March 2004

Gena Anderson


The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto

Every book, movie, and sociology class depicts New York as a crazy melting pot of different types of people. Until I read The Island at the Center of the World, I figured that the whole ethnic diversity and harmony thing was because we were all Americans, who once were fleeing from religious and other intolerance. Obviously, I only have about a third graders grasp on colonial history. The first settlers in the New York area (Manhattan, to be specific) were Dutch, and they were the real reason behind our current claim on diversity.

In 1607 the explorer Henry Hudson was sent to discover a new passage to Asia for the Muscovy Company of England. He tried a new and novel approach by first attempting to sail a boat directly over the top of the world. There was a much-accepted theory going around at the time that since it was almost constantly daylight in that area, the ice would be mostly melted and easily passable. After that failed attempt, Hudson tried to find a passage by going around Russia. The Muscovy Company didn’t give him another try, as Hudson sparked near-mutinies on his previous difficult voyages. It was the Dutch, in the form of the Dutch East India Company, who asked Hudson to try again, and when he followed rumors of a secret river passage to Asia that started in the New World, he discovered the island of Manhattan instead. New York was first called New Amsterdam and was settled by the religiously tolerant Dutch.

Russell Shorto starts out his account of the early Dutch colony with an Indiana Jones-like excitement about the previously untranslatable papers found which include court records, letters and diaries, all detailing the history of the early settlement of Manhattan. The settlement was so diverse because the Dutch immediately realized their island could be the hub of all trading activity between the New World and Europe. Consequently, people of many backgrounds came to live on the island, including Africans, Native Americans, German, Swedes, Norwegians, and the English. Manhattan was ruled by a member of the Dutch East India Company, Peter Stuyvesant, a no-nonsense man who opposed the popular idea that the island should be more than just a trading outpost. Let by the island’s first lawyer, Adriaen van der Donck, some of the people tried to get a real Dutch government set up in Manhattan, only to be thwarted by the East India Company and Stuyvesant, who wanted to keep in control.

Eventually, in 1664, the English conquered the Dutch colony, but in a decision that would help shape New York’s status as a microcosm of the world, they decided to keep things pretty much as they were—the settlers were allowed to have a say in the new government, and encouraged to keep Manhattan prosperous, populated with the different types of people that made it work so well.

Shorto’s book is pretty interesting, and written with an attention to detail that only an author who really loved his subject matter could employ. Unfortunately, this attention to detail will keep all but the most focused of readers from enjoying the book. The book is also very dryly written, and filled with descriptions of things that really distracted me from keeping interested in the main story, going on so many tangents and trying to cover many diverse subjects that were pertinent at the time. Shorto could have produced separate books on the history of exploration, and even on Native American monetary and trading habits. If you can keep your attention on the book, though, it does give a little-known look at things I thought were interesting, and it really improved my grasp of America’s early history.

The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto
Doubleday Publishing
ISBN 0385503490
324 Pages