September 8, 2009
Today, Dutch Minister for European Affairs Frans Timmermans granted knighthood to Russell Shorto in New York. Shorto is author of The Island at the Center Of the World (2004), a history of the early colonization of Manhattan by Dutch settlers.
Subtitle: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America.
I do not think that the Dutch settlers on the islands around the Hudson River really “shaped” the US. But their contribution to the fascinating adventure that are the United States of America is more substantial than is generally known.
It is 400 years ago, in September 1609, that captain Hudson and his small fleet, having sailed from Amsterdam, arrived at the river estuary, looking for a “North Western Passage” from Europe to Eastern Asia. In the following years, a small trading post and several farming villages were established in the region. Soon, after 45 years, the English occupied the settlement, but most of the originally Dutch settlers remained. Dutch names survive: Bleeker Street (Bleachers Street), Broadway (Bredeweg), Brooklyn (Breukelen, after a village near Amsterdam), etc.
New York: A distant European mirror for the Dutch who are trying to “canonize” their history and culture
That the The Hague Government sent their Minister of European Affairs to this festive commemoration in New York City, is not as odd as you may think. Early New York is in many respects an example of how different European nations could merge, creating a new, really “multicultural” (yes, I dare to use that word!) community, where different languages, religions and ethnic traditions co-exist and, in many cases inspire each other.
In recent years Dutch intellectuals, politicians and governments spasmodically work at reviving a “canon” of Dutch culture and history. Globalization, immigration of Muslim people and European unification provoked a revival of consciousness of Dutch specifity and traditions. Which, in itself, not bad at all.
But, in their search for exclusive Dutchness, the new nationalists tend to disregard completely one of the fundamental characteritics of Dutchness: their unrelenting interaction with European neighbours. By trade, in science, in culture. Captain Hudson, in 1609, was not Dutch, but English. Some of the greatest personalities in Dutch history, were exiles during most of their lives. Starting with Erasmus (of Rotterdam) who fled to Basel (beginning of the XVI century), continuing with Hugo Grotius, the great international lawyer (sea judiciary) who fled (XVII) to Sweden, the great anticolonialist writer Multatuli (XIX) who sought refuge in Germany. Even the Dutch long-time NATO General Secretary Joseph Luns (XX) did not feel at home in Holland any more, and exiled himself in Brussels. On the other hand, the Netherlands welcomed Descartes (from France), Voltaire (idem) and many other poets, artists and philosophers.
Dutch history is European history. And New York, that 400 years ago was started (by accident) by the Dutch from Amsterdam, is a ‘distant mirror’ (Simon Schama) of that fact.
(First version published in HUIBSLOG)