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The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America

The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America

4.4 55
by Russell Shorto, T. Ryder Smith (Narrated by)

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In a landmark work of history, Russell Shorto presents astonishing information on the founding of our nation and reveals in riveting detail the crucial role of the Dutch in making America what it is today.

In the late 1960s, an archivist in the New York State Library made an astounding discovery: 12,000 pages of centuries-old correspondence, court


In a landmark work of history, Russell Shorto presents astonishing information on the founding of our nation and reveals in riveting detail the crucial role of the Dutch in making America what it is today.

In the late 1960s, an archivist in the New York State Library made an astounding discovery: 12,000 pages of centuries-old correspondence, court cases, legal contracts, and reports from a forgotten society: the Dutch colony centered on Manhattan, which predated the thirteen “original” American colonies.  For the past thirty years scholar Charles Gehring has been translating this trove, which was recently declared a national treasure.  Now, Russell Shorto has made use of this vital material to construct a sweeping narrative of Manhattan’s founding that gives a startling, fresh perspective on how America began. 
In an account that blends a novelist’s grasp of storytelling with cutting-edge scholarship, The Island at the Center of the World strips Manhattan of its asphalt, bringing us back to a wilderness island—a hunting ground for Indians, populated by wolves and bears—that became a prize in the global power struggle between the English and the Dutch.  Indeed, Russell Shorto shows that America’s founding was not the work of English settlers alone but a result of the clashing of these two seventeenth century powers.  In fact, it was Amsterdam—Europe’s most liberal city, with an unusual policy of tolerance and a polyglot society dedicated to free trade—that became the model for the city of New Amsterdam on Manhattan.  While the Puritans of New England were founding a society based on intolerance, on Manhattan the Dutch created a free-trade, upwardly-mobile melting pot that would help shape not only New York, but America.
The story moves from the halls of power in London and The Hague to bloody naval encounters on the high seas.  The characters in the saga—the men and women who played a part in Manhattan’s founding—range from the philosopher Rene Descartes to James, the Duke of York, to prostitutes and smugglers.  At the heart of the story is a bitter power struggle between two men: Peter Stuyvesant, the autocratic director of the Dutch colony, and a forgotten American hero named Adriaen van der Donck, a maverick, liberal-minded lawyer whose brilliant political gamesmanship, commitment to individual freedom, and exuberant love of his new country would have a lasting impact on the history of this nation. 

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Relying on the fruits of Dr. Gehring's enterprise, Mr. Shorto has created far more than an addendum to familiar American history: a book that will permanently alter the way we regard our collective past. Without the adventurous Dutch spirit and the internecine power struggle described here, "the English would probably have swept in before Dutch institutions were established, New York would have become another English New World port town like Boston, and American culture would never have developed as it did." — Janet Maslin
NY Times Sunday Book Review
New York history buffs will be captivated by Shorto's descriptions of Manhattan in its primordial state, of bays full of salmon and oysters, and blue plums and fields of wild strawberries in what is now Midtown. Here the reader may learn, among many other historical tidbits, what the Dutch really paid for Manhattan (it wasn't $24), or the key role that Flushing played in securing freedom of conscience, or why the Knicks wear blue-and-orange uniforms, or how Yonkers, the Hutchinson River and Saw Mill River Parkways, Greenwich Village and Staten Island got their names. Yet Shorto never overwhelms one with trivia, and he writes at all times with passion, verve, nuance and considerable humor. — Kevin Baker
John Jeremiah Sullivan
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...
The New York Observer
Publishers Weekly
Drawing on 17th-century Dutch records of New Netherland and its capital, Manhattan, translated by scholar Charles Gehring only in recent decades, Shorto (Gospel Truth) brings to exuberant life the human drama behind the skimpy legend starting with the colony's founding in 1623. Most Americans know little about Dutch Manhattan beyond its first director, Peter Minuit, who made the infamous $24 deal with the Indians, and Peter Stuyvesant, the stern governor who lost the island to the English in 1664. These two seminal figures receive their due here, along with a huge cast of equally fascinating characters. But Shorto has a more ambitious agenda: to argue for the huge debt Americans owe to the culture of Dutch Manhattan, the first place in the New World where men and women of different races and creeds lived in relative harmony. The petitions of the colony's citizens for greater autonomy, penned by Dutch-trained lawyer Adriaen van der Donck, represented "one of the earliest expressions of modern political impulses: an insistence by the members of the community that they play a role in their own government." While not discounting the British role in the shaping of American society, the author argues persuasively for the Dutch origins of some of our most cherished beliefs and their roots in "the tolerance debates in Holland" and "the intellectual world of Descartes, Grotius, and Spinoza." Shorto's gracefully written historical account is a must-read for anyone interested in this nation's origins. (Mar. 16) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
The very earliest history of Manhattan, which began its European-settlement history as a Dutch commercial outpost, not a colony, comes into focus. Shorto spent ten years perusing a cache of archaic Dutch-language documents, just now being translated by the New Netherland Project headed by Charles Gehring, based at the New York State Library. Shorto evokes for readers a far more vibrant culture than most textbooks depict. The personalities, beginning with Henry Hudson, a maverick explorer obsessed with finding a northern-hemisphere shortcut to the riches of Asia, are so sharply drawn that readers feel they would recognize them if they met them. He weaves in the relationships with Indians (complex and originally mutually respectful), observations about the incredible diversity of peoples that moved through Amsterdam and then New Amsterdam, interactions among the European countries that vied for power on the seas and in the New World, the technology that was opening up the world of the 17th century, the impulses—desire for furs and spices, new maps, curiosity—that impelled exploration, and the natural world they encountered. Depicting the Dutch tolerance of religious and cultural differences, a quality well known among historians, as a foundation for the American Constitution, gives a refreshing twist to the story of the origins of those ideas. Shorto says, "The legacy of the people who settled Manhattan Island rides below the level of myth and politics. They reshuffled the categories by which people had long lived, created a society with more open spaces, in which the rungs of the ladder were reachable by nearly everyone. They didn't exactly mean to do these things . . . " This isa valuable book for teachers and will appeal to lovers of everything New York. The publishers, however, did readers a major disservice by publishing the paperback edition of the book in extremely small type. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2004, Random House, Vintage, 384p. illus. notes. bibliog. index., Ages 15 to adult.
—Edna Boardman
Library Journal
For this popular narrative, Shorto (Gospel Truth) draws on some 12,000 public and private documents from a Dutch outpost that archivist Charles Gehring painstakingly translated for researchers in the 1960s. Shorto's resulting portrait of the vibrant society that became New York City is an entrancing one, focusing in particular on the oppositional forces of the controlling Peter Stuyvesant and the more tolerant Adriaen Van der Donck, bringing the latter, lesser-known colonial officer to light. The author exaggerates in asserting that the diversity of Dutch New York and its lasting effects on American character traits have been overlooked before his project. (See Philip Greven's 1977 study, The Protestant Temperament). However, Shorto does correctly point out that Dutch tolerance, a "grudging acceptance," was far from a belief in equality but nevertheless was forward-looking for its time. Two works published in 2003-Thelma Foote's Black and White Manhattan and Leslie Harris's In the Shadow of Slavery-provide more scholarly insights into the contradiction of the pluralistic Dutch as slave holders and traders. Shorto's book, a good read that links some characteristics of Dutch New York to today's bustling city of finance, is well worth the time of the general history enthusiast and is most appropriate for public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/03.]-Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Library of Congress Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The all-but-forgotten origins of Manhattan, told with humor and an acute eye for primary sources. It's good to remember, the author suggests, that the early 17th century was the age of Shakespeare, Descartes, Vermeer, and Bacon, a time of change and tumult. Not the least part of that tumult was Dutch political and legal progressivism, "their matter-of-fact acceptance of foreignness, of religious differences, of odd sorts." Tolerance, in a word, though Shorto (Saints and Madmen, 1999, etc.) is quick to point out that that meant "putting up with" rather than celebrating diversity. By the time New Amsterdam had been established, more as a business settlement of the West India Company than as a colony, its babel of nationalities were seeking balance between chaos and order, liberty and oppression. "Pirates, prostitutes, smugglers, and business sharks held sway," he notes. "It was Manhattan . . . right from the start." Despite the tyrannical leanings of the colony's early directors, from Willem Kieft to Peter Stuyvesant, the crucial element that set New Amsterdam apart from its neighbors north and south was its striving toward democracy, largely in the person of Adriaen van der Donck, student of Rene Descartes and of Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius, of natural law and human reason. Van der Donck was a veritable Founding Father, the author asserts, though admitting that his authorship of many of the documents illustrating the push toward relative democracy in the colony can only be inferred. "Who was there, how they got along, how they mixed-that is the colony's unheralded legacy," writes Shorto. A struggle played out among military and diplomatic maneuverings and the revamping of the colony'spolitical structure. It was a legacy lived by the gallimaufry of Manhattanites, and it was written by Grotius as much as by John Locke. A bright social history of New Amsterdam that gives the Dutch their due as the first facilitators of its fabled diversity. Agent: Anne Edelstein/Anne Edelstein Agency

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Chapter 1


On a late summer's day in the year 1608, a gentleman of London made his way across that city. He was a man of ambition, intellect, arrogance, and drive--in short, a man of his age. Like our own, his was an era of expanding horizons and a rapidly shrinking world, in which the pursuit of individual dreams led to new discoveries, which in turn led to newer and bigger dreams. His complicated personality--including periodic fits of brooding passivity that all but incapacitated him--was built around an impressive self-confidence, and at this moment he was almost certainly convinced that the meeting he was headed toward would be of historic importance.

He walked west, in the direction of St. Paul's Cathedral, which then, as now, dominated the skyline. But the structure in the distance was not the St. Paul's of today, the serene, imperial building that signifies order and human reason, with the spirit of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment shining from its proud dome. His St. Paul's had a hunkering tower in place of a dome (the steeple that had originally risen from the tower had been struck by lightning almost half a century before and hadn't been replaced); it was a dark, medieval church, which suited the medieval market town that London still was in the early seventeenth century. The streets through which he walked were narrow, shadowy, claustrophobic, sloping toward central sewer ditches. The houses that lined them were built of timber and walled with wattle and daub--it was a city made chiefly of wood.

Since we know his destination and have some notion of the whereabouts of his house, it is possible to trace a likely route that Henry Hudson, ship's captain, would have taken on that summer day, on his way to meet with the directors of the Muscovy Company, funders of voyages of exploration and discovery. The widest thoroughfare from Tower Street Ward toward Cordwainer Street Ward was Tower Street. He would have passed first through a neighborhood that, despite being within sight of the scaffold and gallows of the Tower itself, was an area of relatively new, "divers fair and large houses," as John Stow, a contemporary chronicler, described, several of them owned by prominent noblemen.

On his left then came the dominating church of St. Dunstan in the East, and a reminder of his heritage. The Muscovy Company had not only funded at least two of Henry Hudson's previous sea voyages; going back through its history of half a century, it contained several Hudsons on its rolls. Among its charter members in 1555 was another Henry Hudson, who rose from a humble "skinner," or tanner, to become a wealthy member of society and an alderman of the City of London, and who may have been the explorer's grandfather. So our Henry Hudson was presumably born to the sea and to the company both, and inside the church he was now passing, his Muscovy Company namesake lay, beneath a gilded alabaster stone inscribed:

Here lyeth Henry Heardsons corps,

Within this Tombe of Stone:

His Soule (through faith in Christ's death,)

to God in Heaven is gone.

Whiles that he lived an Alderman,

And Skinner was his state:

To Vertue bare hee all his love,

To vice he bare his hate.

If in his walk the seaman chose to detour down the hill past the church, he would have come to the open expanse of the Thames, where the view west downriver was dominated by the span of London Bridge with its twenty stone arches, houses perched precariously along both sides of its course. Directly across the river, beckoning lowly and enticingly, lay Southwark, a wild outland and thus also the entertainment district, with brothels tucked into its alleys and, visible from here, the "bear bayting" arena, which provided one of the most popular distractions for the masses. Beyond it stood the rounded wooden structure of the Globe Theater in its original incarnation. Indeed, somewhere over on the Southwark side at this very moment, amid the tradesmen, whores, "sturdye Beggers," and "Common Players in Enterludes" that populated the borough, Shakespeare himself--at forty-four a near-exact contemporary of Hudson, then at the height of his powers and fame as the leading dramatist of the day--was likely going about his business, sleeping off a night of sack at the Mermaid with his actor friends Richard Burbage and John Heminge, maybe, or brooding over the foolscap sheets of Coriolanus, which was written about this time and which, coming on the heels of the great tragedies, may have felt a bit hollow.

Tower Street became Little Eastcheap, which in turn merged into Candlewick and then Budge Row. Hudson's business lay here, in an imposing building called Muscovy House, home of the Muscovy Company. The medieval look of the London of 1608 belied the fact that England's rise to global empire was under way, and one of the forces behind that rise lay through these doors. From the bravado of its formal name--the "Merchants Adventurers of England for the Discovery of Lands, Territories, Iles, Dominions, and Seigniories Unknown"--one might be excused for thinking it had been founded out of sheer, unstoppable exuberance. The original band of merchants and aristocrats who had formed it more than half a century earlier included many of the most distinguished men in London in the middle of the sixteenth century--the Lord High Treasurer, the Steward of the Queen's Household, the Keeper of the Privy Seal, the Lord High Admiral--as well as sundry other knights and gentlemen. But while global exploration, the great intellectual and business opportunity of the day, had brought them all together, no one considered the undertaking a swashbuckling adventure. It was desperation that drove them toward new horizons. The England of the 1540s had been a backwater, economically depressed, inward-looking, deep in the shadows of the great maritime empires of Spain and Portugal. Wool was the country's chief commodity, but English traders had been blocked from access to major European markets for more than a century. Economic stagnation was bound up with intellectual stagnation: while the Renaissance was in full flower on the Continent, English interest in the wider world was slim, and the few long voyages of exploration England had mounted were mostly led by foreigners, such as the Venetian John Cabot (ne Giovanni Cabotto). When it came to sea voyages, the English declined.

History traditionally links the rise of England in the period with the elevation of Queen Elizabeth to the throne in 1558. But one could trace it to 1547, when an intellectually voracious twenty-year-old named John Dee did something countless students since have done: spent his summer abroad and returned flush with new knowledge and insights. After an academic career at Cambridge in which he proved to be something of a mathematical genius, Dee traveled to the University of Louvain in what is today Belgium. The rich summer sun of the Brabant region might have been revelation enough, but Dee soon found himself in a lecture hall gazing at an object that was, to him, transcendent. The teacher was Gemma Frisius, a Flemish mathematician and charter of the heavens, and what Dee saw was a map astonishing in its level of detail, in the new lands it portrayed, even in its lettering. The Low Countries, he discovered, were miles ahead of his island in new learning.

Dee spent long candle-lit nights poring over Frisius's maps with a Flemish scholar named Gerhard Kremer. Kremer, an engraver by training, had, under the academic pen name of Mercator, begun to make a name for himself ten years earlier by creating a map of Palestine that rendered the Holy Land with greater accuracy than had ever been achieved. Mercator was a genuine Renaissance man--a master cartographer, an engineer of telescopes, sextants, surveying equipment, and other highly sensitive measuring devices, the author of a gospel concordance, promoter of the new italic typeface that made map print more legible--and in him Dee found a soul mate. In 1569, Mercator would publish the map that would give him his immortality, which rendered latitude and longitude as straight lines, the meridians of longitude evenly spaced and the distance between the parallels of latitude increasing in size as one approached the poles. It would solve a cumbersome problem of navigating at sea because with it sailors could plot and follow a straight course rather than have to constantly recalculate their position. (The Mercator projection is still a feature of navigational maps, although, even at that time, some mariners were as confused as later generations of schoolchildren would be by the distortions in size it caused.)

In a nice foreshadowing of the complicated intermingling between the Low Countries and the British Isles that would shape the next century, when Dee returned to London he brought with him maps, measuring instruments, and globes, created by Mercator and Frisius, that would help spark England's rise to global prominence. What Dee's English colleagues found most intriguing about the maps and globes was an area most people would ignore: the top, the Arctic Circle. Frisius's map, oriented as if looking down from the north star, showed a distinct open channel cutting across the Arctic, which was self-confidently labeled in Latin Fretum trium fratrum. The sight of the boldly indicated Strait of the Three Brothers must have made Dee's English friends gasp. The Holy Grail for all learned and adventuresome minds was the discovery of a short passage to the riches of Asia. Finding it would repay investors many times over; for the English, it would vault their economy out of the Middle Ages and into the European vanguard. The legend of the Strait of the Three Brothers was confused even at that time, but it appears to have been based on the adventures of the Corte Real brothers, Portuguese mariners who explored the area around Newfoundland at the beginning of the sixteenth century, and who, in the minds of some, sighted, or perhaps even sailed, the fabled passage to Asia before two of them vanished into Arctic oblivion. (Ironically, the Spanish also had a theory about this mythical strait, only they called it the Englishmen's Strait.) Now there it was on Frisius's map, thanks apparently to Frisius's contacts with Portuguese mariners. It was on Mercator's globe as well, labeled simply fretum arcticum, arctic strait. As with most people in any endeavor, seeing the thing in print, seeing its coasts and coves delicately but decisively rendered, confirmed its reality.

Fate, it seemed, had brought together the men, the means, and the time. The solution to England's twin crises of economy and spirit was out there. So the nation's leaders formed a business circle, chipping in twenty-five pounds per share and raising a total of six thousand pounds.

With the principals lined up and funds ready, it only remained to choose the likeliest route--either the one indicated on Frisius's map or one of several others that were now being put forth with equal confidence. The point was to find a northern passage both because such a shortcut would render obsolete the Spanish and Portuguese monopoly on the Southern Hemisphere and because any northern peoples encountered along the way would be more likely buyers for English wool. That an Arctic sea route existed was beyond anyone's doubt. The universal belief among the intelligentsia in something we know to be a physical impossibility in wooden sailing vessels rested on several arguments, such as the one put forth by the Dutch minister and geographer Peter Plancius that "near the pole the sun shines for five months continually; and although his rays are weak, yet on account of the long time they continue, they have sufficient strength to warm the ground, to render it temperate, to accommodate it for the habitation of men, and to produce grass for the nourishment of animals."

The name by which the company became known gives away what happened on the first voyage it financed. A doughty mariner named Richard Chancellor took the northeast route, and while he failed to discover a passage to the Orient, he became the first Englishman of the era to make landfall at Russia. The so-called Muscovy trade that ensued--in which the English found a ready market for their wool, and imported hemp, sperm oil, and furs from the realm of Ivan the Terrible--was so profitable that the search for a northern route to Asia was largely abandoned.

The company expanded, and the nation with it. Elizabeth ascended to the throne; Drake circumnavigated the globe; Shakespeare wrote. When, in 1588, Philip II of Spain launched an invasion fleet toward England, intending to bring the island into his empire and win its people back to Roman Catholicism, the undersized English navy shocked the world by crushing the Armada. The aftermath of the victory was one of those moments when a nation suddenly realizes it has entered a new era. Theirs wasn't a dark and chilly island after all, the English public was informed by their great poet, but a "precious stone set in the silver sea."

By the early 1600s, however, the wheel had taken another turn. The queen was dead, and the Russia trade had fallen off. Faced once again with financial crisis, the company's directors made a decision to return to their original purpose. They would resurrect the Renaissance dream, commit themselves anew to discovering a northern passage to Asia.

The man they now turned to to renew the quest is not the protagonist of this story, but the forerunner, the one who would make it possible. In the ranks of legendary explorers, Henry Hudson has been slighted: not celebrated in his time by the English public as Francis Drake or Martin Frobisher or John Cabot had been, not given nearly the amount of ink that history has devoted to Columbus or Magellan. There is a logic of personality in this: Drake had defined manhood for an era, and the Italian Cabot had a feckless charm (he was in the habit, after his celebrated return from the New World, of promising people he met in taverns that he would name islands for them), but when we come to Henry Hudson it is a dark and moody figure hovering behind the records, one seemingly more comfortable in the shadows of history. A new appreciation for the Dutch colony in North America, however, compels a reappraisal of the man whose fitful decision-making rerouted the flow of history.

Nothing is known of his early career, but the fact that he was a ship's captain indicates that he had had a lengthy one by the time we encounter him in 1608. It's reasonable to assume that he had served in the defeat of the Armada twenty years earlier, though we have no information on this. The Muscovy Company tended to start apprentices as boys and have them work through one or more aspects of the business: bureaucrat, "factor" (i.e., agent), or sailor. Thus, one Christopher Hudson, who rose to the position of governor of the company from 1601 to 1607 and whom some historians have thought was most likely Henry Hudson's uncle, had worked his way up in the sales and marketing line, serving as a company representative in Germany in his youth. Henry Hudson was in his forties when he stepped into the light of history, a seasoned mariner, a man with a strong and resourceful wife and three sons, a man born and raised not only to the sea but to the quest for a northern passage to Asia, who, weaned from infancy on the legends of his predecessors, probably couldn't help but be obsessed by it.

Meet the Author

Russell Shorto is the author of two previous books: Gospel Truth, about the search for the historical Jesus, and Saints and Madmen, about psychiatry and religion. The hub of his research for The Island at the Center of the World was the New Netherland Project at the New York State Library, where the archives of the Dutch colony centered on Manhattan are being translated. He has written for the New York Times Magazine, GQ, and many other publications. He lives in New York's Hudson Valley with his wife and their two daughters.

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The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 55 reviews.
JTBORD More than 1 year ago
I am a former New York City "Big Apple Greeter" who now does tours on my own. I take out mostly families and school groups. I knew a little about the early Dutch influence but now a lot of detail. This spectacular book changed that. The way it is written allows for a free flowing narrative which almost gave it a "fiction" feel. At times, with all the names, dates and bits of information I got a little bogged down and overwhelmed. This however was not a big problem. I re-read certain sections again as I needed to. And the thoroughly inclusive index in the back allowed me to go back and quickly reference anything I needed to as I went along. The fact that I read this book is going to allow me to be a much better tour guide. I will be able to tell more interesting stories and answer questions that the "tourists" have. Somebody I know referred me to this book. I am so happy they did that they have a dinner coming ... on me.
Masternav More than 1 year ago
As a native New Yorker, and a history major in college, I found this book to be a fascinating and lively story of the Dutch colony of Manhattan - a story which is not often told. Shorto gives a very engaging account of the history of the Dutch colony, drawing on some 12,000 pages of documents that have been recently translated. The individuals who populated the colony truly come alive in this spellbinding narrative. A MUST read for anyone interested in not only early New York, but also how so many aspects of our popular culture today are directly tied to the colony of New Amsterdam.
historybuffNY More than 1 year ago
New York History is overlooked in the Colonial Era of the United States. In school, students are taught about how Virginia and New England played an important part of the formation of the United States. After reading this book, I found that New York combined both the buisness aspect and the tolerance aspect of the Dutch which neither New England and Virigia did in their respective colonies. The colony might have been short -lived but The Dutch influence still is present today. The government, business, historical landmarks, and other aspects of the Dutch colony still stand as a reminder that other cultures due provide a fundamental structure to the formation of the United States. As a History Major, The book taught me more about the area I live in and to appreciate the history of the area.
VOORLEZER More than 1 year ago
This book brings back some of New York"s forgotten history that is not taught in our schools today. Russell Shorto brings back the old streets of the city to life.
beachgirl1NC More than 1 year ago
Well-written (always a plus for history), characters drawn well and documented, different perspective on an old subject usually drawn from a totally British point of view. I've recommended this to many lovers of history.
Irving Estella More than 1 year ago
Shorto's account of the Dutch beginnings in Manhattan is a rollercoaster ride through philosophers, adventurers, politicians and prostitutes, a multinational corporation and early multiculturalism, and an unknown candidate for Founding Father named Adriaen Van Der Donck. And what a ride!
chuckb11006 More than 1 year ago
Russell Shorto breathes life into the residents of New Amsterdam like no one before him, while gracing us with heretofore unwritten elements discovered by the New Amsterdam Project, based on documents which survived a fire in Albany, NY, and were painsstakingly translated from The Dutch Language of the Seventeenth Cenury over a period of ten years. The untold story of the lives of those in the original Dutch city-colony of New Amsterdam are finally revealed in characteristic colloquial splendor. A maritime Rennaissance Empire which rivaled England by far in the early seventeenth century, in every cultural regard is imaged for the tru lovers of history in personal relationships. All persons great and small in the Dutch Colony are painstakingly brought to life by Mr. Shorto, who deserves five stars across the board for his efforts. Efforts which effectively contribute to the accurate writing of previously uncovered and broadly unknown history; which in turn, broadsides our false notions of Anglo-superiority in the exploration of America. A sinking notion indeed.
Thamnu More than 1 year ago
As Russell Shorto points out, the winners write the history. So his first object was to uncover the Dutch experience in New Amsterdam which the British so skillfully and derisively obscured. He found a patient and diligent researcher whom he praises almost to the point of hagiography. For without him, Shorto would have had little from which to spin his marvelous tale. From the explorer Hudson to the colony ruler Stuyvesant, THE ISLAND AT THE CENTER OF THE WORLD is an eye-opening revelation of the real impetus to the unique community that sprung up on the tip of Manhattan. For instance, we learn early on that the wall for which Wall St. is named was built not to keep out the "Indians" (who were an integral part of the Dutch colony) but the British. And that the silly fables about a few dollars was but a token of friendship to cement a bargain by which the enterprising Dutch could build an open community NOT buy an island. Shorto's magic is the life he has breathed into Charles Gehring's thirty years of painstaking scholarship among thousands of pages of boring state records. Minutes of council meetings, judicial decisions, land titles and marriages. As noted, the famous are here with great depth and vitality but also a central character new to all of us whom I leave to the author to introduce. Finally, Shorto traces the rocky relationship between Britain and Holland as both strove for domination of sea trade in the wake of fading Spanish and Portuguese empires. And all of it with wit and insight into their world ... and ours. Great read and a gift idea that will repay the giver with smiles and thanks.
Christy_M3 More than 1 year ago
I read this book on the advice of a friend of mine. This book is excellent. Most history books put me to sleep, but this one kept me very engaged. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is easy to read as well as very informative. You can tell the author truely enjoys his topic and has immersed himself in the details. Great job!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am not yet finished this book, but I must say that it is one of the more enjoyable books I've read in recent history. I have learned so much about 16th and 17th century Europe, which was a remarkable time of expansion, both physically and in the mind, an extension of which became a colony called New Netherland, centered around the island of Manahata. Shorto writes beautifully. Not only is this full of great history, the story flows and the characters develop and it makes me laugh out loud while reading on the subway.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Like most Americans, I grew up being taught that America was a British concoction. The mores, societal norms, ideas of freedom and individual rights, came straight from mother England, were planted in New England, and blossomed into what we have come to know as America. This didn't wash with what I understood the early New England colonists to stand for - intolerance, religious fanaticism, with little regard for individual rights. How did we get from there to here? Via Dutch Manhattan as it turns out. While hardly a cake walk, the Dutch colony was, relatively speaking, a much more tolerant society that the English colonies to it's north and south. Shorto tells the story of the Dutch colony in easy, well written style. I found the chapters concerning Dutch Manhattan's very earliest years pretty dry because they are almost entirely written from legal records. Once flesh and blood characters like Van der Donck and Stuveysant are introduced the story takes on a more vibrant tone.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Russell Shorto's narrative of the Dutch period of New York City (and State) has provided readers with a great insight into a world long ago but not long gone. 'The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America', based partly on the research/translating work of Charles Gehring, is a good introduction to this neglected period in America's history, and will also surprise those well-versed in the subject. His thesis, that the New Netherland Dutch influenced the development of American history, society, and law is not entirely new, but he does expand upon our pre-existing notions of that influence. But even though not everything here is new to some of us, what the real accomplishment is--and Shorto deserves our appreciation for it--that this book finally makes this history accessible. While other books have covered this ground, they were so bogged down with statistics and numbers that they were almost unreadable. Shorto's narrative style and his ability to bring such colorful people back to life (Hudson, Stuyvesant, van der Donck, et al.), makes his book accessible to those who might not be inclined to buy a book on this subject. On a personal level, Shorto's 'The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America', much like Burrows and Wallace's 'Gotham' brought the ancient days of my city back to life. For a moment, as I sat in Bowling Green, I was able to erase the tall buildings and populate that area with trees and small, gable-roofed houses. I could wipe away the old Custom-House and see the fort that once stood in its place. That is how good the writing is. And that's what I meant by saying Shorto's wonderful account is that of a world long ago but not long gone.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very well written. Enjoy the interesting data and I was able to understand much better the beginnings of our country. I highly recomend this book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I overheard some people discussing this book in a restaurant and was intrigued. They were so right about how good it is! It's a history of how New York City developed, not the dry way you learned in school, but the more interesting and intriguing story based on newly discovered archives. The book reads like a novel. The writing is top-notch. I loved it.
junkets More than 1 year ago
Recently discovered and translated original materials enlighten the history of colonial American and Manhattan in particular. If you like political, social, and religious history and if you want to know how Manhattan developed its special character as as a world capitol, you will enjoy this book.
delandmark More than 1 year ago
This is a dramatic case study of the loss humanity suffers when only part of history is known. The Island at the Center of the World is a story of partial history written by and for the victor in the battle for empire. The straightforward style of this work, based upon more than two decades of translation from the original Dutch records about the European settlement of New York, compels us to wonder what other treasures await revelation in the future. We can only hope that those treasures are as revealing and instructive. In this perspective of history I learned two things about the world of my early ancestors. First, my early Dutch ancestors arrived only four years, rather than forty years, after my Mayflower ancestors. The tolerance that the world recognizes in the Netherlands today was a major factor in creating the Manhattan that is still a center of the world today. Barbara Tuchman's March of Folly has been a guide in my personal and professional life. This text should change the understanding of our world today the same as if it were Part Five of that historical analysis. We will all benefit as individuals look at the world through this lens.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was very excited to read this book and I was not dissapointed. This book reads like best selling fiction. Shorto does an amazing job of not only introducing readers to a colony that many people do not know much about, but also inviting you into the lives of ordinary and extrodinary people who helped shape America.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I haven¿t enjoyed any book so much in a long time. I loved my flashes of recognition as Shorto pointed out the traces of Dutch culture in America, and the exciting leaps and reversals of fortune before Peter Stuyvesant finally had to yield to the English. Anyone who loves liberty would have to find this book rewarding. Who knew that we got our district attorney system from a precocious disciple of Grotius himself? Not I ¿ perhaps you. Of course, as a Virginian, I was raised to think the Pilgrims got undeserved credit for all the good in our system. How welcome to find a New Yorker, no less, who agrees!
Anonymous 5 months ago
WorldReader1111 9 months ago
I very much enjoyed 'Island at the Center of the World.' It is, first, well-written for a book of its type, with a clear, elegant format that is both functional and easy to read. Likewise, the author writes with a welcome wit, and some humanity at the right times. As far as content goes, 'Island' is equally polished and substantial, serving as a good, respectable recounting of this "lost" portion of NYC history. Besides presenting a comprehensive and well-researched historical narrative, the author fleshes out the central timeline with forays into simultaneous world events and other complementary material, as to provide a strong, illuminating context to the book's primary subject matter. What's more, the facts are conveyed with an impressive neutrality, with little to no coloring on the author's part, as to lend a refreshing objectivity. In the end, the book works very well in its capacity as a historical account, to a degree that similar works should aspire to. However, what I found most interesting (and valuable) about the book was what lay between its lines, in its subtler dimensions. Namely, 'Island' serves as an excellent human study, by way of its detailed depictions of the life and times of the inhabitants of New Amsterdam. By allowing such a rare, candid glimpse of these individuals, we are granted a wealth of psychological, sociological, and economic food-for-thought -- all of which, when compared and contrasted with their contemporary equivalents, goes a long way toward understanding ourselves and mankind at large, in the way that only gaining true perspective can induce. And, like any relevant historical text, 'Island' teaches some profoundly valuable life-lessons: the consensual nature of our present historical record and associated institutions, in which the accepted version of events is rarely the actual version of events; a general overview of the origins and evolutions of anything, and how the seemingly smallest and least-consequential of events can ripple into the future with startling results; the broad, complicated, often obscure reality of things, which can differ drastically from the black-and-white view that regularly features in popular thought and perception. Etcetera. If you come away from this book without learning a thing or two, you might want to read it again. If I had to list a complaint, it would be some editorializing on the author's part, in which he briefly abandons his characteristic objectivity for a dramatized version of certain events. However, this was a minor issue, and failed at detracting from the book as a whole. My sincere thanks goes out to this book's author, subjects, and publisher. I am grateful for, and have benefited from, your work and service.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
jmahon10524 More than 1 year ago
Highly engaging rendering of the story of early Manhattan. Understanding the limited nature of the historical record, the author well places events in their larger historical context while limiting speculation about what may have been. A very interesting read.
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