Proud Amsterdam Celebrates New York, and Itself

April 9, 2009 at 12:29 am Leave a comment

Relegated by history to a mostly forgotten footnote, the government and people of the Netherlands proudly stepped forward last week to remind the world that if America begins in New York, then New York began 400 years ago thanks largely to the Dutch.  A weeklong cultural celebration of New York, including a hip-hop competition and the inauguration of what will be an ongoing walking tour, was highlighted by the unveiling of the rarely exhibited original letter informing the Dutch parliament of the purchase of Manhattan.

Frans Timmermans, the Dutch minister for European affairs, hailed it as “New York’s birth certificate.”

The 1626 letter from Peter Schaghen, a representative of the parliament, said that the crew of a ship returning from New Amsterdam reported that several colonists had given birth and delivered other prosaic news before disclosing that, by the way, they had also bought “the Island Manhattes.”

The price was 60 guilders’ worth of tools and cloth — much later, famously estimated to equal $24. In comparison, the crew returned from the New World with nearly 8,000 animal skins worth 45,000 guilders.

The Schaghen letter, which is kept in the National Archives here, is being exhibited at the Rijksmuseum in a room flanked by Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” and the museum store.

Also on display here are the Dutch East India Company’s instructions to the captain (misidentified as “Thomas Hudson”); Adriaen Bloch’s 1614 map, which is the oldest known to show Manhattan as an island; Johannes Vingboons’s charming 1665 watercolor of New Amsterdam’s skyline (which Vingboons adapted from a much less complimentary sketch intended to portray how decrepit the colony was becoming); and the 1667 Treaty of Breda, which ended the Second Anglo-Dutch War and allowed for the exchange of territories, including Dutch New York for British Surinam.

Those and other artifacts, some never before seen in the United States, are to go on display at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York beginning on Sept. 12 to commemorate the anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival. A New Amsterdam Trail walking tour, a companion to one that has started here, will be offered in Lower Manhattan starting next month, sponsored by Henry Hudson 400 and the National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy.

The many celebrations of Hudson’s departure from Amsterdam — he left the city on April 4, 1609, and set sail from an island in the North Sea two days later — were tied by a single theme.

“We share the same DNA,” said Mayor Job Cohen of Amsterdam. “Both are cities where you live and let live.”

“Amsterdam is not the same as the Netherlands,” he added, “just as New York is not the same as the United States.”

The Amsterdam that Hudson sailed from in 1609, said Geert Mak, a Dutch historian, “would blossom into the 17th-century version of New York, a city of novelty, bubbling with life and creativity, linked with all parts of the known world — if only for a while.”

A special issue of Time Out Amsterdam, the listings magazine, compiled 10 slightly tongue-in-cheek commonalities between the two cities, from the fact that their inhabitants are more direct and sophisticated (“at least, we think we are”) to their great mass transit systems (the subway in New York, and ubiquitous bicycles — no helmets — in Amsterdam).

“Amsterdammers and New Yorkers both live at the center of the universe,” the magazine said. “Of course.”

Dutch traditions of free trade and tolerance were transplanted to New York, said Russell Shorto, the author of “The Island at the Center of the World” and the director of the John Adams Institute here, which sponsored a town hall meeting on Saturday night to mark Hudson’s departure.

Among the 750 attendees was Jerry Thundercloud McDonald of the Mohawk Nation in upstate New York. He praised the Dutch for maintaining a covenant of “peace, respect and friendship” with the Mohawks in the 17th century, but cautioned that 400 years later the legacy of native Americans should not be overlooked.

Michelle Paterson, the wife of Gov. David A. Paterson, represented New York at a dinner in The Hague held by the Holland America Friendship Foundation and at several other events.

The celebration of both cities’ diversity also confronted a more challenging theme: how to absorb the latest influx of immigrants. People of Dutch descent now constitute a bare majority of Amsterdam’s population.

Most immigrants are from Morocco and Turkey, many of them guest workers who arrived decades ago and never left. Their children attend classes in what are commonly referred to as “black schools” — and schools in which children of Dutch heritage predominate are known as “white schools.” Learning the Dutch language is a requirement for citizenship and for receiving a work permit.

Eric ten Hulsen, principal of the Calvijn met Junior College, a vocational secondary school where 80 percent of the students are Muslim, said, however: “You don’t see Muslims; you see Dutch kids.”

Still, as Mayor Cohen explained, “the Dutch have difficulty describing what makes them Dutch,” and that ambiguity is even more true for immigrants and their children. “When they go back to Morocco, they feel Dutch,” he said.

“We are admiring the easy way in which immigrants in New York become part of New York and the United States,” Mayor Cohen said. “Here we have the impression it takes more time.”

How long until people of Dutch heritage consider the newcomers and their families Dutch? “It takes some generations,” Mr. Cohen said, “but it will be the case.”

Houda Riffi teaches English at Mr. ten Hulsen’s school. Her parents are from Morocco. Five years ago, she began wearing a head scarf not as a political statement, she said, but because she believed her religion required it. She describes herself culturally as “somewhere in the middle area,” but flatly predicts that her children “will be more Dutch than me.”

Dutch heritage and pride in Hudson (an English navigator presciently hired by the Dutch) was much in evidence last week. But until then, had most of the students ever heard of Henry Hudson? Given all the hoopla, Mr. ten Hulsen said, “they have now.”

New York Times


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