Sep

20

I recently finished reading the Island in the Center of the World, by Russell Shorto. I enjoyed the book very much and it contains many Daily Speculations type themes, notably, trading, speculating, sea adventure, Wall Street, markets and New York City. The book is about the origins and development of the first Dutch settlement of the New World, New Amsterdam, circa 1650-1670, which would later become New York.

The book is fascinating on many levels. It is non-fiction but written in a narrative style, telling the story of three characters of history. They are Peter Stuyvesant the strict military ruler, Adriaen Van der Donck the visionary pioneer, and the fledgling colony itself, part military outpost, part trading company, part lawless village, part gateway to the continent. At that time New Amsterdam was just one of many settlements along the eastern seaboard including those of the English, Swedish and French. The way the New Amsterdam came to succeed and dominate all the others and eventually shape the whole country is the subject of this book.

The authors generalizes and makes a bold claim that it was the Dutch not the British that would lay the foundation for the city and the country we know today. I think he supports this claim well throughout the book. The themes of tolerance, inclusiveness, free trade, and incentives were Dutch ideas. Though shaped in Europe, they were first put into practice as governing ideas in New Amsterdam.

The author describes the period in great detail and allows you to imagine how the island must have looked to those first Dutch traders. Hudson was commissioned by the Dutch to search the area for what he thought was a quicker route to India. It was a commercial venture of the East India Trading Company. They found no route, but instead a land rich with forests, wild life, vegetation, fish, and abundance of all kinds. All this was set in the most perfect natural harbor imaginable with a river leading north to a boundless continent. In short order the trading company recognized the value of this area, claimed it and set up their first outpost in the New World. A settlement based on commerce, but with military backing just in case.

The book describes the progress of the early traders and how they negotiated their deals with the local Indians. They learned the many languages in the area, and competed with the French for better trade deals. The Indians were good negotiators despite the legend of Manhattan being bought for 50 beads. In fact the local Indians got much more including full use of Manhattan whenever and however they wanted, an alliance with the Dutch against local enemies, and trade concession for their thriving fur business. Later as trade expanded the village became a major port for merchants and privateers. (The distinction between pirate and privateer was small, the privateer being legitimate due to an 80 year war against Spain.) In all, it is a description of a vibrant and wild place, rich with commerce and a truly international setting.

The author goes on to describe how the village begins to convert itself from an "ad hoc collection of soldiers, fur traders, and whores" to an independent city with rights and laws based on the liberal European thinkers of the time. The ideas of self government, free speech, open assembly, representation, tolerance, were all somewhat new ideas at the time. It was through the clash of two large personalities that this all came to be, Stuyvesant the military commander and Van der Donck, the lawyer activist. The book outlines their various alliances and battles as the city forms around them.

Beside an informative history it is full of interesting factoids, for example: Yonkers is actually a Dutch term for "gentleman" and was an area granted to Van der Donck for his farm. Breuckelen is also a Dutch name for the small village across the river. There were four accepted currencies at the time beaver pelts, polished sea-shells, Spanish pieces of eight and the Dutch guilders. There was of course a wall along Wall Street, and it marked the northern the edge of the original village. It was there primarily to keep the English out as they began to encroach their way over from Long Island.

The lasting impression I have from the book is the credit we should give to our Dutch forefathers for their bravado in taking on the venture that would become New York. The vibrant, multi-cultural, open community that is New York is due in large part to their example. Though the Dutch would eventually lose the city to the British in the late 1600's, by then New York had already secured its own identity and its place as the center of commerce and culture in the world.


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