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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 253

The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto relates the story of Manhattan under Dutch colonial rule, when the island was called New Netherland. This part of Manhattan’s history became buried when the British Empire seized control of New Amsterdam, and Shorto revives it in a narrative story full of intrigue and adventure.

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Henry Hudson, who worked for the Dutch East India Company, discovered the island of Manhattan and instantly recognized its potential as the center of trade with Europe. Thus, the Dutch welcomed people of all nationalities and religious persuasions to the island, and Manhattan became an incredibly diverse and colorful place. Under Dutch colonial rule, New Amsterdam was modeled after the European city of Amsterdam, a community of surprising diversity that valued free trade and served as a model of cultural and religious tolerance.

New Amsterdam was a very different place than the British colonies, which were largely based on intolerance. The Dutch were traders, not nation-builders, and thus they welcomed people from all races, religions, and countries and valued the differences they brought to Manhattan. The Dutch also worked side by side with the Native Americans, and they used their knowledge to benefit the colony’s development. In this climate, Manhattan was able to grow into what would became the center of world trade. Manhattan, under Dutch rule, served as a model of individual rights and freedoms, and thus played a significant role in shaping the U.S. Constitution and the values of the new nation.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1642

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...

(The entire section contains 1895 words.)

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