I loved history when I was in school: fantastic stories of men and women carving out nations and standing against tyrannical leaders for freedom and the right to self-determination. I particularly loved the one about my homeland: The United States of America.The plucky and far sighted captain who combed the ranks of European royalty until he found someone with the vision and money to support his journey to the famed New World. The uncertainty of those last hungry weeks on the water, eyes searching the horizon. The excited cry of ‘land ho!’ The discovery of miles of virgin forest, inhabited by only a few friendly locals, who were happy to trade chunks of land for a few beads, but then became unexpectedly proficient at kidnapping and scalping innocent colonists. A long stretch of time where not much interesting happened, except a big party involving the friendly Indians and a whole lot of turkey, until the day our brave founding fathers threw off the yoke of a tyrannical English master by dumping a whole bunch of tea in the Boston harbor – or something like that. Some brave soldiering by Washington and company, and voila: America the Beautiful was born, and its been all heroism and grand achievements since then.
Yes, this was American history as taught in classrooms across the nation when I was a young girl. And I cherished it – until I became curious about those empty spots in the timeline. About why friendly natives should be so mean to us. About why New York used to be called New Amsterdam. I think I was about 12 at the time, and while I (and some great teachers in later years) were able to clear up some of the confusion for me, it wasn’t until I read Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World that I felt someone had brought so many of the threads together in a concise, readable and – yes to all you who think history is dull – exciting story of the Dutch footprint on the soil of the “New World�?.
Mr. Shorto tells us two stories, really: the story of the explorers, merchants, pirates, prostitutes and – as he calls them – scallywags who settled the territory now known as New York, and the story of a collection of documents, forgotten for years, and holding the key to understanding so many of the reasons we, who are now known as Americans, are who we are. He tells us of Henry Hudson, searching for the Northwest Passage to the Orient – and instead discovering the river now bearing his name, with a small island jutting out into the enormous harbor. He tells of Peter Stuyvesant, sent into what amounted to near-exile to govern the scallywags on the island, and forced by circumstances and his own complicated personality into history as a flawed, tragicomic tyrant. And – my favorite – he tells of Adriaen van der Donck, perhaps one of the most important forgotten heroes in the story of our birth as a democratic nation.
Because what Meneer van der Donck and the other fine inhabitants of Manhattan did, by standing up to the tyranny of Stuyvesant, and the neglect of the East Indies Company, was to write letters, draft documents and file complaints that were to lay the ground work for nothing less than our own constitution – and then be set aside as unimportant when the English flag replaced the Dutch one flying over the city. Shorto clearly traces the political philosophies of the day from the universities and battlegrounds of the low countries to the growing community perched on the tip of Manhattan. He draws parallels between the Sea Beggars and the Minutemen, the Dutch provinces and the 13 colonies. He makes a solid case that our nation was not actually founded on the strict religious beliefs of those who landed at Plymouth Rock (whose scrappier community members regularly fled to the wild freedoms of New Amsterdam), but on the tolerance and self-rule demanded by the Dutch van der Donck and his compatriots, ideas brought over the water from the law schools and cafes of Europe.
And all these documents survived neglect, fire, flood and the dust of centuries to end on an almost-hidden floor of the New York State Library in Albany, where for the last 30-odd years, a certain Dr. Gehring has been kindly translating them for us. Thanks to the work of Dr. Gehring, and the grand story made of it by Mr. Shorto, the pirates, prostitutes, merchants, lawyers and scallywags who are the true forefathers of the multicultural, tolerant – and yes feisty and proud – nation we call America come alive for us in the pages of An Island at the Center of the World. Because, with this book, Mr. Shorto has given us a history lesson far different from the sleep inducing murmurs of a high school teacher. The characters come to living color before us, we care about what happens to them; the story inspires one to wander the streets of what is now the New York City financial district, searching for the place where this confrontation or that secret meeting took place; his lessons are told in a way to inspire, they seep into your heart in a way no memorizing of names and dates for a final exam could ever make us do.
And we readers – whether American, Americans living in The Netherlands, or Dutch – are richer for it.
There are a few books which I think should be required reading for anyone who truly wants to understand why Americans are the people they are, and the United States the nation it is, but An Island at the Center of the World is, without a doubt, one of them.