Written by Kevin Baker and Originally Published in The New York Times on April 4, 2004
''And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes -- a fresh, green breast of the new world,'' F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote on the greatest last page in American letters. On the grounds of Jay Gatsby's abandoned Long Island estate, Nick Carraway broods over the ''transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent . . . face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder'' before he lets himself be borne back to the Midwest, along ''the dark fields of the republic.''
And yet, Henry Hudson's entrance into New York Harbor has never gained full iconic status in the American experience. When it comes to the old Dutch colony of New Netherland and its capital, New Amsterdam, which took root on Manhattan Island in 1624, we tend to accept at face value Washington Irving's comic Knickerbocker caricatures, depicting a bunch of fat, bumptious graspers -- a colony full of overgrown hobbits. Surely such a people could not have contributed anything to the national character remotely approaching the influence of, say, those dour Puritans up in Massachusetts.
Russell Shorto, in his masterly new history, ''The Island at the Center of the World,'' begs to differ. The author of ''Gospel Truth,'' about the search for the historical Jesus, among other books, Shorto has taken up nearly as intrepid a pursuit here. ''If what made America great was its ingenious openness to different cultures,'' he writes, ''the small triangle of land at the southern tip of Manhattan Island is the birthplace of that idea: This island city would become the first multiethnic, upwardly mobile society on America's shores, a prototype of the kind of society that would be duplicated throughout the country and around the world.''
New Netherland was supposed to be just one more in a series of trading posts that the audacious new Dutch republic was germinating around the world, a private fief of the Dutch West India Company designed to pump more wealth into the extraordinary cultural and economic boom then transforming the mother country. But somehow, as Shorto puts it: ''New Netherland refused to remain a trading post. It was unique among the way stations of the Dutch empire in that it insisted on becoming a place'' -- and one that seemed almost magnetically drawn to the center of world events. From its very inception, New Amsterdam was a remarkably restless, ambitious, polyglot little seaport. ''It was Manhattan, in other words,'' he says, ''right from the start.''
What Shorto has hit upon is nothing less than the true dichotomy at the heart of the American story, the fact that most of our ancestors came to this land for material as well as idealistic reasons (to properly recognize the experience of African-Americans, people brought here against their will, one must actually make it a triptych, but that is another story). Both motivations were complex. While Shorto concedes the innate ''messiness'' of colonial Manhattan, a place where at one point a quarter of all buildings were devoted to the production or consumption of alcohol, religious dissenters flocked to the Dutch colony to escape persecution up on Massachusetts Bay. Meanwhile, the Puritans' ''shining 'city on a hill' became Manifest Destiny, and morphs easily into a cheap battle cry.''
A new foundation myth requires a new progenitor. The Dutch republic was nearing the end of an 80-year war for national independence and religious freedom, and while tolerance at the time meant something closer to ''putting up with'' than ''celebrating'' diversity, as Shorto observes, the Dutch had developed a very modern appreciation of free thought, epitomized by the fact that this remarkable little country published an estimated one-half of all the world's books over the course of the 17th century.
Yet it is one thing to describe the cultural golden age of the nation that produced New Amsterdam and another to prove its influence upon the realized American nation. Shorto centers his story on the battle between two critical players in Dutch Manhattan, Peter Stuyvesant and Adriaen van der Donck. Stuyvesant, the wily, flinty soldier who had lost a leg fighting for the company on St. Martin, was mainly concerned with thwarting both the encroachments of the expansionary New England colonies and the demands for self-government from his subjects within. Van der Donck is a less well known but even more intriguing figure; a lawyer with the soul of a poet, punctilious enough to attach eight footnotes to a single sentence, but also a man capable of living for months among the Indians, and who kept breaking into rapturous descriptions of the New World in his neglected classic, ''A Description of New Netherland.'' Van der Donck's quest to remake New Netherland in the republican image of the mother country set him inevitably in opposition to Stuyvesant.
Ultimately, both men's aims would be frustrated, but their conflict forced the West India Company to grant the colony a charter, under which most citizens of New Amsterdam came to enjoy exceptional rights and freedoms, living as real stakeholders in an opportunity society. These liberties would survive the English takeover of the colony in 1664, and Shorto convincingly traces a direct line from their achievement straight to the New York State Legislature's decision in 1787 not to ratify the Constitution unless ''a bill of specific individual rights were attached to it.''
Why has the Dutch side of our national story remained so obscure for so long? In part because the historical records of New Netherland have literally been buried by the winners in one moldy archive after another, and not the least entertaining part of Shorto's book is his narrative of how these records managed to survive over 300 years of flood, fire and indifference. He generously credits the research other scholars have done to bring these invaluable materials back to the surface, as they translated some 12,000 sheets of rag paper from the 17th-century Dutch.
Taking full advantage of these newly recovered sources, Shorto makes frequent, deft excursions from New York to the Netherlands and England, Brazil and Curaçao; and the slave coast of Guinea to the Spice Islands and the German battlefields of the Thirty Years' War; and to Hartford and Boston and that hotly contested colonial prize, New Jersey. He portrays a formidable cast of historical actors -- the cunning, murderous fanatic who was Cromwell; the Stuarts, with all their dogs and horses and mistresses. Poor Henry Hudson, so caught up in his quest for the Northwest Passage that he was still asking, ''What do you mean by this?'' when his starving, freezing sailors finally set him and his young son adrift to die in a small boat, in the bay that would come to bear his name.
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.
If there is a flaw in ''The Island at the Center of the World,'' it may be Shorto's underplaying of how the patroon system -- a semifeudal arrangement the West India Company allowed to be grafted onto its holdings -- undermined democracy in upstate New York even well into the 19th century. Yet over all, Shorto's basic premise is undeniable. The legacy of tolerance from the Dutch colony in Manhattan would be extended, as he writes, ''into the very heart of the continent, crossroads settlements transformed into cities, lights winking on in the dusk of the endless landscape, each with its cluster of founding ethnic groups: Toledo, Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Chicago, Green Bay'' -- deep into the dark fields of the Republic, indeed.