Quick Review: The Island at the Center of the World

Russell Shorto argues the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam helped kickstart the American mindset and dream even though the city’s history before the English takeover is often ignored. Shorto bases his claims on research in recent decades that involves translating the old Dutch records and revealing the political and social history of the colony. In the end, Americans might see their origins largely in the English colonies but Shorto suggests “it helped set the whole thing [the American experiment] in motion…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.” (317)

Here is what the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam gifted to the United States:

1. Emphasis on trade. Even in its early decades, the city was a hub for shipping in the New World. The English colonies in New England and Virginia both worked through the Dutch port. The protected harbor was important as was its connections to the interior.

2. Giving rights to all the citizens. While the English colonies only had a limited number of freedmen, the Dutch had much broader citizenship rights and this social standing allowed people of all backgrounds to rise up the social ladder. This also involved quite the fight for control over the colony; Shorto describes the efforts of the lawyer Adriaen van der Donck to fight for citizen control rather than the autocratic rule of the Dutch West India Company and their charge Peter Stuyvesant. This did have an interesting side effect in the end. When the English ended up moving in from their colonies in Connecticut, the people of New Amsterdam wanted to be handed over peacefully to the English in order to continue the life of their city and the English largely granted them the continuation of their lives.

3. Religious tolerance. The Netherlands was open to people of different faiths – mainly different Christians – and this continued in their colony. Thus, a number of immigrants ended up in New Amsterdam rather than the much more restrictive English colonies. Other fun fact: those same Puritans who founded Plymouth and its more narrow restrictions had arrived from the Netherlands where the Dutch had offered them religious freedom.

4. Openness to immigrants. With the emphasis on trade, rights, and religious tolerance, New Amsterdam from the beginning was home to people of many backgrounds.

Another large factor in shaping New Amsterdam: the larger political and military conflicts between England and the Netherlands over this period. The two countries fought three wars and the colony’s fate was often caught in the middle.

Overall, an interesting summation of recent research on the early decades of New York City. The English weren’t the only Europeans to help found the United States and the Dutch played an important role in this influential global city.

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