Thursday, 5 June 2008

Tolerance, a Real Dutch Treat

Amerika heeft meer te danken aan Nederland dan cookies, coleslaw en Santa Claus. De invloeden van Nieuw Amsterdam reikten tot aan de Bill of Rights, zegt Russell Shorto, schrijver van de bestseller "The island at the Center of the World" in een gesprek dat ik met hem had.

Before New York was known as the City that Never Sleeps, the Big Apple and the Capital of the World it was called New Amsterdam. The popular idea of this 17th century Dutch settlement is that its inhabitants muddled around for a while, and then made room for the English so the real history of the 13 colonies could begin. “That is not true,” says Shorto. Covering all or parts of the states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Pennsylvania, the Dutch colony of New Netherland (1609-1664) “made a lasting impact on American culture that is still being felt.”

Almost 400 years after Henry Hudson reached Manhattan - “the Island at the Center of the World”- New Netherland's influence gets its long-awaited recognition. Thanks to the rediscovery of the colony's official records in 1974 and the efforts of the scholar Charles Gehring who has been translating the 12,000 documents ever since, we now know how much 21th century America has been defined by 17th century Dutch ideas about tolerance and multiculturalism, Shorto says.

After the discovery of America in 1492, European countries rivaled each other for the spoils of the New World. Spanish, French, English and Dutch sailors also tried to beat each other in finding a short cut to the Far East, but still relying on ancient Roman maps, they were unaware of Western America. When Hudson, who was hired by the Dutch West Indian Company, found the river that nowadays bears his name, he thought at first he discovered the secret pass way. After he realized he was not on a channel, but on a river, he returned to Europe. Instead of seeing the trip as a waste, his business-minded Dutch employers claimed the land in 1609 and named the colony New Netherland.

Its motherland the Netherlands was at that time a different country than its neighbors. Europe was torn by religious wars, and, “It was felt that for a society to be strong, it had to be intolerant,” Shorto says. “Intolerance and specifically religious intolerance was official policy in England, France, Spain and elsewhere.” But Holland, thanks to its flat territory was not just easy to overrun, but also easy to flee to. Dutch cities harbored many European minorities – Pilgrims from England, French Huguenots and Jews - looking for religious freedom. Intellectual refugees such as Descartes and John Locke also found safe havens in the Dutch Republic. Books, banned in other parts of the continent, were printed in Holland and smuggled across the borders. Amsterdam, then Europe's most liberal city, combined a policy of tolerance and a multicultural society with a firm belief in free trade. “Very unusual in that time,” he adds, but “Holland became a great empire in part by exploiting this idea of diversity.”

When this, some-what-odd, society modeled its American settlement New Amsterdam after its mother city, the ideas about multiculturalism, tolerance and free trade came with it, Shorto says. “I call it a Dutch colony, but you have to put 'Dutch' in quotation marks. Right from the start it was a strangely mixed place.” Twenty years after its foundation, when the colony had approximately 500 inhabitants, a visitor counted 18 different languages being spoken in New Amsterdam. It would sometimes drive the colony's directors crazy. Unlike their colleagues in the English colonies they could not speak with one voice, but the ordinary New Amsterdam settlers were proud of their multicultural society. “They were aware that it was something unique that they had,” he says, “Tolerance was a kind of social glue to keep the German, Dutch and French population functioning and the society flourishing.”

To attract more people to move to New Amsterdam, the colonists even advertised that they were a settlement founded by a country famous for its tolerance. The marriage records of the Dutch Reformed Church of New Amsterdam,” Shorto writes in his book, point to “a degree of culture-mixing in such a small place that is remarkable for the time. Norwegian marries a German. Swedish-English. Danish-Swedish. Prussian-German. German-Danish. French-Dutch. Intermarriages also appear among the Africans and there are instances of marriage between whites and blacks.” Apart from the skyline, he says, the place “was New York City, right from the beginning.”

These ideas of tolerance and personal liberties went beyond the colony and “led to great things for America,” Shorto says. During the colony's existence, the settlers had continuous disagreements with the Dutch West Indian Company that had claimed the territory in 1609. For the company, the land was meant to be profitable; for the colonists, is was home. After years of conflict, the company gave them a charter to guarantee their exceptional rights and freedoms which made them real stakeholders in the New World.

These liberties survived the English takeover of the Dutch colony in 1664 and in 1686 they were integrated into the City Charter of New York. In 1787, the Constitutional Convention delegation from New York, with its history of struggling for personal rights “to account for its stubbornness,” decided not to ratify the Constitution unless “a bill of specific individual rights were attached to it.” In 1791, the United States of America adopted the Bill of Rights.

Not many people know this part of American history, but they may be more familiar with the Dutch colony than they think, Shorto says. “Americans know pieces of it. They know the Dutch had some presence in New York. They know there was someone called Peter Stuyvesant and that he had a wooden leg. But most Americans don't know the colony existed.” For them the 13 English colonies are America's starting point, making New Netherland a “forgotten colony.”

This is partly caused by early historians who focused more on New England, but the Dutch also tended to forget, because the short-lived colony was seen as a failure. “However, the colony did not vanish. It is still here and a part of American everyday life.” There are many examples of this under-the-radar influence, he says, “The office of district attorney. 'Cookie,' 'coleslaw', when you say it, you are speaking Dutch. Place names like Rhode Island, Schuylkill, Harlem, Brooklyn, Long Island. Santa Claus derived from the Dutch Sinterklaas. And one of my favorites is the Dutch word 'baas' or 'boss.'”

The darkest days of the “forgotten colony” are over. Thanks to the so-far 19 volumes of translated documents, more historians have become interested in the subject. New materials are being discovered in Dutch archives that have been hiding there for centuries. Shorto's book has reached a large, international audience. Next year marks the 400th anniversary of Hudson's sailing up the river; an event that, according to Shorto, deserves much attention. “Tolerance, diversity, immigration and cultural identity are issues that define our own time. And you might say that they date back to 1609. As we try to figure out what we will become, Americans have a need to understand their own history.”

Russell Shorto is the author of two previous books and a contributor to the New York Times magazine, GQ and many other publications. He became intrigued by the history of New Netherland when he was living in lower Manhattan, around the corner of the churchyard where the colony's last Dutch director Peter Stuyvesant is buried. He used to bring his daughter there to play, he says, “and I would sit there and study the plaque on his grave. I was impressed by my own ignorance of New York’s beginnings.”

Looking for answers, he met Charles Gehring who had been translating the official records of New Netherland for the last thirty years. “When he started to tell me the story of the documents he was working on, my whole impression of what American history was, changed,” he says. Shorto's book about this early American history “The Island at the Center of the World” became an international bestseller and received the New York City Book Award, the Washington Irving Prize, and many other awards.

Shorto is the director of the Dutch-American cultural John Adams Institute and he lives with his family in Amsterdam, where “because of the skyline and the churches, it is always the 17th century.”

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