Skip to content
April 2, 2010 / howardmestas

The Island at the Center of the World

Ships entering the Dutch Port of Manhattan

The Island at the Center of the World

Somewhere in the middle of New York City, in a place of honor, there should be an enormous monument dedicated to 17th Dutch colonist Adriaen Van der Donck.  Likewise, appropriate mention of his name should grace the halls of Congress in the company of Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.  For if these American icons are credited with the ideas of revolution and the foundation of the American Republic, van der Donck preceded them by over 120 years.  In his book, “The Island at the Center of the World,” Russell Shorto profoundly makes the case that Dutch Colonial Manhattan, and its political patriarch Van der Donck were the basis for the earliest foundation of republican government not only for New York, but America itself.  In addition the colony established the ideas of ethnic and religious tolerance on top of free market capitalism long before these experiments became accepted ideas.  These are the foundations for modern America; especially for the streets of the cultural and financial capital of the world.  And they were based on the Dutch model.    

After centuries of scholarly neglect, Dutch history in America is only recently coming to light, mainly as the result of the decades’ long work of Germanic linguistics expert Charles Gehring.  Gehring, who Shorto refers to as the “Rosetta Stone,” has meticulously deciphered a large portion of 12,000 pages of manuscripts and records after beginning his work in 1974.  Transactions of ever manner have been revealed from land purchases from Native Americans to marriage and divorce proceedings in the Colony.  What has been determined is that most of the historical “fact” we have known about New Netherland has either been negatively misrepresented, incomplete, or both.  All the reasoning for such distortion is quite obvious, the winners tell history from their point of view or from a platform that sheds the most positive light on them.  Thus, the 1664 English takeover shows a colony inhabited by individuals of the lowest order, disorganized and incapable of continued existence without immediate infusions of Anglican culture and legal discipline.

Nothing could be farther from the truth and one simply needs to begin with 17th century comparisons between England and Holland, at the time of their earliest transatlantic ventures.  England was on the verge of a century of religious wars where large groups of political and religious refugees would be forced to flee for their lives.   The Dutch, by comparison were in the business of trade in a vast network, and just as foreign goods moved into and out of ports, foreign people did as well.  Although the Dutch were not completely broad minded in mingling with their foreign lot, they were acceptant.  Tolerance, as Shorto points out, was very good for business.  Additionally, Holland was embroiled in its perpetual war for independence against their Spanish overlords and their “Catholic Inquisition” in an age when the concepts of the emerging Enlightenment seemed like a better idea.  Living the reality of being Spanish refugees within their own borders, the Dutch declared themselves a

Indians in their boats around Manhattan

 “Republic” and laid out the welcome mat for all who were fleeing political and religious tyranny throughout Europe.  Shorto writes that, “Over the course of the 17th century, the Dutch Republic would give intellectual or religious haven to Descartes, John Locke, and the English Pilgrims, the latter of whom lived in Leiden for twelve years before setting out to found a New Jerusalem in New England.”

Leiden was the preferred destination of all of Europe’s intellectual free thinkers, and its printing presses served to preserve their ideas for world.  Galileo’s “Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Concerning Two New Sciences” would be published in Leiden in 1638 free from Papal inquisitors and their torches.  In fact, one-half of all books published worldwide in the seventeenth century would be produced in the Netherlands.  Scientists and medical researchers of every sort wandered the streets of Leiden and the namesake university would become the home of the century’s most gifted legal mind, Dutch born Hugo de Groot, who would be known to history as Hugo Grotius.  Grotius came to the University of Leiden with revolutionary ideas about how governments should conduct themselves in times of both war and peace and centered his theories that governance should be based on “natural law” and not from “biblical citations.” His ideas would be the seminal roots for the writings of John Locke, whose own works would influence the likes of Jefferson and other writers of the Declaration of Independence.  Grotius was the leading influence as to how law was taught at Leiden and one of his many champions was Van der Donck who studied law at the university and emerged as a jurist in 1641.

Had he chosen, Van der Donck could easily have rested upon his laurels, becoming a prominent figure in a nation peaking in its golden age, but he opted for an adventurous challenge with no such guarantee.  In May 1641 he ventured across the Atlantic to become the first official “lawman” in Dutch controlled territory, one-hundred-fifty miles up the Hudson, or as the locals called it the North River.  He would serve as sheriff, judge, and jury at the pleasure of a Dutch diamond merchant in a feudal colony of Rensselaerswyck near where the city of Albany would develop.  Aside from his primary duties, Van der Donck became entranced with the wilderness environment at his doorstep, studying everything from the flora and fauna, to the Native Americans.  All discoveries would be catalogued in his major work, A Description of New Netherland.  Unlike contemporary stereotypical works of the day, his text would shine positively on the indigenous tribes classifying them as cultured, civilized people with complex societies; a far cry from the English colonial descriptions as irreligious savages.

Predictably, Van der Donck would become discontented with his role as “enforcer” of a medieval style fiefdom and in 1644 he found his way toward the nerve center of the colony, the island the Indians called Mannahatta.  It was there he became the chief counsel for settlers’ grievances against the head of the Dutch West India Company, Willem Kieft.  Kieft was a distasteful leader who was successful in unifying an incredibly diverse population into one single mindset; that of seeking his expulsion.  The worst of the many grievances against him was his disastrous military campaign against the Indians, and then his refusal to compensate colonists for property loss in the war that would follow.  Behind the scenes, Van der Donck applied his legal training, clandestinely working towards Kieft’s ouster.  The petition seeking a new leader for the colony was the first example for a redress of abuses against a leader in the new world.  Even though it did not have his name on it, experts agree that the bulk of the draft penned on behalf of the colonists was through the hand of Van der Donck who had an unusual way of describing the new world residents.  He called them “Americans.”

The new commander of Manhattan would be the legendary figure that most American’s are familiar with, Petrus “Peter” Stuyvesant who would assume his duties in 1647.  His task was to restore respectability for the West India Company, not only for the inhabitants of the colony, but in the eyes of the governing State’s General and the stock holders back in the Netherlands.  Dutch West India’s reputation had diminished by the time Stuyvesant took charge and its importance took a greater hit with the signing of a peace treaty between the Spain and the Dutch Republic a year later.  The company, after all, had been established as a base for carrying out the war.  Stuyvesant’s duties were problematic from the moment he took command, having to rule over a population that was unlike any other in the world.  Centuries before huddled masses were welcomed into the harbor, the island was a paradigm of incredible diversity acceptant to individuals of every national origin and to the belief systems they brought with them.  The inhabitants were saturated with ideas of natural rights and individual liberties, and they were tolerant of one-another’s frailties.  Nothing aside from a bad work ethic was forbidden.  Those who were indentured through apprenticeship were encouraged to advance themselves through additional careers, thus creating an assemblage of workers who could say to their benefactors, “you are my boss but not my master.”  All of these guidelines were not just tolerated, but encouraged by the Dutch Republic keenly aware that intolerance was bad for trade and business.  It was a far cry from practices in Puritan New England, and it was the place Stuyvesant was assigned to establish discipline.

It was only a matter of time before Van der Donck would again be conveying colonial grievances, this time he would carry them personally to the governing body in The Hague, where he would articulate complaints against Stuyvesant and the “Tyranny of the West India Company.”  To gain public support he would publish his work called The Remonstrance of New Netherland which would serve as the new continent’s earliest version of a declaration of independence, and it would call for a needed municipal charter that would guarantee representative government.  As fate would have it, Van der Donck was the right person at the right time for these political manifestations to occur.  Sadly, however, he was caught up in a political power struggle the Netherlands and was not present on February 2, 1653 when the city of New Amsterdam approved its new municipal charter, an acclamation that would serve to establish the cultural identity of modern New York City.  Stuyvesant, though constrained, was still powerful enough to hamstring Van der Donck’s political ambitions once he returned from abroad.   After accomplishing so much for the new city he helped invent, Van der Donck would never be a major player again.  Like the hero in a Greek Tragedy, he would die in relative obscurity, and with no monument in the island at the center of the world.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: