Posted by: daynamcdowell | July 26, 2010

The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto


a memorial commemorating the sale of Manhattan Island to the Dutch

Forerunner of a City                          

     New Netherland, the Dutch settlement and forerunner of New York as described in The Island at the Center of the World, instituted lasting groundwork for modern New York City as a multi-culturally populated colony that allowed religious freedom and tolerance within its borders, practiced free trade, and from its inception, acquired a cultural legacy that continues today in America.  As a Dutch colony, New Netherland developed as a multi-ethnic society.  In addition, religious freedom and tolerance, two policies of the colony of New Netherland, were atypical at that time and contributed to the diversity of New Netherland.  Furthermore, economic growth occurred only with a policy of free trade for the colonists of New Netherland.  As a result, Dutch colonization in the New York area left a legacy that shaped American culture.

     From the onset, the Dutch Republic built the center of the New Netherland colony on the island of Manhattan, naming the town New Amsterdam and allowing peoples of diverse ethnicities to settle there.  The Dutch Republic or provinces, had grown into “the melting pot of Europe” (125), welcoming Europeans of all ethnicities.  The Dutch were no longer ‘Dutch’ and when New Netherland was founded, “English, French, German, Swedish, and Jewish immigrants came and settled” (125) in New Amsterdam.  This capital was populated with residents from varied locations, globally and locally, who brought with them, “a tolerance of differences, the prescription for a multicultural society.  In its very seeding, Manhattan was a melting pot” (125).   Furthermore, “Norwegians, . . . Italians, . . . Africans (slaves and free), Walloons, Bohemians, Montauks, Mohawks, and many others—“(2) chose to live in this town of rough buildings and muddy lanes, calling it their new home.  Consequently, these diverse groups brought different opinions, beliefs, and religions with them and the foundation for New York City’s ethnic mix was laid, as it would likewise become the entryway to immigration.

     Two other policies of New Netherland, religious freedom and tolerance though uncharacteristic of the times, contributed to the diversity of the colony and eventually to New York City’s multiplicity as well.  As overseer of New Netherland, the Dutch Republic allowed a policy of tolerance of other religions and peoples which was an atypical belief compared to other European countries.  “Tolerance was more than just an attitude in the Dutch Republic” (96), and the Dutch Republic’s policy to guarantee freedom of religion and tolerance to all Dutch “became the ground on which the culturally diverse society of the seventeenth century was built” (96).  In comparison, the Puritans in the New England colonies practiced intolerance.  In New England, “communities moved swiftly to excommunicate alternative religionists and run them out” (159).  The diversity of New Amsterdam benefited from religious freedom and tolerance policies as a more diverse population settled there with their own cultures, and strengthened the colony.  In addition to a multicultural settlement, a variety of religious beliefs were equally represented.  In New Amsterdam, there was a “Church of England presence, a Dutch Calvinist population, French Calvinists, Dutch Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Singing Quakers, Ranting Quakers, Sabbatarians,  Antisabbatarians, some Anabaptists, some Independents, some Jews” (273), and all were guaranteed religious freedom and tolerance.  Furthermore, it was this tolerance that “helped form the societies both of the Dutch Republic and the Manhattan colony” (273).  These ideas of religious freedom and tolerance were so powerful that they continue to shape the character of New York City, even now.

     Still another foundation builder for the future New York City was the economic growth of New Amsterdam which prospered only as a result of a free trade policy.  From 1624 to 1630, New Amsterdam struggled for its economic survival as the West India Company controlled all trade to and from the colony.  Then in 1640, the colony received a reprieve when the West India Company declared New Netherland a free trading zone.  Now, “New Amsterdam would be the ‘staple port,’ the hub through which traders and merchants would pass” (105) clearing for travel and paying duties.  This policy change, resulting in an increase of trade to Manhattan and causing its growth as an international port and shipping hub, also provided a more refined life for the townspeople as  “new products appeared in New Amsterdam’s shops” (268), such as “medicine, measuring equipment, damask, fine writing paper, oranges and lemons, parakeets and parrots, saffron, sassafras, and sarsaparilla” (268).  Thus, free trade for New Amsterdam provided colonists with a variety of trade goods and established a global trading center for the future New York City. 

      As a result, Dutch colonization in the New York area left a legacy that shaped American culture.  The Dutch influence is evident in place names located in New York.  For example, “Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Watervliet, and Rensselaer” (310) all strengthen the connection between American and Dutch cultures.  Another example can be noted in the word ‘boss’ which in Dutch is “baas and means master” (269).  As an Americanism, this word is used with profusion, and sometimes derision.  Still other examples of the presence of Dutch culture in America today include Santa Claus and his arrival, the favorite Dutch snack of many Americans, the cookie (314), and former prominent American families trace their roots back to colonial New Netherland and a Dutch ancestry.  These families include the Van Burens, Roosevelts, and Vanderbilts (310).  Thus, all these aspects of Dutch culture have contributed to the legacy of American culture and helped shape it into a unique society.

   In conclusion, the Dutch colonial presence in New Amsterdam and North America laid the foundation for New York City in which it developed into a multi-ethnic community of many diverse opinions, beliefs, and religions combined together.  Furthermore, religious freedom and toleration, two policies of New Amsterdam were atypical for the time yet, contributed to the diversity and strength of the colony, and brought their cultures with them.   The same can be said for New York City today, as the ancestors of the Manhattan colonists immigrated to New York City from Europe, bringing their cultures with them too.  In addition, economic growth occurred after a policy of free trade was enforced, resulting in booming business, upward social mobility, and an international port at New Amsterdam, and later New York City.  As a result of Dutch colonization in the New York area, American culture has been shaped by the Dutch influence.  Without the Dutch, America might have been a different nation.


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