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Tom Chaney: An Island at the Center of the World

Of Writers and Their Books An Island at the Center of the World - NYC First appeared 17 July 2007 in the Hart County Herald News.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column : Tom Chaney. No. R770: An elegant stylist - politics as balance

By Tom Chaney

The Island at the Center of the World

One principle of history is that the winners get to write the books. Nowhere is this more evident than in the colonial history of New York and its predecessor Nieu Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan.

When Peter Stuyvesant turned over the Dutch colony of New Netherlands to Richard Nicolls, agent of the English king in late 1664, the English colonial myth of the origin of the new world was challenged by a most un-Puritan settlement.

The details of the Dutch settlement and administration were nearly lost to history. As Nicolls took control of the government, he renamed the city and the colony for his patron, the Duke of York and Albany.

Yet Nicolls' men unknowingly performed an act that three centuries later would reveal the story of the colony's Dutch days. Soldiers entered Fort Amsterdam as Stuyvesant left seizing the colonies records -- forty-eight volumes labeled A to Z and AA through PP containing all the Dutch colony's vital records, the day by day account of America's first liberal, mixed society.

The story of the history and eventual translation of those records is recounted in a fine new book from Doubleday: The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America by Russell Shorto published in March 2004.

New Amsterdam on Manhattan was founded on the model of Europe's most liberal city -- Amsterdam in the Netherlands. That polyglot city was known for a policy of cultural, intellectual, and religious tolerance dedicated to free trade. The Dutch created an upwardly mobile melting pot that permanently shaped life on Manhattan and in America.

At the same time the Puritans of New England were founding a society based on religious and cultural intolerance. When Stuyvesant yielded authority to the British, he stood mostly alone against his own Dutch liberals tired of manipulation by the Company of which Stuyvesant was head. Nicolls adroitly saved New York from being annexed by the Puritan colony of Connecticut.

But the story here is more than the overlooked influence of the Dutch in the new world. It is the amazing story of the series of miracles, which preserved the records of that influence for more than three hundred years.

Popular culture reduced the pre-English history of New York to "a few random, floating facts: that it was once ruled by an ornery peg-legged governor and, most infamously, that the Dutch bought the island from the Indians for twenty-four-dollars' worth of household goods."

All the while, the records of New Amsterdam were involved in a saga of their own.

During the American Revolution, the British loaded them on a dank ship, Dutchess of Gordon, for much of the war then transported to London where they rested in the tower of London with all of the more recent colonial records of New York.

Following the war the new nation demanded the return of the colonial records. Aaron Burr in 1801 authored a directive calling for the translation of the Dutch records before leaving to serve as vice-president under Thomas Jefferson.

A couple of unsatisfactory attempts at translation were made.

In 1911 the last such attempt was brought to a halt by a fire at the state capital which destroyed the library. Many records were saved but severely damaged.

Just before Nelson Rockefeller left the governor's office to become Gerald Ford's vice-president, he committed a modest sum to the Dutch records project.

The process of translation was made more difficult by the fact that the Dutch language had changed drastically over the course of three centuries and that a shift in handwriting style had made the documents undecipherable to a modern readers. The records presented a major challenge.

Peter Christoph, a senior librarian in the archives had charge of the project. While searching for a translator, he met Charles Gehring at a conference. Gehring had just finished a doctorate in Netherlandic studies.

Christoph remembers, "Before I had a chance to say anything, he (Gehring) asked me, 'In your field, do you know of any openings for someone to work with seventeenth-century Dutch documents?' I said, 'Boy, do I.' "

The project began in 1974. In 1999 the Department of the Interior declared the twelve thousand pages of the manuscripts a national treasure.

Russell Shorto, using the work of Gehring and others, has woven a fine tale. Together they fill in one of the black holes of history much as a photographic print emerges within the developer or as a powerful telescope reveals new celestial detail.

Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2012-07-15 08:10:44
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