Dutch Treat
A rollicking history of colonial Manhattan springs forth from State Library records

By PAUL GRONDAHL, Entertainment editor
First published: Sunday, March 21, 2004

For the past 30 years, in a forlorn corner of the eighth-floor stacks of the State Library in Albany, Charles Gehring has labored with monk-like devotion, translating thousands of pages of 17th-century Dutch records chronicling the everyday Colonial life of New York.

After literally stumbling over the gravestones of early Dutch settlers near his apartment in New York City's East Village, Russell Shorto wanted to know more about this overlooked chapter in the history of old Manhattan. He visited archives in the city and eventually found his way up to Albany, and to Gehring, where the writer was soon consumed in the parallel universe of the translator.

Literary alchemy took place in the skilled hands of Shorto, who has transformed the raw materials of Gehring's scholarship into "The Island at the Center of the World" (Doubleday; 400 pages; $27.50). The book's compelling story at once rescues the Dutch contribution from the dustbin of American history and re-examines the influence of the English on the character of the young republic.

Shorto's brilliant and magisterial narrative history of the Dutch colony of Manhattan means the end of obscurity for Gehring's translations. Moreover, the Dutch no longer can be relegated to the shadows cast by rote lessons -- spoon-fed to generations of American schoolchildren -- that the pilgrims tamed the New World through their Puritan work ethic across the 13 original colonies.

Shorto's exhaustively researched and highly readable book is a stirring re-examination of the Dutch proto-colony of Manhattan. He makes occasional excursions to the vital beaver-trading outpost to the north, our home turf. Shorto's chronicle spans the years 1609 -- when Henry Hudson sailed the Half Moon up the river that bears his name -- to the Dutch surrender in 1664 to the English, who promptly changed the name of the capital from Beverwijck to Albany in honor of James, the duke of York and Albany.

Shorto reconstitutes history with a novelist's touch, peoples his pages with flesh-and-blood characters we care about and shifts seamlessly from the wide angle to a zoom-lens point of view. He manages to pull off the difficult task of crafting a story that is at once encyclopedic and microscopic.

The Dutch era: Shorto draws back to assay the Dutch place as a world superpower after it eclipsed the Spanish empire in 17th-century global domination of trade: sugar, spices, tea and African slaves. He then cuts to a tight scene of Dutch colonists in Rensselaerswijck -- which comprised much of today's Albany and Rensselaer counties -- becoming roaring drunk and disorderly after a night of drinking in a local tavern. Such nighttime carousings often ended in a brawl or a romp with one of the prostitutes who openly plied their trade.

Shorto once and for all demolishes the stereotypes of the dour Dutchman propagated by the Washington Irving satires. His Dutch colonists are marked by traits of transcendent tolerance and acceptance of diverse cultures, offset by venality as far-ranging as adultery, petty theft, public intoxication and property disputes. In other words, they're fully human.

Shorto presents several stories within his metastory that depict the Dutch colony of New Netherland -- its locus was Manhattan, but it encompassed the states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware -- as America's original melting pot. Its vitality grew out of its diversity.

More than half of the 900 immigrants who first signed up with the Dutch West India Co. to farm, work in and settle the colony of New Netherland in the 1620s were not Dutch, but a mix of Germans, Jews, French-speaking Walloons, Poles, French, Scandinavians and other risk-takers.

The bottom line: The directors of New Netherland were first and foremost business entrepreneurs who kept their eyes on the bottom line. As long as profits rose, they maintained a laissez faire attitude toward both religious affiliation and lapses in morality -- a smorgasbord of carnal pleasures for pay was readily available.

When disputes arose, there was a sophisticated system of courts and a criminal justice apparatus to adjudicate disagreements. With its free-for-all nature and a Babel of languages spicing the colony's pot, it seemed as if the pluralistic enterprise should have collapsed. It didn't, and Shorto draws parallels between the colony of 350 years ago and present-day Manhattan.

"The legacy of the people who settled Manhattan Island rides below the level of myth and politics," he writes. "They reshuffled the categories by which people had long lived, created a society with more open spaces, in which the rungs of the ladder were reachable by nearly everyone. ...

"The first Manhattanites didn't arrive with lofty ideals. They came -- whether as farmer, tanner, prostitute, wheelwright, barmaid, brewer, or trader -- because there was a hope for a better life. There was a distinct messiness to the place they created. But it was very real, and in a way, very modern."

Unlocking the past: Shorto's book is at once historical narrative and postmodern deconstructionism that layers the back story of the colony with a story-within-a-story of how the 17th-century Dutch records detailing every aspect of New Netherland survived four centuries of fires, wars, moldering in a ship's hold, the onslaught of mildew and vermin. He folds in a subplot of how Gehring's dogged devotion unlocked the secret of the records after previous translators abandoned the marathon or went mad trying to finish.

Shorto manages to keep a rollicking narrative moving briskly across six decades of comings and goings in the Manhattan colony, with segues into the perennial skirmishes with neighboring Indian tribes, mutinous threats by disgruntled colonists, and periodic saber-rattling by competing European powers who coveted New Netherland's goods and trade. He also studs the text with what amount to compact biographies of explorer Henry Hudson; Peter Stuyvesant, the book's protagonist and the demanding peg-legged director-general of New Netherland; and Stuyvesant's nemesis, the iconoclastic and freedom-loving Adriaen van der Donck. Like all good narrative history, "The Island at the Center of the World" works on multiple levels.

As Shorto writes in the prologue: "So the story of Manhattan's beginnings is also the story of European exploration and conquest in the 1600s. And at the heart of the material I found a much smaller story -- a very personal struggle between two men over the fate of a colony and the meaning and value of individual liberty. Their personal battle helped to insure that New York City, under the English and then as an American city, would develop into a unique place that would foster an intense stew of cultures and a wildly fertile intellectual, artistic, and business environment."

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2003, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Russell Shorto