Vintage Books

Interview with the Author

Q: What is the 'forgotten colony,' and why was it forgotten?

A: In school we're taught that America began with 13 English colonies, but that's not true. The Dutch colony of New Netherland, which covered all or parts of five future states and had Manhattan Island as its center, was founded only three years after the Pilgrims landed. It was forgotten because the English and the Dutch, the two superpowers of the 17th century, were bitter enemies. Once the English took over the Dutch territory and changed New Amsterdam to New York, they decided that was when the real history of the region began.

Q: How is the colony being rediscovered?

A: Through its records. For the past 30 years, a scholar named Charles Gehring has been translating the official records of the Dutch colony. History has told us that the settlement that predated New York was inconsequential, but these 12,000 charred, mold-riddled documents-which recently were declared a national treasure-paint a very different picture. They show that the Dutch built a vital North American territory, and that the port of Manhattan was plugged into the global Dutch trading empire.

Q: So how did this colony shape Manhattan?

A: The Dutch Republic of the 17th century was an unusually open and tolerant society, where thinkers from all over the continent went to teach and publish their works. It was also the melting pot of Europe. So when this society formed a colony based on Manhattan, this official policy of tolerance helped bring about an unprecedented mix of people there. Only 20 years after New Amsterdam's founding, a visitor reported 18 different languages being spoken-and this at a time when its population was no more than 500. The Dutch of the time were also the world's most powerful trading nation, with a vigorous policy of free trade. These two things-a mixed society and a commitment to free trade-became the foundation of New York City.

Q: And in what way did that influence America?

A: Because we aren't talking about a colony centered in some isolated valley. We're talking about Manhattan. Another part of the story is how New York itself has gotten short shrift in accounts of early American history. Again, this has to do with the Anglocentrism of the early American colonists. The men who wrote the first histories were from New England. In these histories, that region, and to a lesser extent Virginia, were given prominence. The English Puritans and Pilgrims were seen as the progenitors of the American saga. The whole middle section of the Northeast-what historians now call the Middle Colonies-was considered a muddle, a confused mix of peoples, who spoke different languages. But this region is the birthplace of religious pluralism in America, and one major reason for that-one source of the American melting pot-was the Dutch colony. It has influenced America in all sorts of ways: language, food, traditions. But it's all beneath the surface. You have to look for it.


The Island at the Center of the World
Russell Shorto
April 2005
$14.95 (Can. $21.00)