History 231 Reading Guide

Discussion:  New Netherlands and the Atlantic World

  • Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World:  The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America (2004).
    Note: focus on the Prologue through Chapter 14, pp.1-300.


  • Russell Shorto offers a rich, fascinating, and wide-ranging narrative that illuminates the “Atlantic World” in the first seven decades of the seventeenth century.  What are Shorto’s goals in this account?
  • How does he describe and characterize Dutch heritage, culture, and values?  Which heritage most shaped Manhattan—Dutch heritage, or the experience of the Dutch and other peoples in New Amsterdam?
  • How does he weave the larger context of the Atlantic World into his study of New Amsterdam and New Netherlands?  Which “moments” in time and what aspects of that larger context does he highlight?  Why?
  • In the course thus far, we have read about and discussed the difference between necessary causes and sufficient causes, the concept of contingency, and the fallacy of an “after this, therefore because of this” interpretation of history.  In his narrative, Shorto tends to highlight particular occurrences (pivotal moments) and the actions of particular individuals (fulcrum and pivotal individuals) in order to explain a larger course of events.  Yet the breadth of his Atlantic world study suggests other necessary causes—both the contributions and efforts of other individuals and groups and the significance of other events on both sides of the Atlantic.
    What other necessary causes and contributing individuals and groups should we consider to explain:
    • the administrative and military decisions of the colony directors
    • the residents’ demands for representation
    • the biographical foils that Shorto sets up to explain the progression of events
    • the end of the Dutch colony and the residents’ willingness to relinquish their Dutch allegiance
  • How do his descriptions of Dutch and Native American interactions compare and contrast with Cronon’s account of English and Native American interactions?
  • Why did he choose to focus on Adriaen van der Donck?  Why not Cornelis Melyn and Jochem Kuyter who led the opposition against Kieft?
  • Was early Manhattan “America’s first melting pot”?  What did that much later concept actually mean to “Americans” in the past?  What did it mean within the New Amsterdam residents’ understanding of “tolerance”?
  • Why was the Dutch empire on the wane?