The Island at the Center of the World revolves around two strong-willed men. Peter Stuyvesant is well known to history as the one-dimensional, peg-legged director of the colony, but our image of him comes largely from English sources. In the Dutch records, he is tyrannical and harsh, but also complex: a ruler who abhors unfairness, a devoted family man with a fondness for tropical birds, a wily strategist who keeps the New Englanders at bay. As an official of the West India Company, he believes that his wayward colony will only survive through martial law.
Pitted against him is his one-time protégé, Adriaen van der Donck, a lawyer steeped in the liberal traditions of the Dutch system, who is chosen "president" of the community and leads a challenge to Stuyvesant's rule that results in the chartering of the city of New Amsterdam (an event New York City still regards as the moment of its founding) and that would insure a lasting imprint on American history. Van der Donck emerges in the story almost as a forgotten founding father: a passionate young man who dreams a vision of Manhattan, and America, settled by a mix of peoples, and one day growing in might to surpass the old country. He pushes his vision in every conceivable way. He writes about it: his book about the colony became a bestseller in Europe and introduced Europeans to a place called Manhattan. He literally hires a ship to carry eager settlers to America. He creates what would become the principal map of the northeast for more than a century. He leads the movement for political reform, which results in his imprisonment, release, and journeying to The Hague to push the cause of the first Manhattanites.
Other Figures, Large and Small
Other figures, large and small, who range through the story include:
- Henry Hudson, the brooding English explorer who charted the region for the Dutch.
- Claes Swits, an old wheelwright whose murder by a local Indian set off a chain of events with historic implications.
- Griet Reyniers, Manhattan's first prostitute, who would become one of its leading citizens.
- Joris Rapalje and Catalina Trico, the French-speaking "Adam and Eve" of the Dutch colony.
- John Winthrop Jr., ambitious governor of the Connecticut colony, whom Stuyvesant befriended but who plotted against the Dutch leader.
- George Downing, brilliant but odious British ambassador to The Hague (for whom Downing Street in London would be named), who conceived a master plan for taking over the Dutch colony, reorganizing Britain's New World possessions, and beginning a largescale slave trade.
- James, the Duke of York, brother of King Charles II, who directed the takeover of the Dutch colony, and for whom New York would be named.