Acclaimed author Russell Shorto to address Dutch underpinnings of America

November 14, 2009 at 7:16 pm Leave a comment

Next Tuesday, The Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich (HSTG), kicks off the second program in a series celebrating the 400th anniversary year of Henry Hudson’s 1609 arrival in New York Harbor.

Russell Shorto, author of the 2004 landmark early history of “Manhattan, The Island at the Center of the World: the epic story of Dutch Manhattan & the forgotten colony that shaped America,” is the guest speaker of the annual HSTG William C. Crooks Distinguished Lecture at Greenwich Library’s Cole Auditorium.

Admission is free.

“Henry Hudson’s voyage up the Hudson River led to the establishment of New Amsterdam and the New Netherland colony that included Connecticut and New Haven colonies,” said Debra Mecky, HSTG executive director. The Dutch had called Greenwich “Grenebosch,” she said. These facts are part of the “much larger story that Shorto magically weaves for us,” said Mecky.

Shorto, a New Yorker, who describes himself as a writer of narrative history, now lives in Amsterdam as the director of the John Adams Institute. He will be traveling from Amsterdam for the lecture.

Shorto is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and the author most recently of “Descartes’

Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason, and of Gospel Truth, about the search for the historical Jesus.

For more information about Shorto’s talk the Citizen asked him a few questions.

Your book “The Island at the Center of the World” has been heralded as bringing a new awareness of the Dutch influence on the shaping of America. What were your primary sources for this new awareness?

I couldn’t have written the book were it not for the work of Charles Gehring, director of the New Netherland Project in Albany. Since 1974 he has been translating and publishing the official records of the Dutch colony of New Netherland. A community of scholars has gathered around his work, writing dissertations and books, and so transforming our knowledge of this part of American colonial history. While researching my book, I spent two years with Charles Gehring and Janny Venema, his assistant translator. They invited me into their corner of the State Library, helped me to decipher 17th century Dutch handwriting, and assisted me in every possible way.

How would you summarize what that influence is?

The Dutch Republic of the 17th century was the melting pot of Europe. To manage the diversity that was forced on them–largely because of geography (the Dutch provinces are flat, and easy to flee to and/or invade), the Dutch invented the notion of tolerance. It was an anomaly at the time, when it was almost universally held that in order for a society to be strong it should be unified, which mean that intolerance was more or less official policy in England, France, and elsewhere. The Dutch Republic flew in the face of that, and became a great empire, partly by making diversity, 17th century style, work. So when this society founded a colony in the New World, centered on the wilderness island of Manhattan, this diversity became part of the story. Also, the Dutch in the 17th century pioneered capitalism: corporations, shares of stock, a stock market. If you take these two innovations–tolerance and diversity, and a free-market, business sense–you get the ingredients for New York City. This helps explain why New York developed in a very different way from, say, Puritan Boston. And because New York’s influence on America was so pronounced, the Dutch influence would extend far beyond New York City.

What was one of the best surprises you had researching this early history of the settling of Manhattan by the Dutch?

How pervasive its influence is, and yet how unnoticed it is. It’s in place names: from Rhode Island to Cape May, New Jersey. It’s in Americanisms: we eat cookies rather than bisquits because “cookie” is Dutch for “little cakes.” “Cole slaw” is Dutch for “cabbage salad.” The American Santa Claus comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas. The word “boss” comes into the English language from the Dutch “baas,” via the 17th century colony. When you walk around New York City, and explore up and down the Hudson Valley, with an idea of this colony, you see the influences everywhere.

It was reported that the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival in New York Harbor was more celebrated in the Netherlands than in New York. Can you comment on this?

The Dutch made a big deal out of it, but I was actually surprised at how much attention New York gave it as well. It’s hard to make an impression on New Yorkers, but it got quite a bit of coverage. Still, I would say that one result of this new awareness of the Dutch role in American history has been to make the Dutch themselves more aware of it, and it has made them want to take credit for it.

What part did you play in the mid-September 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s 1609 arrival in New York Harbor? What were highlights for you?

I gave a lot of talks. I spoke in Brooklyn, Manhattan, up the Hudson River, at museums, historical societies, black tie galas, neighborhood bookstores. I gave the Prince and Princess of the Netherlands a tour of the South Street Seaport Museum exhibit devoted to the colony. My own personal highlight was being knighted by the Dutch government for having played a role in creating an awareness on the part of the Dutch of their own history. That was totally unexpected, and a great honor.

Reservations are required for the Shorto lecture. Please call 869-6899, ext. 18. For more information on the series visit under adult programs.


By Anne W. Semmes


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