Book Review: The Island At The Center Of The World

By Russell Shorto, 2004

Copyright © 2009 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 2009.12.11

Title: The Island at the Center of the World
Author: Russell Shorto
Subject: original Dutch colony on Manhattan
Genre: history / colonization / Netherlands
Publisher: Doubleday (Random House)

At a wimpy 325 pages, this was the shortest book I’ve read in a while. My only complaint about the book is that it could have been much shorter. Quite a bit of information is repeated throughout the book.

But it also could have been much longer, with the wealth of information available to the author, so I won’t complain too much.

The full title is “The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotton Colony that Shaped America,” which gives away both the subject and the tone of the book.

Like all school children in the U.S., I’m sure I learned about this Dutch colony at some point, but that was decades ago, and it wasn’t dwelt upon. As Shorto points out in the book, history is written by the winners, and so much of early American history was written by the English. Any U.S. history course I took usually moved very quickly to the point of the Revolution. Even if non-English colonies were mentioned, it was usually the French to the north, or the Spanish to the south.

The first time I became really aware of the early Manhattan settlers, was when I visited the Museum of the City of New York, and saw this map.

Apparently, records from the original Dutch colony haven’t been readily accessible throughout the years, so little was known about the goings-on there until the English took over. And early translations of those records were incomplete and inaccurate (according to Shorto).

So, using new translations and newly discovered material, Shorto attempts to narrate the 40-year-history of Manhattan, from its first discovery through its takeover by the English.

Though he skips around chronologically, Shorto does a decent job of making the reader understand the life and times of the early 1600s, as it pertains to this colony. He also focuses quite a bit on the legacy the Dutch left us: current street and town names that still exist, foods we eat, words we use, and so on.

He also gets very finger-pointy toward the English colonies that surrounded Manhattan, noting the strict anti-everything policies of the Puritans and the white-man-only rules of England in general. Shorto then is very kind to the Dutch of the day, noting that Amsterdam (and New Amsterdam) were very cosmopolitan, very tolerant of differing religions and races, and forward-thinking in their legal theory. (He does mention that the Dutch were responsible for the slave trade, but is quick to point out that it was the English who really abused the system.)

Several times, I felt like I was reading a tale written by the loser in a playground game who’s still bitter that they didn’t get the big prize. I wanted to pat him on the back and say, “Get over it, man! The Dutch lost that one.”

But mostly, I was just fascinated at the pictures he painted with words, the diligent descriptions and explanations, and facts he brought to light.

For those with any interest in American history, this is a good read.

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