- Paperback: 416 pages
- Publisher: Vintage (April 12, 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1400078679
- ISBN-13: 978-1400078677
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 13.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 572 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #16,835 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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 Paperback – April 12, 2005
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"The Silent Patient" by Alex Michaelides
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"Astonishing . . . A book that will permanently alter the way we regard our collective past." --The New York Times
“A tour de force. . . . The dramatic story of New York’s origins is splendidly told. . . . A masterpiece of storytelling and first-rate intellectual history.” --The Wall Street Journal
“As readable as a finely written novel. . . . social history in the Barbara Tuchman tradition.” --San Jose Mercury News
“Literary alchemy. . . . Shorto’s exhaustively researched and highly readable book is a stirring re-examination. . . . Brilliant and magisterial narrative history” —Chicago Tribune
“Masterly . . . A new foundation myth . . .Shorto writes at all times with passion, verve, nuance and considerable humor.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Rattlingly well told–a terrific popular history about a past that beautifully illuminates the present.” —The Sunday Times [London]
“A dramatic, kaleidoscopic and, on the whole, quite wonderful book. . . . This is one of those rare books in the picked-over field of colonial history, a whole new picture, a thrown-open window. . . . [A] full-blooded resurrection of an unfamiliar American patriot.” –The New York Observer
“Deserves to be a bestseller . . .narratively irresistible, intellectually provocative, historically invaluable” –The Guardian
“A spry, informative history. . . . Shorto supplies lucid, comprehensive contexts in which to see the colony’s promise and turmoil. . . . [D]elivers the goods with clarity, color and zest.” –The Seattle Times
“As Russell Shorto demonstrates in this mesmerizing volume, the story we don’t know is even more fascinating than the one we do . . .Historians must now seriously rethink what they previously understand about New York’s origins . . .” –The New York Post
“Russell Shorto fires a powerful salvo on the war of words over America’s origins . . . he mounts a convincing case [that], in Shorto’s words, ‘Manhattan is where America began.’ Readers . . find themselves absorbed in what can only be described as a plot, revolving around two strong men with conflicting visions of the future of Dutch North America.” –America: The National Catholic Weekly
“Fascinating. . . . A richly nuanced portrait set against events on the world stage.” --Time Out New York
“Shorto brings this . . . deeply influential chapter in the city’s history to vivid, breathtaking life [with] a talent for enlivening meticulous research and painting on a broad canvas. . . . In elegant, erudite prose, he manages to capture the lives of disparate historical characters, from kings to prostitutes.” –Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Remarkable. . . . [C]ompulsively interesting. . . . . Shorto argues that during the brief decades of its Dutch colonial existence Manhattan had already found, once and for all, its tumultuously eclectic soul.” –New Statesman
“Shorto delineates the characters in this nonfiction drama convincingly and compellingly.” –Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“[An] absorbing, sensual, sometimes bawdy narrative featuring whores, pirates, explorers and scholars. With clarity and panache, Shorto briskly conveys the complex history of the age of exploration.” –Times Literary Supplement
“Shorto’s book makes a convincing case that the Dutch did not merely influence the relatively open, tolerant and multicultural society that became the United States; they made the first and most significant contribution.” –American History
“Shorto’s prose is deliciously rich and witty, and the story he tells–drawing heavily on sources that have only recently come to light–brings one surprise after another. His rediscovery of Adriaen van der Donck, Peter Stuyvesant’s nemesis, is fascinating.” –Edward G. Burrows, coauthor of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History
“A landmark work . . .Shorto paints the emotions and attitudes of his characters with a sure hand, and bestows on each a believable, living presence.” –The Times (London)
“A triumph of scholarship and a rollicking narrative . . . an exciting drama about the roots of America’s freedoms.” –Walter Isaacson, author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
From the Inside Flap
When the British wrested New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664, the truth about its thriving, polyglot society began to disappear into myths about an island purchased for 24 dollars and a cartoonish peg-legged governor. But the story of the Dutch colony of New Netherland was merely lost, not destroyed: 12,000 pages of its records-recently declared a national treasure-are now being translated. Drawing on this remarkable archive, Russell Shorto has created a gripping narrative-a story of global sweep centered on a wilderness called Manhattan-that transforms our understanding of early America.
The Dutch colony pre-dated the "original" thirteen colonies, yet it seems strikingly familiar. Its capital was cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic, and its citizens valued free trade, individual rights, and religious freedom. Their champion was a progressive, young lawyer named Adriaen van der Donck, who emerges in these pages as a forgotten American patriot and whose political vision brought him into conflict with Peter Stuyvesant, the autocratic director of the Dutch colony. The struggle between these two strong-willed men laid the foundation for New York City and helped shape American culture. The Island at the Center of the World uncovers a lost world and offers a surprising new perspective on our own.
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Obviously, part of this is due to the author. He connected me to the Dutch settlers, their capitalist overseers, and their Native neighbors in a way most histories do not. He recognized and played off the “history is written by the victors” theme that has so affected what we know (and mostly do not know) about New Amsterdam and New Netherland. He compared and contrasted the culture of the Netherlands (old and new) against the context of other European powers and their colonies. He made me proud of my Dutch heritage. And he wrote a *story* and not just a history book, a story peopled with full blooded, real, living characters. And, in places, he made me laugh out loud. When was the last time you laughed while reading history? And the approach was intellectually honest: when the author speculated on some issue or other, he had the integrity to say that was what he was doing.
Most histories, even the good ones, have sections of excitement but, inevitably, sections (sometimes hundreds of pages) that the reader just has to slog through. Even the best (from McCullough, Chernow, etc.) are like this. Not this one. Island at the Center was a swift and enjoyable read, cover to cover. And if you’re lucky enough to get your hands on a hardcover version (as in my local University library), it comes with a beautiful sepia-toned, double-page map gracing the endpapers.
Like all narratives of American history should be, but are not, this revised story of New York is actually two stories rolled into one: the story of the personal lives of key players, embedded within the larger geopolitical context.
The second, arguably, the less important story, is about how a band of ordinary explorers, entrepreneurs, pirates, prostitutes, and assorted scalawags from different parts of Europe," were not only able to hack out an existence in the backwater wilderness of the island of Manhattan, but also in the process, were able to create a new society -- important vestiges of which still endure -- and which to a large extent, shaped the democratic institutions we now take for granted, and more importantly, those which, we have long mistakenly attributed to our later mostly slaveholding English born founding fathers.
The first, and arguably the more important story, is about the geopolitical context (which sadly is consistently an element typically missing in the stories of the other colonies, and in American history more generally) in which, as it turns out, this rough assemblage of pioneers were in fact mere bit players in a wider 17th Century geopolitical drama: a drama about the struggle for empire among Europeans, Indians, and Africans on the continent, a drama that incontrovertibly created the existing structure of the modern world.
In this first, arguably more important story, the author tells us about the time when the sun was about to set on the Spanish/Portuguese rule of the sea, and England and the Dutch were on the rise. It is an immensely rich geopolitical story about how these "true" dutchmen of the sea -- Europe's shipbuilders, suppler of sailors, pilots, and traffickers -- who had been summarily cut off from the world's richest center of trade, the port of Lisbon, in 1580 by the condominium that then ruled the sea, Spain and Portugal. The Dutch answer to this strategically imposed trade embargo -- was to sail completely around the globe (it took a year) with a fleet of gunpowder-laden ships, where they laid-waste to Portugal's colonies of Java, Sumatra and Malaysia, taking them over, and taking back to Amsterdam some 600, 000 pounds of the world's most valuable spices.
England, on the other hand, hadn't yet dug itself out of the Dark Ages. Its intellectual status was still suspect, and its economy was in shambles -- based as it was solely on the sale of wool. As Queen Elizabeth I came to power, Britain had no interest in exploration except our of a desperate need to free itself from the same Spanish trade embargo that had snared the Dutch, and more generally from forever living in Spain's shadow. With its spectacular victory over the Spanish armada in 1588, the latter would change. But it would take time and extra effort, and the help of Henry Hudson and his scientist friends, before the former would change, and before England would get into the exploration game with all four feet.
The author also tells us that the Dutch came to America purely on a private business adventure excursion, sponsored by the Dutch West Indies Company. The company's business, pure and simple, was to make money from the lucrative fur trade, not, as others were intent on doing, to colonize the continent. They were so wildly successful at fur trading in fact that they became the envvy and a target of all their intra-continental competitors. As a result of this success, they were constantly harried by the Indians from the West; a Swedish colony from the South, and were eventually forced to fight three wars with England before finally having to give up their stake in Manhattan in 1664.
Each of the struggles of these two nations, and the people at their center, as it turns out, represented important turning points that still make up the indispensable but hiterto, missing context to the American story.
Thus, the two stories, the first being the larger contextual story of geopolitics; and the second, a much smaller set of personal stories, of the struggle between two Dutch men over the fate of the colony and the meaning and value of individual liberty they would attach to it, merged on the geopolitical level as the climatic competition between them.
Their personal struggles helped ensure that New York City under the English would develop into a unique place fostering a melting pot of cultures involving the introduction of African slavery to the continent, embodying for the first time the principles of freedom and democracy, and ensuring that a wildly fertile intellectual, artistic, and business environment would become the hallmark of New York City for the rest of its existence.
The two competing personalities were: (1) Peter Stuyvensant, a complex pegged-legged cantankerous tyrant, a neo-racist and anti-Semite, who despite his narrow views, was nevertheless extremely sensitive to Dutch cruelties towards Indians. And the other was: (2) Adriaen van der Donck, a savvy Dutch-trained lawyer, whose specialty in today's terminology would have to be characterized as being America's first Civil Rights lawyer. For he went to bat for "citizens rights" at a time when the term "citizen" was used very loosely, and the term "Civil Rights" had not yet even been invented. Henry Hudson must also be mentioned if only in passing as he too played a seminal role in raising England from the slumber of the Dark Ages, and getting it into the exploration game, although he was eventually killed in a munity by his shipmates.
Much too often American historical narratives are willfully reduced to little more than self-serving patriotically satisfying myth-based melodramas about the personalities and often the much exaggerated personal lives of a handful of rich slaveholding Englishmen. In the process, these artful -- but socially-edited stories -- often serve onlt to "air-brush-out" the most important part of the story: the complexity of the geopolitical and moral context.
It is to Mr. Shorto's immense credit, that he, like a number of other recent historians of his generation (Roxanne Dunbar-Otiz, Gerald Horne, Andrea Stuart, and Eugene D. Genovese, among them) have resisted this temptation to take the "socially-approved" shortcut to glory, and instead, give us more full-bodied, unalloyed, fully contextualized authentic narratives that include moral warts and all.
By embedding the smaller personal stories of the individuals inside the larger geopolitical context of the times, arguably, such upgraded narratives, greatly open up space for deeper interpretative understanding, understanding that invariaby lead to entirely new historical vistas, vistas in which the wider contextualization begins to do most of the heavy-lifting. In doing so, it takes a great deal of the burden and temptation to take the socially-approved shortcut, off of the writer's need to have the narrative rely solely on patriotically inspired melodramatics.
Here, the reader will see unmistakably how the dots are connected through a re-contextualization of the New York origin story. And how doing so, actually pumps vital new life into the 350-year old excavated facts that make up the substance. And how does it do this exactly? By connecting what goes on at eye level -- between the personalities of Peter Stuyvensant, Adraien van der Donck, and Henry Hudson, with what is also going on at the time above their heads at the geopolitical level. With this connection between the facts on the ground and the context above it securely made, there can be no mistake that this narrative is authentic history in the making, rather than just socially safe patriotic storytelling.
I would hope, and would like to think, that in addition to the author's exquisite prose, it is as much his way of embedding the two stories into one, that is most responsible for this book being awarded both the "Washington Irving Prize for contribution to New York History," as well as the "Gold Medal of the Holland's Society for Literary Excellence." Ten stars
The book's main thesis argues for Dutch colony's importance in shaping the tolerant culture of America. This is reinforced with historical context that succeeds in empathetically portraying life in the 1600's, but also explains why New York City is the way it is. Detailing familiar, people, places, and customs, this is the dramatic origin story of a city that is—in many ways—still the same.