America,  Book Reviews,  Europe,  History

The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto *** (of 4)

Shorto’s hypothesis is concise and convincing. His book is long and detailed. As the ages of Enlightenment and Exploration dawned on Europe, Holland was the most wide open and accepting of all the European powers in the 1500s. It was home to the most progressive artists, scientists, and philosophers. It welcomed traders from around the globe and in sharp contrast to its European competitors–Spain and Great Britain–it opened its doors to foreigners. Spain tossed out Jews and Muslims, many of whom found safety in the Netherlands. England was fighting wars over religion leaving even fundamentalist Christians who felt England was not religious enough to find sanctuary in Leiden, Holland.

As the oceanic powers sent “explorers” to conquer territories around the world, Holland settled New Amsterdam. Its central holdings were in Manhattan and up the Hudson River to present day Albany. Henry Hudson, a Britisher, who also claimed Hudson’s Bay and surrounding territory in Canada, was actually hired by the Dutch to be their explorer.

Those religious fundamentalists from Great Britain left Leiden because they found Holland to be too liberal for their tastes. They became the Puritan settlers of New England. To this day, suggests Shorto, New York City, formerly New Amsterdam, has maintained its Dutch character: accepting, entrepreneurial, and a haven for all immigrants and faiths.

Among the fine points raised by Shorto’s research is his careful assessment of relations between Dutch settlers and Native Americans. By his accounting the Indians were genetically speaking, 99.99% identical to their European counterparts. Which is to say they were smart, pleasant, calculating, jealous, envious, devious, intellectual, mechanical, curious, political, and so on. The story of the Dutch selling Manhattan to Indians for $24 proves not only laughably false, but also a fabrication contrived by English historians, who as victors in the New World, got to write the continent’s history.

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