The Island at the Centre of the World, by Russell Shorto

New York's original awkward squad
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The Independent Culture

Who you are depends on who you once were; it also depends on who you say you were. Russell Shorto's history of the half century during which New York was New Amsterdam offers an alternative myth of America's origins, not involving those signally unlovable folk, the Puritan Pilgrim Fathers. It suggests another source for America's freedom.

The Dutch period in Manhattan's history left its mark in small things: a local architecture that looks European, the tub of coleslaw on every plate, the fact that Americans call biscuits cookies. Recently transcribed records demonstrate that its mark was left in larger things: the right to dissent, the rule of law and lawyers, objections to force as a way of settling issues and a habit of tolerance, even of the raffish and vaguely criminal. None of this happened by chance; like most things, it was resolved by struggle.

The Dutch West India Company set Manhattan up as a trading post. Its people tended to be hard-headed businessmen and men of action like Peter Minuit (who bought the island) and Peter Stuyvesant, who oversaw its surrender to the British. However, its governors had to operate under the constraints of law. A nation only just free of the Spanish Inquisition had acquired a dislike of arbitrary power, and had to cope with the arguments of those who objected to, say, mistreatment of Native American neighbours.

Principal among this awkward squad was the legal theorist, naturalist and country gentleman Adriaen van der Donck, Shorto's hitherto unsung hero. In New Amsterdam and back in Holland, Van der Donck fought Stuyvesant every step of the way for charters of rights.

In the end, he lost; war with Britain made Amsterdam keen on strong military government. Van der Donck was stripped of his political rights and randomly tomahawked in a rising. Yet, faced with annexation by New England, Stuyvesant turned to his old enemy's demands for negotiating points that would guarantee Dutch liberties under their new masters. When New Amsterdam became New York, it kept much of what had been won and what made it work.

Shorto is using new historical evidence to make a point in contemporary politics. The "Christian" right are fond of their foundation myths. He is providing a different one, in which Griet the whore and the giant half-hanged slave Gerrit, the Quakers, the Jews and the lawyers who protected them, are founders too.

And, in spite of occasional infelicities like "alternative religionist" for heretic, he writes well about what was lost as well as what changed: about a Manhattan that was mostly wild country, settlements slung along the track that became Broadway, the wild fowl and flowers that van der Donck recorded, and the scribes who wrote it all down on papers we are only now starting to read.

The reviewer edited 'Reading the Vampire Slayer', now in a second edition from IB Tauris

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