Mayor Bloomberg’s recent attempts to change the city’s cabaret laws have faced opposition from those afraid that the new rules could force many of New York’s bars and nightlife spots to close by 1 a.m. Bloomberg insists that the law isn’t intended that way, but he’s not the first New York politician to suffer from attempts to curb nightlife. As Russell Shorto explains in his new book, The Island at the Center of the World (Doubleday), a 1644 beer tax led to an uprising: Tavern owners and New Amsterdam’s colonists refused to pay, and the appointed governor soon lost his job. We’ve been serious about our partying for a long time.
What’s not generally understood, argues Shorto, is how important all that pimping and boozing, the trade and business that fueled it, and the permissive atmosphere that let it flourish are to America’s genetic makeup. Our puritanical British forebears have claimed all the credit for the American character, traditionally regarded as respecting in equal measures both equality and industry. The story of the colonies usually skips over New Netherland, portrayed as undernourished and underdeveloped. But with the help of Charles Gehring, the director of the New Netherland Project at the New York State Library, who has spent over 30 years translating a nearly forgotten cache of 12,000 documents dating to the colony, Shorto makes a convincing argument that it was Manhattan’s Dutch settlers, their market-driven tolerance for cultural and religious differences, and the governing systems they put in place that are responsible for much of that character. “The overall argument is based on Gehring’s work, which clearly shows that by 1664, it was a thriving place, a port, a node in an international network, with a sophisticated government,” Shorto tells the Voice.
We thought we knew how it happened: Settled by Pilgrims, founded by Puritans, this country grew up around its British colonies and systems of law. But history is told by the victors, and as usual, things didn’t quite happen that way. Aside from some place-names, a vague recollection of early governor Peter Stuyvesant, and the story that Manhattan was purchased from the Indians for $24, not much is remembered about the Dutch colony or its inhabitants’ accomplishments. Shorto dissects the tale of the rip-off, explaining how the dollar amount was an estimate pegged to 19th-century currency values and how it was actually for goods in the value of 60 guilders, which would have been more valuable to the Indians. Moreover, while he notes that the sale was “the most dramatic illustration of the whole long process of stripping the natives of their land,” he dismisses any “noble savage” readings by pointing out: “The Indians were as skilled, as duplicitous, as capable of theological rumination and technological cunning, as smart and as pig-headed, as curious and as cruel as the Europeans who met them.”
Not all here is revisionist: There are explorations of the Dutch etymology of American words, like cookie (koeckjes, meaning “little cake”) and boss (baas, meaning “master”), and of place-names such as Yonkers (named for Adriaen Van der Donck, whose nickname, The Jonker, meant “propertied gentleman,” and whom Shorto describes as “the pivotal figure in the history of the colony”). We still call these places by the names given to them by the Dutch because of “the little-studied genre of cartographic propaganda,” or the making and distributing of maps to the world’s trading centers to ensure the global usage of Dutch-given names.
Shorto gives Van der Donck his due as half of the duo (Stuyvesant’s the other) that wrestled for control of the booming colony. Stuyvesant may be more familiar to New Yorkers as the peg-legged autocrat who infamously surrendered the island to the British without so much as a glove slap, but it’s Van der Donck, with his uppity ideas about self-governance, who emerges from the charred bundles of colony records as “an early American prophet, a forerunner of the Revolutionary generation.” Like Stuyvesant, he was appointed (as schout, a position credited with paving the way for the modern district attorney) by the quasi-governmental Dutch West India Company to help run one of the New Netherland settlements. But unlike Stuyvesant, he was anything but a company man. He saw the potential for the colony to be more than just an outpost for the Dutch trade war against the Spanish, but to be an integral part of the Dutch Republic, and fought for a voice for the colonists in the republic’s affairs.
Not that Stuyvesant gets short shrift. Generally thought of as a stiff fop, he’s also been roughed up by a Brit-skewed history. But he was more than just an Edam-eating surrender monkey. He ran New Amsterdam for 17 years, won a sizable victory against the encroaching English and Swedish colonists, and shaped up the once failing colony with a unique combination of heavy-handed leadership and tolerance. In fact, he comes off like a proto-Giuliani, with descriptions of “a personality that fed on . . . adversity,” his “tendency to impress . . . potential enemies while treating his own colonists more or less like dirt,” and his success in turning around an ailing Manhattan with a mix of military structure and corporate efficiency.
Shorto acknowledges his debt to the work of Gehring, who says the documents “went through many harrowing experiences over the years,” such as being shipped back and forth between Boston and New York, surviving two fires, and outlasting the Revolutionary War by being stowed aboard two British warships. What’s left is hard to translate, he says, being written in an archaic Dutch and requiring much research to place the documents in their proper context. Gehring says that approximately 60 percent of the translation work is done, and that “the documents that remain to be translated are some of the most badly damaged.” With grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and additional money provided by the Friends of New Netherland, Gehring hopes to finish translating in order to tell the colony’s “marginalized and minimized” history.
Distinguishing between the parts of our American DNA that are British and Dutch matters, Shorto argues. “Put elements of the two together—seventeenth-century Dutch tolerance and free-trade principles and eighteenth-century English ideas about self-government—and you have a recipe for a new kind of society.” Plus, it’s nice to know that so much of what’s frustrating about modern American society—its lingering puritanism—can be blamed on those intolerant theocrats who founded the English colonies, and who, with their city-upon-a-hill exceptionalism leading to ideas like our manifest destiny, left a newly open society with the machinery to close minds. You can have straitlaced Massachusetts with its Salem witch trials and 2 a.m. bar closing time; I’ll take Dutch Manhattan any day.