Saturday, January 30, 2021

Review of The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto

This review is written by Eugene Kernes

Book can be found in:
Genre = History, Empires 

Short Description


Elaborate Description

This is about New York when it was known as New Amsterdam, and the coveted island of Manhattan.  The island was found by Hudson by disobeying orders from his company.  An island strategically located to provide protection, nourishment, and trade access.  The Dutch allied and traded with the Native American Indian neighbors.  The Dutch culture was tolerant of foreign products, ideas, and people, making New Amsterdam a welcoming place, center of trade, which precipitated in created a melting pot of cultures.  Initially a company town, but as the settlement grew, the people demanded a voice in their governance.  When the city would change ownership to English and be known as New York, the people would get their voice and keep their diverse livelihoods. 

During Hudson’s time with the Muscovy Company, his role was to find a shortcut to the East via a frozen Northeast passage.  Hudson’s failed to find the route and the company dismissed the trade with Americas.  Either because of Hudson’s personality or company’s financial circumstances, the Muscovy Company dismissed Hudson.  The Dutch East India Company recognized his mariner abilities and hired Hudson.  Disobeying the company’s instruction to go northeast, Hudson went in the opposite direction.  Going to the America’s, Hudson had come across an island that the local Indians called mannahata.  The company, rather than be outraged by the disobedience, found what Hudson brought back to be intriguing. 

The initial Dutch settlement established relationships with some Native American Tribes.  The Native American Tribes were not allies with each other and had conflict with each other.  Mahicans chose to relocate near the Dutch for trade and defense.  Manhattan was a very strategic island.  Large enough to support a population, while small enough for a fort to defend.  Nearby areas provided access to various food sources.  Nearby waterways that enabled easy transportation.  Close to an Indian fur-trade.  

New Amsterdam was a company town rather than a city.  The inhabitants were employees rather than citizens.  The port acted as a way station for many traders, with the company facilitating in transactions.  The problem was that New Amsterdam was not financially viable like other company towns which were able to repay their investment.  When the West India Company made New Netherland a free trading zone by giving up its monopoly on trade in the region, the port became profitable.  Although New Netherland started to grow as many entrepreneurs saw it as a base for Atlantic trade, the company struggled. 

Although the Dutch wanted military-trading posts and did not want to establish permanent colonies, New Netherlands refused to remain a trading post.  The governors of New Netherlands used autocratic rule while the people asked for democratic rule.  Military dictatorship usually worked for the Dutch, but not at New Netherlands.  The company denied representative government to the people, but the people enjoyed many other rights such as religious liberty which was a rarity during the era.  The Dutch were able to keep New Amsterdam because they had the military and naval power to protect it.  Over time, the company did not send requested reinforcements even with increased threats.  It was the English that gained enough naval power to threaten the city, and were willing to provide its people with a representative government.  Many New Amsterdam people flipped their allegiance to the English.  The government relented and surrendered the city rather than fight, turning New Amsterdam into New York.  The city would change ownership a few times before becoming an American city.  The peoples variety of races, religions, and language were allowed to coexist and thereby maintain their way of life because the place worked.  

Seeing the purchase of Manhattan for $24 which was commercially worth trillions from hapless Indians is wrong for many reasons.  Rather than the price for Manhattan of $24, it was actually products worth sixty guilders.  Products that might not have had much value in Amsterdam, would have been more valuable for the settlers, and extremely valuable for the Indians.  The Dutch had tacit knowledge of the Indians, and knew them as very skilled, cunning, curious, pig-headed, and cruel like the Europeans who met them.  The Indians saw land ownership differently than the Europeans.  As Shorto points out, while Europeans consider permanent property transfer, the Indians saw the real estate deal as a rental agreement, and a treaty or alliance between two groups.  Indians continued to use the land even years later after the purchase.  When present, Dutch authorities treated Indians to hospitality and gave them more presents.  Over the years, the Dutch also provided protection to Indians.  Contact with Indians was complex.  Many were friendly, while many being vengeful.  Previous clashes created bloodier reprisals.  Protecting Indians with which agreements were made from enemy tribes.  The stereotype of primitive and defenseless were engrained after the separation on European and Indian villages, because they did not know the Native American Indians tacitly.  

The biggest influence of the Dutch Republic was its culture.  The Dutch were primarily traders which meant that they were exposed to many different peoples.  Rather than be antagonistic to foreign people and their ideas and products, the Dutch were tolerant of them.  Tolerance was good for business.  Tolerance during this time period meant putting up with rather than celebrating diversity.  Publishers were mainly uncensored which gave rise to intellectual life resulting in the production of many books.  In New Netherlands, the Dutch were traders rather than trappers, that meant a need to rely on Indians for their skills.  Cooperation was preferable to fighting.  

Dutch cultural attitude of tolerance was in contrast to other European and England’s cultures.  England during the time was engaged in religious wars.  Intolerant to differences and going as far as persecuting differences.  The Puritans were a persecuted group but they themselves were also intolerant and persecuted those who were not their type of Puritan.  Many Puritans were persecuted by other Puritans, but were welcomed by Dutch communities. 

The book is generally well written but has a problem with flow.  The transitions between ideas, people, places, and chronology prevented a coherent understanding in many parts.  Part of the problem is that the surviving documents that the author is using are not complete.  


Questions to Consider while Reading the Book
•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?
•Why did Hudson disobey the Dutch East India Company’s instruction to go northeast?
•Was Manhattan a strategic island?  
•How much did the island cost to buy?
•How were the relations between the Dutch and the Native American Indian tribes? 
•How did New Amsterdam operate as a company town?
•What did the Dutch want New Amsterdam to be like?
•Why did the people of New Amsterdam want a voice in their government?
•How were the Dutch able to keep New Amsterdam?
•Why did New Amsterdam become New York?
•What was Dutch culture like?
•What did the people who lived and live in New York inherit from the Dutch?

Book Details
Edition ISBN:  9781400096336
Pages to read:   357
Publication:     2005
1st Edition:      2004
Format:           eBook

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    3
Content          4
Overall           4