fair share of English Puritans. It produced Spinoza and Vermeer and the seminal legal thinker Hugo Grotius. The Dutch published Galileo’s books. No Netherlands, no Enlightenment. Plus, the specific Dutch institution that oversaw Manhattan was not religious but mercantile-insofar as the East India Company noticed New Amsterdam at all (the place was by far its shabbiest outpost), it didn’t care what people there thought about God. It cared about beavers. It cared very, very passionately about beavers. If you didn’t get in the way of the beaver-pelt trade with Europe, you were an honorary New Netherlander.

That was fine until a company-appointed director named Willem Kieft rashly touched off an unnecessary Indian war in 1642. The inhabitants learned the downside of being less a polity than a property: They had no direct means of redress. Kieft felt free simply to ignore their attempt at an elected council. They could write home to complain, but the higher-ups back in The Hague trusted management over labor. The Manhattanites realized with a shock that they weren’t really Dutch citizens; they just worked for the Dutch. Nor were they fully New Netherlanders, for they were forced to abide inept leaders chosen by men who had never even seen their country.

Enter “the hero of the story,” a 25-year-old Dutch lawyer (the first in New Amsterdam) named Adriaen Van der Donck. He had probably studied under Grotius himself at the University of Leiden and was, in any event, a young but fully formed man of the radical Enlightenment, a veteran of countless beery debates over “natural philosophy.” He came to the settlement in 1641 under the auspices of a wealthy landowner and, to his patron’s dismay, quickly disappeared into the forest, where he spent time among the Mohawks, became “an authority on the beaver,” and took notes toward one of the two works that history pretty much exclusively remembers him for: A Description of New Netherland.

Exclusively until now, that is. Mr. Shorto’s reclamation of Van der Donck as a vivid proto-revolutionary figure, “one of the first genuine Americans,” is the meat of his book, and a major achievement. Van der Donck’s ambition and abilities soon put him at the center of a small group of progressives-the Board of Nine-who wanted to test the East India Company’s power. They signed petitions (with Van der Donck, Jefferson-like, supplying the language), suggested reforms and, at one point, even canvassed the population to get a more accurate sense of its grievances.

This last bit of effrontery forced the hand of Peter Stuyvesant, the famous governor who had been sent by the company to replace Willem Kieft. Stuyvesant was Van der Donck’s opposite in every respect except stubbornness and brains. Mr. Shorto describes “the college dropout” as “efficient, meticulous, militaristic,” a soldier who lost his leg to cannon fire. For all his Calvinist rigidity, Stuyvesant was never a true tyrant: He respected culture, and he convinced himself at first that he could work with Van der Donck. When he realized the latter had in mind something that looks to us, three and a half centuries later, remarkably like liberal democracy, he had the young lawyer arrested.

After Van der Donck’s friends succeeded by various machinations in getting him freed, he and Stuyvesant waged cold war over the colony’s future. Van der Donck sailed back to Holland, on a mission to present the Board of Nine’s position, his famous Remonstrance of New Netherland in his fist. For a time it looked as if he and his friends might get what they wanted-representative government, “for the love of New Netherland,” with Van der Donck as president. But just then Cromwell started acting up, precipitating the first of the Anglo-Dutch Wars. The company knuckled down, reverting to military mode, and the Dutch authorities lost their patience with talk about “rights.” Stuyvesant held the field.

Mr. Shorto’s account of these events is a revelation: In previous tellings, Van der Donck is almost a footnote to the activities of Cornelis Melyn and Jochem Kuyter, two other outspoken-but far less articulate-members of the Board of Nine. Mr. Shorto doesn’t stop there, however: He wants us to see that Van der Donck didn’t really lose. He may not have defeated Stuyvesant at The Hague, but he succeeded in making Old Peg-leg nervous. In 1653, under pressure from company superiors and thinking, perhaps, that he could deflate tensions by indulging a little compromise, Stuyvesant bowed to the formation of a city government-officers appointed by him, but nonetheless a start. It was also one of the institutions that the Duke of York allowed the Manhattanites to hold onto after the English assumed control in 1664, meaning that this popular, secular, fairly enlightened little board of governors moved forward into the history of New York, and from there into the history of the United States.

This is Mr. Shorto’s claim, trumpeted in his subtitle: Dutch Manhattan is “the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America,” and Van der Donck-who was likely killed by Indians in 1655-“an early American prophet.” He does a thoroughly respectable job of backing it up. At times, one wishes he didn’t feel such a consistent need to overstate the uniqueness of New Amsterdam. It’s true that the Dutch were more tolerant than the Pilgrims (though they were just as brutal toward the Indians, “tolerated” slavery and executed homosexuals)-but just as our conception of New Netherland has undergone a transformation in the past 25 years, so has our understanding of the English colonies. They were a lot less monolithically homogenous than Mr. Shorto makes them out to be; they were rife with quasi-utopian loonies, sexual deviants and scary criminals-in other words, fine future Americans.

Mr. Shorto writes: “The origins of New York are not like those of other American cities. Those first settlers were not isolated pioneers but characters playing parts in a drama of global sweep, a struggle for empire that would range across the seventeenth century and around the globe, and which, for better or worse, would create the structure of the modern world.” But these are the ways in which New Netherland was precisely like the other colonies, unless your idea of Massachusetts comes from a Thanksgiving pageant. And what about the messy Southern frontiers, including 17th-century Spanish Florida, with its free “Negro towns”? Mr. Shorto comes close to setting up a false dichotomy between a brand-new, super-scholarly vision of the Dutch colony, and a thoroughly retrograde caricature of the rest. Similarly, when he talks about “history,” it’s hard to know whether he means professional historians or high-school history students. He says that Van der Donck’s Description of New Netherland is “forgotten by history,” but it’s included in most 19th- and 20th-century anthologies of writing on early New York and widely discussed by anthropologists and botanists. If he thinks it’s forgotten because your nephew hasn’t heard of it-well, by that standard, Jimmy Carter is forgotten by history, too.

Faults like this would sink a weaker book; in The Island at the Center of the World (a regrettably jingoistic Bush-era title), they are sporadic annoyances. This is one of those rare books in the picked-over field of colonial history, a whole new picture, a thrown-open window onto the intra-European struggles for dominance and the disputes over political philosophy that did indeed shape this country. With his full-blooded resurrection of an unfamiliar American patriot, Russell Shorto has made a real contribution-and given class clowns an excellent new name to pronounce 100 years from now: “Washington, Franklin, Jefferson … Van der Donck.”

John Jeremiah Sullivan, a contributing editor at Harper’s, is the author of the newly published Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

New Amsterdam’s New Hero: A Stubborn, Brainy Young Lawyer