The Island at the Center of the World Summary

Russell Shorto


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The primary claim of Russell Shorto's The Island at the Center of the World is that the Dutch colony of Manhattan, by transplanting the religious tolerance, the acceptance of a multi-ethnic population, and the promotion of free trade from its home country, produced a set of values that helped to create the upwardly mobile society that would become New York City and that these values would eventually form the basis of American culture. This claim runs counter to the more traditional one that asserts that American culture in its earliest stages was largely established by the English settlers who inhabited the upper New England coastline and those who populated the coastal regions of what would become later the states of Virginia and the Carolinas. Both groups promulgated values that Shorto argues are antithetical to those later embraced by the developing political and social ideology of the country.

The Puritans, with their sectarian religious beliefs, advocated a theocratic system of government, and the southern colonies, with their more Cavalier background, favored a more typically English aristocratic form of rule. Both forms of governance were later rejected during the American Revolution. Shorto finds that the understudied and underappreciated colony of the Dutch, particularly as reflected in the development of Manhattan, provides a more sympathetic and accurate model for the understanding of how the United States as a culture developed. Manhattan, in this narrative, is truly the island that became the center of the world.

Shorto's approach is threefold: to trace the settling and evolution of the colony of New Amsterdam, to place this development in the context of the geopolitical struggles of the seventeenth century, especially between the two great maritime and economic powers of the day, England and the Netherlands, and to fashion his narrative around the personalities that best reflect the tensions within the colony itself, singling out the two great figures of the time: Peter Stuyvesant, who represented an autocratic, Old-World view, and Adriaen van der Donck, who worked to promote a more democratic vision better suited to the opportunities offered by the New World.

The establishment of the Dutch colony in North America came about by accident. Henry Hudson, a English visionary explorer who had attempted to find a northwest passage to the east for the Muscovy Company, wanted to try again but was denied their support. The Dutch East India Company proved more congenial, and in 1608 when Hudson sailed up the river that would bear his name, he claimed it for his new employers. Chance played a hand when the company decided to set up a colony rather than just a military outpost, as was their usual practice when establishing trading centers. Once established, the fledgling colony on the tip of an island grew in fits and starts from a village into a town of increasing importance in the New World. Into Manhattan flowed not only Dutch trade but also Dutch values. The population quickly absorbed a mix of varied ethnic and religious backgrounds. Protected by the customary tolerance of the home country, with its tradition of free trade, this polyglot community, according to Shorto, provided opportunities that encouraged the kind of upwardly mobile society that later became the model for America.

The Dutch, of course, were not alone on the edge of the continent. The English had established colonies to the north, first at Plymouth and later in Massachusetts Bay and in the tidewater to the south. The development of New Amsterdam, from the beginning, had to contend with the presence of its neighbors, who became increasingly expansionist. The tension between the Dutch and English in the New World was played out on the periphery of the larger geopolitical conflict enacted elsewhere around the globe. By the seventeenth century, the two small but aggressive countries were deadlocked in a struggle for a far-flung trading empire that had begun in the Spice Islands of the Far East. Restricted by...

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