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The Island at the Center of the World
Cover of The Island at the Center of the World
The Island at the Center of the World
The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America
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In a landmark work of history, Russell Shorto presents astonishing information on the founding of our nation and reveals in riveting detail the crucial role of the Dutch in making America what it is today.

In the late 1960s, an archivist in the New York State Library made an astounding discovery: 12,000 pages of centuries-old correspondence, court cases, legal contracts, and reports from a forgotten society: the Dutch colony centered on Manhattan, which predated the thirteen "original" American colonies. For the past thirty years scholar Charles Gehring has been translating this trove, which was recently declared a national treasure. Now, Russell Shorto has made use of this vital material to construct a sweeping narrative of Manhattan's founding that gives a startling, fresh perspective on how America began.

In an account that blends a novelist's grasp of storytelling with cutting-edge scholarship, The Island at the Center of the World strips Manhattan of its asphalt, bringing us back to a wilderness island—a hunting ground for Indians, populated by wolves and bears—that became a prize in the global power struggle between the English and the Dutch. Indeed, Russell Shorto shows that America's founding was not the work of English settlers alone but a result of the clashing of these two seventeenth century powers. In fact, it was Amsterdam—Europe's most liberal city, with an unusual policy of tolerance and a polyglot society dedicated to free trade—that became the model for the city of New Amsterdam on Manhattan. While the Puritans of New England were founding a society based on intolerance, on Manhattan the Dutch created a free-trade, upwardly-mobile melting pot that would help shape not only New York, but America.

The story moves from the halls of power in London and The Hague to bloody naval encounters on the high seas. The characters in the saga—the men and women who played a part in Manhattan's founding—range from the philosopher Rene Descartes to James, the Duke of York, to prostitutes and smugglers. At the heart of the story is a bitter power struggle between two men: Peter Stuyvesant, the autocratic director of the Dutch colony, and a forgotten American hero named Adriaen van der Donck, a maverick, liberal-minded lawyer whose brilliant political gamesmanship, commitment to individual freedom, and exuberant love of his new country would have a lasting impact on the history of this nation.
In a landmark work of history, Russell Shorto presents astonishing information on the founding of our nation and reveals in riveting detail the crucial role of the Dutch in making America what it is today.

In the late 1960s, an archivist in the New York State Library made an astounding discovery: 12,000 pages of centuries-old correspondence, court cases, legal contracts, and reports from a forgotten society: the Dutch colony centered on Manhattan, which predated the thirteen "original" American colonies. For the past thirty years scholar Charles Gehring has been translating this trove, which was recently declared a national treasure. Now, Russell Shorto has made use of this vital material to construct a sweeping narrative of Manhattan's founding that gives a startling, fresh perspective on how America began.

In an account that blends a novelist's grasp of storytelling with cutting-edge scholarship, The Island at the Center of the World strips Manhattan of its asphalt, bringing us back to a wilderness island—a hunting ground for Indians, populated by wolves and bears—that became a prize in the global power struggle between the English and the Dutch. Indeed, Russell Shorto shows that America's founding was not the work of English settlers alone but a result of the clashing of these two seventeenth century powers. In fact, it was Amsterdam—Europe's most liberal city, with an unusual policy of tolerance and a polyglot society dedicated to free trade—that became the model for the city of New Amsterdam on Manhattan. While the Puritans of New England were founding a society based on intolerance, on Manhattan the Dutch created a free-trade, upwardly-mobile melting pot that would help shape not only New York, but America.

The story moves from the halls of power in London and The Hague to bloody naval encounters on the high seas. The characters in the saga—the men and women who played a part in Manhattan's founding—range from the philosopher Rene Descartes to James, the Duke of York, to prostitutes and smugglers. At the heart of the story is a bitter power struggle between two men: Peter Stuyvesant, the autocratic director of the Dutch colony, and a forgotten American hero named Adriaen van der Donck, a maverick, liberal-minded lawyer whose brilliant political gamesmanship, commitment to individual freedom, and exuberant love of his new country would have a lasting impact on the history of this nation.
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  • From the cover Chapter 1



    THE MEASURE OF THINGS



    On a late summer's day in the year 1608, a gentleman of London made his way across that city. He was a man of ambition, intellect, arrogance, and drive—in short, a man of his age. Like our own, his was an era of expanding horizons and a rapidly shrinking world, in which the pursuit of individual dreams led to new discoveries, which in turn led to newer and bigger dreams. His complicated personality—including periodic fits of brooding passivity that all but incapacitated him—was built around an impressive self-confidence, and at this moment he was almost certainly convinced that the meeting he was headed toward would be of historic importance.

    He walked west, in the direction of St. Paul's Cathedral, which then, as now, dominated the skyline. But the structure in the distance was not the St. Paul's of today, the serene, imperial building that signifies order and human reason, with the spirit of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment shining from its proud dome. His St. Paul's had a hunkering tower in place of a dome (the steeple that had originally risen from the tower had been struck by lightning almost half a century before and hadn't been replaced); it was a dark, medieval church, which suited the medieval market town that London still was in the early seventeenth century. The streets through which he walked were narrow, shadowy, claustrophobic, sloping toward central sewer ditches. The houses that lined them were built of timber and walled with wattle and daub—it was a city made chiefly of wood.

    Since we know his destination and have some notion of the whereabouts of his house, it is possible to trace a likely route that Henry Hudson, ship's captain, would have taken on that summer day, on his way to meet with the directors of the Muscovy Company, funders of voyages of exploration and discovery. The widest thoroughfare from Tower Street Ward toward Cordwainer Street Ward was Tower Street. He would have passed first through a neighborhood that, despite being within sight of the scaffold and gallows of the Tower itself, was an area of relatively new, "divers fair and large houses," as John Stow, a contemporary chronicler, described, several of them owned by prominent noblemen.

    On his left then came the dominating church of St. Dunstan in the East, and a reminder of his heritage. The Muscovy Company had not only funded at least two of Henry Hudson's previous sea voyages; going back through its history of half a century, it contained several Hudsons on its rolls. Among its charter members in 1555 was another Henry Hudson, who rose from a humble "skinner," or tanner, to become a wealthy member of society and an alderman of the City of London, and who may have been the explorer's grandfather. So our Henry Hudson was presumably born to the sea and to the company both, and inside the church he was now passing, his Muscovy Company namesake lay, beneath a gilded alabaster stone inscribed:



    Here lyeth Henry Heardsons corps,

    Within this Tombe of Stone:

    His Soule (through faith in Christ's death,)

    to God in Heaven is gone.

    Whiles that he lived an Alderman,

    And Skinner was his state:

    To Vertue bare hee all his love,

    To vice he bare his hate.



    If in his walk the seaman chose to detour down the hill past the church, he would have come to the open expanse of the Thames, where the view west downriver was dominated by the span of London Bridge with its twenty stone arches, houses perched precariously along both sides of its course. Directly across the river, beckoning lowly and enticingly, lay Southwark, a wild...
About the Author-
  • Russell Shorto is the author of two previous books: Gospel Truth, about the search for the historical Jesus, and Saints and Madmen, about psychiatry and religion. The hub of his research for The Island at the Center of the World was the New Netherland Project at the New York State Library, where the archives of the Dutch colony centered on Manhattan are being translated. He has written for the New York Times Magazine, GQ, and many other publications. He lives in New York's Hudson Valley with his wife and their two daughters.
Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine Based on newly translated archives, Shorto tells the story of the Dutch settlement of Manhattan in great detail, including all the European back story, through the English takeover. Unfortunately, the book is as overwritten (sometimes comically) as the title is overblown. L.J. Ganser's voice--sharp-edged, harsh, and nasal--takes a long time to get used to. His pronunciations of foreign words is awkward and strained (especially the frequent Dutch). But the wealth of information and the cogent, if repetitive, arguments for the influence of this cosmopolitan, multicultural, liberal colony on the future U.S. outweigh the faults of the book and the reading. W.M. 2005 Audie Award Finalist (c) AudioFile 2005, Portland, Maine
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    All copies of this title, including those transferred to portable devices and other media, must be deleted/destroyed at the end of the lending period.

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The Island at the Center of the World
The Island at the Center of the World
The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America
Russell Shorto
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