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The real hero of Russell Shorto’s fascinating new book, The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America (Doubleday, 384 pages, $27.50), is a lawyer — Adriaen Van der Donck, a Dutchman who became the political nemesis of Peter Stuyvesant, the autocratic leader of New Netherlands. During the 17 th century, the Dutch West India Company, a trading company with a state-granted monopoly and quasi-governmental authority, held sway over the American colony, squeezing out a handsome profit with little regard for the well-being or rights of citizens. From the moment he arrived in 1641, Van der Donck saw the vast possibilities in “the new American world.” He wanted to bring about a rational society with a system of justice and a framework of individual rights like those he enjoyed at home. Fresh from law school at the Dutch republic’s forward-thinking University of Leiden, Van der Donck brought to America a progressive vision of “natural law”: the idea that human reason defines right and wrong. Leiden’s leading light at the time was Hugo Grotius, the father of international law whose intellectual framework was adopted by much of Europe. Van der Donck landed a job in an upstate New York Dutch settlement as a “schout,” a cross between a sheriff and prosecutor, administering justice and mediating disputes between colonists. Traveling often between upstate New York and what is now Manhattan, Van der Donck cracked down on black markets in beaver pelts and grain, and enforced contracts among traders and natives. Once his three-year term was up, Van der Donck settled in Manhattan and began associating with colonists who were chafing at the lack of political status. The only lawyer in the colony at the time, he was soon petitioning the Dutch West India Company and the States General (the Dutch governing body in The Hague) to secure more political rights for the colonists. Van der Donck served as the lawyer for aggrieved merchants and traders in court cases and became an advocate for a local council of elders that was increasingly at odds with the company and its incompetent representative, Willem Kieft. The company’s directors began to see Kieft as too weak and reluctant to use force against the rebelling Indians and obstreperous colonists. So they sent for Stuyvesant, a thick-necked military commander who had lost a leg fighting the Spanish in the Caribbean. Persisting in his idea of representative government, Van der Donck became part of a Board of Nine that increasingly challenged Stuyvesant and the company. Stuyvesant saw Van der Donck as such a threat that he had him arrested for treason. But Stuyvesant was ordered by the States General to return to The Hague to face an inquiry. Van der Donck, a champion in the eyes of the people for resisting, was released from confinement and allowed to present evidence in support of colonists’ complaints about the management of New Amsterdam. This culminated in Van der Donck’s “Remonstrance of New Netherlands,” which Shorto describes as “an eighty-three page formal complaint which [Van der Donck] intended to present to the governing body in The Hague and which would in time root the Manhattan colony’s structure in Dutch law and, eventually, help give New York City its unique shape and character.” The States General agreed to recall Stuyvesant and take control of the colony from the Dutch West India Company, but when war broke out with England in 1652, other concerns were shelved. Van der Donck eventually returned to his homestead in what is now the Bronx and Westchester County. The English takeover of Manhattan in 1664 helped ignite a second Anglo-Dutch war and forced Stuyvesant to surrender power. But the Dutch colonists were guaranteed rights not extended to others. “The Dutch here shall enjoy the liberty of their Consciences,” the Articles of Capitulation states, as well as free travel and trade. The articles, later extended by the New York City Charter, promised that the colonists would have a voice in government and would be free of soldiers quartered in their houses. Shorto’s lively tale of early New York is shaped by a once-forgotten trove of documents written in Dutch and now being translated into English. The writings consist of legal documents, letters and contracts that offer a rare glimpse of life more than 300 years ago. A journalist with an eye for historical detail, Shorto recreates the rough-and-tumble world of Manhattan in its infancy. And he amply supports his thesis that the Dutch people and their tolerance of different races, creeds and ideas left an indelible mark on the character of New York City.

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