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Italy did not colonize North America, notwithstanding Christopher Columbus (an Italian who was actually working for Spain when he stumbled upon the western hemisphere), yet Italian Americans made their mark on this continent. Can you imagine popular culture without Frank Sinatra or Joe DiMaggio? PBS produced an entire documentary recently on the impact of Italian-Americans on the development of the United States.

Finland did not colonize North America, either. Yet the earliest pioneers contributed a uniquely Finnish architectural element known as the log cabin, which has shaped the American psyche throughout our history.

One country that did colonize this continent had a much greater impact than it’s relatively short period of dominance might imply: the Netherlands. We have such a strong tradition of honoring the English (Puritans, Pilgrims, Thanksgiving and all that) in this country that we sometimes forget that there were colonies just to the south of Massachusetts which probably had an even greater impact on how we got to here (to paraphrase the television show).

I read recently an absolutely fascinating account about this subject. The reason the book was written is almost as interesting as it’s premise: it seems that all the legal documents created during New Amsterdam’s short time span (1624-1664) had somehow survived fires, floods and the usual ravages of time but languished unread in the state archives in Albany because nobody had taken the time to translate them into English. How this came about is another story in itself, but Russell Shorto’s 2004 book, The Island at the Center of the World. The epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America, was the result of those translations.

The author describes all sorts of customs, terminology and foods that derive from the early Dutch settlements, but the one that struck me, the one that had the greatest impact on modern-day America was the tradition of guaranteed freedom of religion and cultural diversity which date back to the Spirit of Tolerance law adopted by the Dutch provinces in the Old Country (1579). These laws protected and even encouraged freedom of the press, tolerance of other cultures, freedom of trade, and the study of art and science. Intellectuals flocked to the cities and universities – and perhaps most surprising of all – all this openness worked hand in glove with a flowering of global trade. Manhattan was actually governed by a business (the Dutch West India Company), rather than a paternal country.

This openness to cultural diversity was transferred in its entirety to the New World and manifested itself in trade with the Natives. We all learned in grade school that the first Pilgrims wouldn’t have lasted that first winter without the considerable help of the Natives who massively outnumbered them, but Dutch settlers took them several steps further. They learned Indian languages, adopted Indian farming techniques, embraced the wampum trade and strove to coexist rather than conquer.

As a descendant (with mixed emotions) of the early Puritans, I am very interested in Shorto’s many comparisons between the English and the Dutch. For example, Puritans believed that childhood is a time when the devil has the best chance to enter the soul, and kids should therefore be subdued and kept under constant supervision lest they be tempted to have any fun. Or in the immortal words of H. L. Mencken, Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.

The Dutch were just the opposite. They hugged and coddled their children, giving them free reign to exercise their childishness so their “fragile nature” wouldn’t be burdened with adult cares. Apparently children ran free in the streets of 17th century Manhattan.

I have read in other studies that the intolerance and suspicion of outsiders by the British Colonists (which resulted in a few unsavory historical events like the Salem Witch Trials) to the fact that they came from an island, and therefore had a more inward point of view. The Dutch, by this same theory, were tolerant because of their focus on other lands, other peoples and their products (which included being open to foreign ideas). I’m not sure I completely buy these geography-based theories, but they do provide food for thought.

There are many, many more details in this fascinating book which add so much to the general knowledge of our much-vaunted melting pot. We may be a very young country as nations go, but we certainly have an interesting and diverse heritage.

As a member of a cross-cultural, multi-racial family myself, The Island at the Center of the World really resonated with me, and I highly recommend it.

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