Why did the Europeans rename their colonies?
The "island in the center of the world" is the Manhattan Peninsula or Mannahata as the natives called it. The European who discovered them was actually English. But when Henry Hudson went up the river that now bears his name in 1609, he did so on behalf of the Dutch East-Indian Company and was actually looking for a northern passage to Asia. Henry Hudson turns out to be a tragic figure that Shorto deals extensively with. The fact that a "New Amsterdam" soon emerged on the peninsula discovered by Hudson is less thanks to this English navigator than to people like Catalina Trico, Joris Rapalje or Bastiaen Krol. They dared to venture into Holland's youngest colony in 1624 as the first European settlers.
Russell Shorto tries to be clear. He tries to create that "live" atmosphere, without which no American non-fiction book can make the leap from the specialist library to the shelves of laypeople who love to read. That's why Shorto tells us that Catilina and Joris got married and the sun shone from the spring sky as the two inspected their future farmland. That is why he quotes extensively from letters that the Rapaljes and everyone who came with or after them sent home. These original quotes seem so vivid that there is no need for bright spring sunshine that may only exist in Russell Shorto's head. Of course, the author is forgiven for occasionally overshooting the mark, given the mass of information contained in the 450 pages of his book.
It is about the time between 1624 and 1664, between the Dutch taking possession of the site and the conquest of "New Amsterdam" by the English. Shorto convincingly demonstrates that the traditional image of America as a multicultural rising society has its origins in Holland in the 17th century and not in puritanism, which English emigrants first brought to Virginia and later spread over the entire east coast of America. And he demonstrates no less convincingly that the epicenter of this new world was New York, or "New Amsterdam" as it was called back then. In the war and crisis-ridden 17th century, the Netherlands was the most liberal country in Europe.
Refugees from all over the world found refuge there, and science flourished in university towns like Leiden. The new colony in the west was seen by many as an opportunity to realize progressive ideas unhindered by historical circumstances. One of these idealists was Adriaen Van der Donck, who came to "New Amsterdam" in 1641 to literally ensure law and order. He had received the order from the Dutch West India Company, which was now responsible for the Mannahata trading base, to draw up a draft law.
Van der Donck also wrote the first precise description of the New World, a book entitled "Beschryvinge van Niew-Nederlant", which was published in Amsterdam in 1656. The excerpts from it presented by Russell Shorto reveal Van der Donck's enthusiasm for his adopted country and the enormous interest he showed in everything from flora and fauna to the methods used by the Indians to hunt bears. Van der Donck's notes are particularly instructive when it comes to the natives. They make it clear that Indians and Europeans initially lived surprisingly peacefully next to and with one another.
That the Europeans would simply have perished in the new world without the help of the Indians. Abuse and exploitation did not occur until later, when the Europeans felt superior to the Indians as human beings and, unfortunately, as an army, they were too.
Another Dutchman who is still known by name today was Peter Stuyvesant. He was the governor with the wooden leg assigned to New Amsterdam in 1647. Stuyvesant was the exact opposite of Van der Donck: the land that Van der Donck wanted to understand, Stuyvesant wanted to rule. The society that Van der Donck wanted to reshape, Stuyvesant wanted to put in its place according to the traditional monarchical model. It didn't take long for the two men to quarrel.
However, it was not her fault that they both failed in their endeavors. As Russell Shorto shows, the power struggles between the major trading nations of Europe were responsible for this. For England, the Netherlands and Spain, the colonies were valuable sources of income, but also booty that they were ready to give up when something bigger was at stake.
The Dutch experiment officially came to an end when New Amsterdam was taken over by the English in 1646. The countless files, letters, wills, diaries, in short, all the papers that document the beginnings of New York and the American dreamland, they all fell into oblivion.
Ironically, the Dutch colonial history in America, or the papers that prove its existence, was saved precisely by ignoring it. The bundles escaped a devastating fire in the New York State Library in Albany because they were so dusty on the shelf that the flames could not reach them.
Russell Shorto's "New York - Island in the Middle of the World" is an impressive work, with flaws that few non-fiction books do not have. There are an infinite number of names and biographies in it that it is impossible to keep in mind.
A register of names of the most important people would have been helpful, as would an overview of the most important data. Shorto ensures that the reading remains exciting with the abundance of specific details already indicated. They give an impression of everyday life in 17th century New York. Wherever private and public records are quoted, where the price of otter skins is negotiated or strange, dubious and new customs are discussed, the past comes alive. Russell Shorto manages to lead the reader through the winding corridors of the story, a story that it is high time to get to know.
New York - island in the middle of the world. How the city of cities came into being
Rowohlt Verlag, 450 pages, EUR 22.90
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