The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America
In 1809, A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty appeared under the name of Diedrich Knickerbocker, an eccentric, learned gentleman determined “to rescue from oblivion the memory of former incidents, and to render a just tribute of renown to the many great and wonderful transactions of our Dutch progenitors.” The real author was a twenty-six-year-old Manhattan lawyer named Washington Irving; and his comic novel turned him into the first internationally acclaimed American writer, attracting admirers as distinguished as Coleridge and Dickens. Walter Scott reported that his sides were “absolutely sore with laughter.”
Brilliantly mocking the grandiloquence of contemporary rhetoricians, the Knickerbocker History purports to tell the story of the colony of New Netherland, the Dutch settlement that traced its origins to Henry Hudson’s discovery of New York Harbor in 1609. Hudson, an Englishman in the Dutch service, claimed for Holland the whole area between the Delaware and the Connecticut rivers. After the first permanent Dutch settlers arrived in 1624, the small colony, dedicated mainly to the fur trade, limped along for a few years under a series of venal governors. These included Peter Minuit, who is today remembered only for purchasing Manhattan from the Indians for something like $24. Another, the sadist Willem Kieft, gratuitously ordered a massacre of Indians in present-day New Jersey, a misfortune that sparked two years of war and imperiled the colony, whose trade depended on Indian cooperation. When Peter Stuyvesant, New Netherland’s last director, reached its capital, New Amsterdam, in 1647, the grubby town was in pitiable shape.
Stuyvesant, a tough fighter who had lost a leg in an attack on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, introduced regulations designed to whip the place into shape. Many of these were urgently necessary, including his legislation against public drunkenness—by all accounts a major problem among both Dutch and Indians—and his enforcement, in a city of shoddy buildings, of strict construction codes. Stuyvesant also enjoyed his share of diplomatic victories: in 1650, he set a fixed border with the English colonies to the north; and in 1655 he managed, without bloodshed, to absorb the small colony of New Sweden, founded by none other than Peter Minuit, who, after his recall from New Amsterdam, shopped his knowledge of the territory to foreign powers.
For all his achievements, Stuyvesant is best remembered for his intolerance. In the multiracial colony, he tried, for a time, to ban Lutheranism. He detested Quakers. He was famously inhospitable to Jews. His insistence on ruling his own people as a stern patriarch earned him many enemies among the wealthier colonists, whose discontent grew throughout the 1650s. Led by the lawyer Adriaen van der Donck, author of an important Description of New Netherland (1655), the dissenters at last managed to force some political improvements. But it was too late: the colony was already disintegrating, especially as more English arrived to settle Long Island. In 1664, an English fleet parked in …