• The Island at the Center of the World

  • The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America
  • By: Russell Shorto
  • Narrated by: Russell Shorto
  • Length: 14 hrs and 33 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History, Americas
  • 4.7 out of 5 stars (322 ratings)
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Publisher's Summary

In a landmark work of history, Russell Shorto presents astonishing information on the founding of our nation and reveals in riveting detail the crucial role of the Dutch in making America what it is today.

In the late 1960s, an archivist in the New York State Library made an astounding discovery: 12,000 pages of centuries-old correspondence, court cases, legal contracts, and reports from a forgotten society - the Dutch colony centered on Manhattan, which predated the 13 "original" American colonies. For the past 30 years, scholar Charles Gehring has been translating this trove, which was recently declared a national treasure. Now Russell Shorto has made use of this vital material to construct a sweeping narrative of Manhattan's founding that gives a startling, fresh perspective on how America began.

In an account that blends a novelist's grasp of storytelling with cutting-edge scholarship, The Island at the Center of the World strips Manhattan of its asphalt, bringing us back to a wilderness island - a hunting ground for Indians, populated by wolves and bears - that became a prize in the global power struggle between the English and the Dutch. Indeed, Russell Shorto shows that America's founding was not the work of English settlers alone but a result of the clashing of these two 17th-century powers. In fact it was Amsterdam - Europe's most liberal city, with an unusual policy of tolerance and a polyglot society dedicated to free trade - that became the model for the city of New Amsterdam on Manhattan. While the Puritans of New England were founding a society based on intolerance, on Manhattan the Dutch created a free-trade, upwardly mobile melting pot that would help shape not only New York but America.

The story moves from the halls of power in London and The Hague to bloody naval encounters on the high seas. The characters in the saga - the men and women who played a part in Manhattan's founding - range from the philosopher Rene Descartes to James, the Duke of York, to prostitutes and smugglers. At the heart of the story is a bitter power struggle between two men: Peter Stuyvesant, the autocratic director of the Dutch colony; and a forgotten American hero named Adriaen van der Donck, a maverick, liberal-minded lawyer whose brilliant political gamesmanship, commitment to individual freedom, and exuberant love of his new country would have a lasting impact on the history of this nation.

©2005 Russell Shorto (P)2016 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

"Astonishing.... A book that will permanently alter the way we regard our collective past." (The New York Times)

"A tour de force.... The dramatic story of New York's origins is splendidly told.... A masterpiece of storytelling and first-rate intellectual history." (The Wall Street Journal)

"As readable as a finely written novel...social history in the Barbara Tuchman tradition." (San Jose Mercury News)

What listeners say about The Island at the Center of the World

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  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Incomplete history, but fun. Performance is poor.

First things first, the voice performance by the author himself is bad. He has no concept of flow and makes the story hard to follow. Next time, leave the narration to the professionals. As for the actual history of the New Netherlands colony, it is compelling and very interesting part of American history. The down side is that much of the source material has not been translated as the author admits. We will probably get a better, more complete history in the next 10 to 20 years after all the material has finally been translated. Still, Shorto does an pretty good job with what he was working with and it is worth a listen. The worst part of the book was the author's ridiculous attempt to somehow draw a line from the Dutch colony's openness and the progressive world of modern day NYC. He tries hard to make it some colonial blue state/red state battles with the backwards Massachusetts colonies. It doesn't hold water because he almost never mentions the Virginia colonies which were company towns like New Netherlands towns and were just as open and tolerant of outsiders as the Dutch were, but somehow Virginia and North Carolina didn't morph into modern day progressive capitols. While also ignoring Virginia, he also doesn't mention Rhode Island or Pennsylvania (except for one throw away line at the end), as both colonies had a similar tolerant attitude to different religions. Thankfully, his misguided attempt to connect 17th century ethos to 21st century multiculturalism does not ruin a pretty good book.

6 people found this helpful

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Interesting but dull delivery

The information contained in this book is very interesting for history buffs. It contained much that has never been included in any American History. The author read however, while read with care and determined delivery, lacked any kind of character. I appreciate how the author read steadily as some books are read Way too fast, but reminded me of college lectures by professors who were very knowledgeable and loved the subject but just didn't know how to deliver the lecture with any kind of character. This is a good book for Reading.

5 people found this helpful

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Redefining Out Origins

As someone from the former New Netherlands/New Sweden, I've been thrilled with this book. Even as someone who lives here I didn't learn any of this in school. I'm so lucky to have found this book to put meat on what had been curiosities for me when flipping through Wikipedia pages. I finally feel like I understand the full narrative rather than just one off events without context. This ought to be required reading for every American history teacher in the country.

1 person found this helpful

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So different from the American history we were taught in school!

It was so interesting to learn the truth about the history of my beloved Manhattan or I’ve lived for the last 39 years. Despite having English heritage I have new respect for the Dodge. Now I understand why New York Is the super cool cutting edge anything goes place it is. I moved here in 19802 go to Columbia and that was one of the best decisions I ever made even know I just fell into it because I didn’t get into other Ivies!

1 person found this helpful

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Amazing history!

so many interesting historical facts we've never heard before. Please keep digging. Very much worth reading again

1 person found this helpful

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A whole part of US history revealed

This is an outstanding book of research into the story of the Dutch Colony of New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan. The author reveals the forgotten history and the influences still felt today. Excellent!

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NYC the true origin of the United States

Arguably this book is the greatest contribution to understanding the true origin of the United States of America. It's called the greatest city in the world because it's the birth of the greatest democratic nation of the world. This should be required reading for every US history curriculum in our public school system. It is the truest reflection of early America and our trajectory to the very reason with are the most tolerate society in the world. Our American subconscious is explained and laid bare in the eell researched pages of this book. Everything we know about systems of justice, autonomy of individual to live free and pursue happiness is rooted in the early settlement of Manhattan. Great big ideas and practical ideals are the fundamentals of the early Manhattanites. The seemingly inate ambitious as well as avarice that is quintessential to the American dream is born in the belly of the original settlement of Manhattan. The principals of a people who forged a life on an unknown continent is evidenced in the unique ability of Americans pluralism. We Americans whether we be 1st generation or 9th are the melting pot, beacon of freedom and ticket to " If you can make it here you can make it anywhere" to the world. To paraphrase Russell Shorto, if America is the Mighty Oak, then surely the early settlement of Manhattan is the acorn. If you are a lover of history, New York City, America or the unraveling of mystery to truth, then treat yourself. Shorto is a master guide through the thick brush, salty low tides, aromatic fields of wild strawberries and clear spring water streams. The grit and glory of forging a life, a family and home in the wilderness of early Manhattan while co- exciting with the native population is an astonishingly refreshing origin story. The stark contrast to later events which would lead to the near genocide of a whole group people. Early Dutch Manhattan is the case study and the evidence that all men and womyn are created equal and have equal opportunity, as we are able to read through the translations and further explanations of translated early Dutch archives. Enjoy this historical account of early Manhattan the backbone and DNA of our American way of life.

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Wacky, worldly history

This book covers a topic I didn’t think I would ever have much interest in, but the pages are filled with stories that are both deeply revealing about the roots of the New World in what is now America, and charming and poignant anecdotes about a plethora of complex people. That this historical narrative is read by the author so well adds a new level of enjoyment to the story.

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  • mg
  • 10-27-20

Excellent!

I really enjoyed gaining this perspective on an underappreciated bit of History. My only quibble was the narrator's mispronunciation of Dutch names and places. 😁

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Should have been much better

This book recounted a revised history of Manhattan based on recently discovered documents and I enjoyed gaining new knowledge on the subject. However, the author imbued the story with such flowery prose and unnecessary minutia that it became unduly prolix and difficult, at least for me, to get through. Compounding this, I found the author's narration below par and kept wishing he had a professional narrate this book. The narration sample I heard prior to buying this book seemed ok but, as I listened, his voice wore on me more and more. The information I learned was quite interesting so I was able to finish; but I found it a chore. My overall rating was really a 2+ but the subject matter was so interesting to me that I rounded up.