Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"The Island at the Center of the World"

Each summer my husband and I make an annual trip to Lake Arrowhead, California to spend a week at Bruin Woods, UCLA Alumni Association Family Camp. Over the years, we have met a number of interesting people who are Alumni of UCLA. A few summers ago I met Simon Van Dijk. He is a professor of chemistry at Alamo Colleges in Texas and an immigrant from the Netherlands. (His wife is the UCLA alumna.)
Simon and I had a mutual interest (not chemistry). He is a Dutch immigrant to the United States; I am an American with a family history extending to the 17th century Netherlands. That first summer, we talked about Dutch history around the 16th and 17th century. Simon was then acutely aware of my family's history in Dutch New York.
The following summer, when we met again at Bruin Woods, Simon asked me if I had read a book entitled "The Island at the Center of the World." I had not, but Simon's discussion of the book intrigued me in part because of what he said about what he'd learned from reading the book. It fit with what I had learned from my research about the Dutch ethics of the time.
I returned home and bought the book to read. That which Mr. Shorto said in his book matched with the things I had found and added information to my knowledge base.
As I researched my family residing in North American in the 17th century, I realized that the Dutch colony in North America was the most ethnically diverse community in North America at that time. The other settlements in eastern North America were homogeneous and fairly exclusionary.
US history as taught in high school focuses on the arrival of the Puritans and purports that our country was shaped by the English. Even the AP American History class that it took in high school only briefly mentioned the Dutch settlement in what is now New York and New Jersey. Even as a student at the University of California at Berkeley, my US history course barely mentioned the Dutch Colony. Yet what I was learning about the Dutch colony and the Netherlands in the late 16th and early 17th centuries seemed to me had a greater impact on forming our country than did the British.
As I researched my family and realized that some of my roots stemmed from the Dutch, I began to study the Dutch colonization of New York. I found the 16th Century Dutch to generally be tolerant and fair to people of various religions and beliefs.
The English settlers, on the other hand, were less accepting of other ideas and beliefs. In fact, they persecuted the non-believers, driving them to the colonies of Connecticut and Rhode Island.
Mr. Shorto concurs and also points out that the Dutch did not have royalty like the British. The Netherlands was a republic where individuals could rise to power and status.
It is ironic that our government was founded on many of the same principles that the Dutch professed when they settled the colony in North America. If you want to have a clear idea of what it was like for people living in the Dutch colony, you must read this book.
Russell Shorto has worked extensively on the New Netherland Project, which is currently translating old documents from 1600-1664.

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