Buying Manhattan

May 6: The Dutch purchasedManhattan Island on this day in 1626, for goods valued at $24. The legendarydeal is the starting point for Russell Shorto’s recent bestseller, The Island at the Center of the World,which offers “a new foundation myth” (the New York Times) based onhis thesis that “Manhattan is where America began”:

Weare used to thinking of American beginnings as involving thirteen Englishcolonies—to thinking of American history as an English root onto which, overtime, the cultures of many other nations were grafted to create a new speciesof society that has become a multiethnic model for societies around the world.But that isn’t true. To talk of the thirteen original English colonies is toignore another European colony, the one centered on Manhattan, which predatedNew York and whose history was all but erased when the English took it over.

IfThe Island at the Center of the World is”literary alchemy,” its base metal is a roomful of historical recordsfrom the period when the island was the Dutch colony of New Netherland.Recently translated, the documents offer a full portrait of not only “thekings and generals who plotted for control of this piece of property,” butthe “explorers, entrepreneurs, pirates, prostitutes, and assortedscalawags from different parts of Europe” who sought adventure or wealththere:

Itscapital was a tiny collection of rough buildings perched on the edge of a limitlesswilderness, but its muddy lanes and waterfront were prowled by a Babel ofpeoples—Norwegians, Germans, Italians, Jews, Africans (slaves and free),Walloons, Bohemians, Munsees, Montauks, Mohawks, and many others—all living onthe rim of empire, struggling to find a way of being together, searching for abalance between chaos and order, liberty and oppression. Pirates, prostitutes,smugglers, and business sharks held sway in it. It was Manhattan, in other words, right from the start: a place unlike anyother, either in the North American colonies or anywhere else.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.