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First of the Month Review

This month's review, Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto, is unrelated to any book I'm currently writing, but it was a book I picked up a year or two ago. I don't remember when I purchased it, but I've read it twice.

For a non-fiction book, reading it twice is impressive, especially when I'm not currently working on any novels in New York City. The book actually focuses on New Amsterdam, and for those who do not know American history, New York City was, at one point, New Amsterdam. The Dutch founded the colony on Manhattan; the English took it over between 1664 and 1665 during the time of the Anglo-Dutch Wars (one, two and three).

The colony was unique in the American colonies for several reasons: (1) it was a business venture in its entirety, (2) it had freedom of religion, (3) it was Dutch.

Now, granted, Jamestown was set up as a business venture, but it did not have freedom of religion (as a modern American would understand; the other two colonies would be Maryland and Pennsylvania). Puritan New England was neither a business venture nor had freedom of religion; both were English. Out of the 13 original Colonies, only New York and Delaware were founded by non-English settlers (Dutch and Swedish respectively). The original founders of New Amsterdam remained on uneasy terms with their neighbors. To put this in perspective, remember that during the Seventeenth Century, the English and Dutch fought three wars, and also remember that the Puritans left Holland because of the corruption of the Dutch culture on their children.

No, they did not rest easy in the territories.

The Island at the Center of the World shines a light on a time period in American history that few know. Part of the reason is due to the fact that it was still quite rough and tumble on the frontier at this time. Places like Philadelphia did not exist (est. 1682); New Amsterdam and Plymouth were settled near the same time (1620).

Therefore, the book covers forty years of history from the founding to the establishing of the city. It covers some of the history of Pieter Stuyvesant, the Dutch plantation system, and arrival of the different people groups into Manhattan including the Sephardic Jews and the Africans. One of the things that surprised me, while reading the book, was New Amsterdam's cosmopolitan feel even at that time period. French, English, German, Yiddish, Dutch, and perhaps a dozen other languages were spoken on the streets. The skyline was dotted with churches from Dutch Reformed to Catholic, to Anglican, and included Jewish synagogues in the mix.

My family has Dutch heritage through my grandmother. She often said that her Dutch ancestors arrived in Canada after the American Revolution because they had remained Loyalist. All of this is hypothetical, but plausible; my ancestors could have very well been some of those who helped establish New Amsterdam ... then went behind Pieter Stuyvesant's back to welcome the English. For me, this book was interesting because of my family.

For others, I recommend reading The Island at the Center of the World because it provides the early history of an island that influences the world. There remains a lot of the Dutch heritage in New York City, and the New York State as well, far beyond the names of counties and presidents.


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