The Island at the Center of the World

Friday, January 30th, 2009

Orson Scott Card reviews Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America, which explains how we couldn’t read Manhattan’s history until recently:

Because all the pertinent records were written in Dutch. And the government of the Netherlands thought so little of the history of New Amsterdam that in the early 19th century, during a fit of housecleaning, they sold the records of the colony for scrap paper.

A few letters survived here and there in the Netherlands. And a rather massive archive survived in the United States — survived by miracle, because nobody really cared much about these records here, either.

After all, nobody could read them. Not just because they were written in Dutch, but also because Dutch handwriting changed in the 1700s so that almost nobody in the Netherlands could have read them, either.

These 17th-century records survived fires, mold, and disregard; after a few attempts to translate them, the real work didn’t get under way until after Nelson Rockefeller endowed the work of translation.

At that time, a young scholar named Charles Gehring graduated with a specialization in 17th-century Dutch, and had to face the fact that there wasn’t exactly a huge market for his skills.

He happened to run into the very man that had arranged for Rockefeller to fund the translation. He said, in effect, “Have I got a job for you!”

Much of what we consider American goes back to the Dutch trading post:

The two great English colonizing efforts — in Virginia and in New England — really don’t resemble what we think of as America today.

Virginia and points south became a land of plantations, owned by men who wanted to maintain the rigid class system of England, only with themselves at the apex.

The New England colonies (except Rhode Island) were founded by religious believers who were trying to create a place of uniform faithfulness.

Where in all this do we find any hint of a melting pot? Of religious openness? Of freedom for ordinary working people?

Shorto tells us — and proves — that the roots of a tolerant melting pot were all in Manhattan.

Not that anyone planned it that way. The Dutch West India Company did not think of it as a colony. It was a trading post, a wholly-owned operation whose participants were employees or servants, most definitely not citizens.

But those employees had their roots in the Netherlands, a group of Protestant counties which were still in the midst of their bloody struggle for independence from Spanish Catholic rule.

During the terrible religious wars that had swept back and forth across Europe ever since Luther and Calvin began their own brands of reformation, most places achieved peace by expelling (or killing) dissidents, so that Europe became a patchwork of principalities, some Catholic, some Protestant of one sort or another.

Only the Netherlands determined to accept anyone and simply ignore the issue of religion. While there were still people who wanted uniformity of faith, the majority — and, more importantly, the government — seems to have invented the idea of separation of religion from citizenship.

Intolerance cuts into profits.

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