Russell Shorto’s book, The Island at the Center of the World, offers readers a fascinating understanding about the long overlooked beginnings of successful European colonization in the New World by the Dutch. In my school district’s curriculum, the summation of the Dutch influence gives a blurb about Henry Hudson, the purchase of Manhattan Island for twenty-four dollars, the short-lived colony of New Amsterdam, and Peter Stuyvesant’s defeat and surrender to the British. In actuality, the forgotten colonists live on in modern America by laying down cornerstones that shaped this country and are still very much part of what makes America what she is, as well as the creation of New York City to be the internationally renown city that it is now. Dutch influence is seen in the social structure of our society, our political system, commerce, and providing names that have pervaded our national psyche.

Henry Hudson, spent part of his career working and sailing for the British Muscovy Company, who was trying to find “…. a northern passage both because such a shortcut would render obsolete the Spanish and Portuguese monopoly on the Southern Hemisphere and because any northern peoples encountered along the way would be more likely buyers for English wool.” (p. 17). The goal was to sail north, across the top of the world, to end up in Asia and the abundant riches that were to be found there. Hudson lead two voyages that would be unsuccessful and was back in England to ask the Muscovy Company to support another voyage, based on information he had received from John Smith, of the Jamestown colony. Smith was a friend and fellow exploring of Hudson and had sent letters, maps, and theories he developed about North America and a water passageway – “…that a sea or river somewhere to the north of Virginia gave out into the Sea of Cathay.” As Hudson was not successful in finding this passageway to the north and due to “possibly the Muscovy Company was running out of steam…it would soon be taken over by the younger and more vigorous East India Company.” (p. 24), Henry Hudson was dropped from working for the Muscovy House. Fortuitously, the Dutch had been keeping tabs on Hudson and had known of his return to England and meeting with the Muscovy Company. The Dutch wanted to recruit and hire Hudson in order to, “…discover, exploit, expand, do business.” (p. 24). Ultimately, Hudson’s voyage for the East India Company would end in failure for discovering the Northwest Passage to Asia, but subsequently started a new dawning for the New World and the Dutch merchants who paid for and planned the new colony. Hudson sailed around a group of islands that guarded the mouth of a river, later named in honor of him, and that he explored. Hudson claimed the lands he saw for the Netherlands. And on his advice about the lands and the potential for an excellent harbor, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) planned a settlement.

Dutch society in the fifteen and sixteen hundreds was more progressive and tolerant than the rest of Europe. This was for a variety of reasons. Global trade was happening, with the Dutch outpacing the British in Far East trade. “Just as foreign goods moved in and out of their ports foreign ideas, and for that matter foreign people, did as well. … The Dutch stood out for their relative acceptance of foreignness, or religious differences, of odd sorts.” (p. 27) All of this would have a profound impact on the colony of New Amsterdam. The colony was designed to be a trading post, with native inhabitants bringing furs which were shipped over to Europe to feed its’ unquenchable thirst for the pelts. In this concept of a trading post, the Dutch business men who were financing the venture, focused more on the exporting of goods, or the business side of matters, rather than the everyday matters that people who were staking their lives on the colony’s success.

The settlers of this new land came from all walks of life in the Netherlands. Many were Jewish, German, French, English, and Swedish immigrants to the Netherlands from other areas throughout Europe, who had been drawn to the area for its tolerance, possibly due to warfare in their own country, or escaping persecution. Just as Amsterdam was a cultural melting pot, the “Dutch” who settled in the New World were just as diversified. “As the “Dutch” emigrated to their New World colony, then, they brought with them not only a ready made mix of cultures but a tolerance of differences, the prescription for a multicultural society. In it’s very seeding, Manhattan was a melting pot.” (p. 125).

The Dutch colonization of the New World differed from the English. The Dutch felt that in order to claim and settle an area, they needed to have settlements planted throughout the area. This resulted in several sparsely populated colonies throughout the region that they claimed. The British, however, believed that setting foot on land and declaring everything that could be seen or not seen for the leading monarch of the time. In the beginnings, they had very few colonies, primarily in New England, yet claimed everything they could not see, which included the Dutch territory. Evidence of the Dutch tolerance is seen in how English colonists who were being persecuted, or not tolerated in the New England settlements, came to New Amsterdam seeking refuge. From the beginnings, the Dutch were directed to work with the Indians and to treat them fairly. It was also understood early in the settlement that the Natives would still live on the lands, had a protective pact or alliance with the colonists, and provided furs to trade with the colonies. In 1640, a decision would be made by the West India Company to give up their “monopoly on trade in the region” and “declared New Netherland a free trading zone.” (p. 105)

The concept of a state, or colony becoming an independent political entity was coming into being at the colony as leader after leader, working under the direct supervision of the Dutch India Company did not attend to matters that helped the colony’s long term survival. Farmers and traders were concerned about their community and lives: people wanted to have a say in government and the decisions that were being made that directly affected their lives. For too long, colonists felt that the West Dutch India Company was detrimental to the colonists’ very existence was not over looking their needs and survivability. An example of this was the massacre of Natives under Director Kieft, known as Kieft’s War and was the beginning of many attacks and counterattacks that lasted for years (p. 123). “…the farmers and traders who made up the colony learned Indian languages, adopted Indian farming techniques, embraced the wampum trade, and, for a time and in a great many ways, tried to coexist. … Colonists understood that they were outnumbered, and that “the Dutch were not trappers; the fur trade, their whole reason for being here, depended on the Indians. (p. 126)

As colonists in New Netherland were toiling in taming the wild land, the Netherlands was still moving on as a progressive area. Writers, mathematicians, philosophers, artists came there in order to work unmolested. Printers were available and did not place limits on what they would print – freedom of speech was more prevalent. Political thoughts were expanding and Adriaen Van der Donck was a product of the enlightened activity that was going on at this time. In turn, the principles and ideals that were imbedded in his academics and beliefs had a profound effect on the New World in the founding of New Netherland. Originally hired by Dutch diamond merchant, Kiliaen van Rensselaer, Van der Donck put law and order into his patroonship. Repeatedly in his dealings with the new colony and the men he worked for, Van der Donck would toe the line and ingratiate himself into the good graces of those powers above him. After a period of time, Van der Donck would begin putting his more “radical” ideas into practice, generally to the disapproval of the higher powers. This happened with Van Rensselaer and with Peter Stuyvesant but Van der Donck generally was able to maintain the upper hand, because he of his knowledge and experience.

By this time, Van der Donck had fallen in love with the new lands that he lived upon. He was the first to take copious notes of the lands, natural resources, and native inhabitants of these new lands. Van der Donck is also credited with first coining the term “American”. He passionately wanted to see the communities thrive and succeed but that was not always the end goal of the Dutch West Indies Company, who was more concerned with the bottom line and profit. The settlers had been and would be a second thought; the company did not want to loosen its’ powers and allow the colonies to be semi-autonomous. This self-governing is what the colonies desperately needed, as they were the ones on the front line and decisions needed to be made that would insure the longevity of their existence rather than strictly looking at profit. Van der Donck was the perfect candidate to advocate for having “home-grown” committees govern the colonies. While Van der Donck did end up successfully arguing his points to The Hague, but war with Britain interfered with such plans by the leaders in Amsterdam. Later, ironically, Stuyvesant finally realized that he needed the support of the local leaders and approved a municipal committee rule. At long last, the citizens of the colonies could make decisions about matters that directly influenced their lives.

Unfortunately, Adriaen Van der Donck did not live to see this victorious occasion. Van der Donck was believed to have been killed during a Native American attack on the area. And while his name is not known like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other founding people of our country, his influence is felt and has lived-on throughout the centuries, just as the humble beginnings of the Dutch colony on “The Island at the Center of the World” has impacted who and what America stands for. Our country owes many names to the Dutch – our Bill of Rights, the term boss, American, Yankee, Brooklyn, Manhattan, to name a few, that are now synonymous with this country. The concept of self-governing was brought to the new world by the Dutch, not the British, who needed and demanded a say in matters that affected their daily lives. The invariable melting pot culture that America is renown for comes directly from the roots that the Dutch colonies planted. The development of successful commerce and trade started with the ill-fated visionary Henry Hudson, who saw this area as an excellent port for sea trade and commerce, as well as lands filled with vast riches.

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