Volume 74, Number 52 | May 04 - 10 , 2005

Let’s go Dutch, says Lower Manhattan history maven

By Albert Amateau

To hear Joep de Koning tell it, it was the Dutch who founded not only what is now New York, but also Connecticut, New Jersey and Delaware — and it all started on Governors Island.

And, the foundations of the U.S. Bill of Rights derive not from English common law and the Magna Carta but from the principals of the Dutch Republic established in 1579, de Koning passionately proclaims.

About 100 history buffs heard de Koning last week at a Pier 40 event conducted by the Friends of Hudson River Park and the Hudson River Park Trust. The pier was an appropriate venue — the former New York terminus of the Holland-America Line — for a Dutch-born champion of Dutch ideals of tolerance and liberty.

Joep De Koning (his first name is pronounced “Yoop”) has been trying to convince state, city and federal officials to implement his idea for a Tolerance Park on the southern 58 acres of the 172-acre Governors Island.

“I’ve sent more than 200,000 pages of letters, documents and maps to state, city and federal officials in the past eight years — the material would fill a room,” he said in an interview after the talk. But he ruefully acknowledged that he hasn’t received a single reply. A former investment banker, he retired in 1997 to promote the Governors Island Tolerance Park.

Those 58 acres, relatively recent landfill on the island, are the same size, shape, and geographic alignment as the original New Amsterdam at the tip of Manhattan, de Koning said.

But, de Koning said, the first resident of the province of New Netherlands — for a summer in 1624 — was Jan Rodriguez from the Dutch West Indies, a man of mixed African and Spanish parentage who set up a post on Governors — then known as Noten Island (Nuts Island) — as a fur trader representing Captain Adrian Block, the Dutch explorer.

Talk about the Pilgrims’ landing on Cape Cod in 1619? Henry Hudson, sailing for the Dutch on the 40-foot-long Half Moon stopped there 10 years earlier on his way to New York Harbor. But Hudson never figured out that Manhattan was an island — or that Long Island was surrounded by water, de Koning noted.

The first real explorer of New York Harbor circa 1611 was Adrian Vanderdonck, an explorer almost ignored by writers, except for Russell Shorto, author of the recent “Island at the Center of the World,” which de Koning described as “The first book in 350 years that gets it right.”

De Koning has little use for most historians “a bunch of people who have ‘Dr,’ ‘Ph.D.’ attached to their names.” The Anglo-centric view of the region really gets de Koning’s goat. His power point lecture at the April 26 Pier 40 program included a list of pejoratives: Dutch treat (no treat at all), Dutch courage (engendered by alcohol), getting into Dutch (trouble), talk like a Dutch uncle (scold) and double Dutch (double talk but also in New York a two-rope jump-rope game) all fostered by the English.

Washington Irving’s history of New Amsterdam as professed by the fictional Dietrich Knickerbocker was a lampoon of the Dutch that many 19th-century readers took as real history, de Koning complains.

Were Downtown Manhattan streets laid out along the lines of wandering cow paths, as those spurious conjectures would have it? Nonsense, said de Koning, an avid collector of old maps. One map he presented at the Pier 40 program shows the first few blocks laid out as a grid extending northeast from the east wall of the fort. As in many Dutch cities, the streets were not perfectly straight but were intended to avoid the wind sweeping from one end to the other, de Koning said in an interview later. “In the 1640s, ’50s and ’60s, they added streets according to need, but there was nothing accidental, it was all planned,” he added.

Captain John Smith, de Koning went on, was a terrible fellow who had been accused by his early co-colonists in Jamestown, Va., of plotting murder in order to set himself up as king. The plot failed so he took the title of admiral instead.

Adrian Block was able to claim everything from Connecticut to Chesapeake Bay for the Netherlands by virtue of his 1614 map of the Delaware (then known as the South River) and the Hudson (even now called the North River) Valleys. But that rascal, John Smith, came out with a similar map bearing the date 1614, which enabled England to lay claim to what is now called the tri-state area. De Koning, however, says he has rock-solid evidence that Smith drew the map in 1616 and backdated it to 1614 to counter Block. “The Smith map is a cartographic deception,” de Koning said.

The Dutch Republic, known as The United States of the Netherlands, had specific guarantees of freedom of religion. De Koning quotes 17th-century English writers as remarking on the variety of religions in New Amsterdam. In New Amsterdam, de Koning noted, a Moroccan Muslim, known to his neighbors as John the Turk, had a farm. De Koning said even old peg leg Peter Stuyvesant wasn’t so bad.

But among the audience were some history-wise people like Hilda Regier, a Chelsea resident, who called de Koning on what she thought was his whitewash of Stuyvesant. “He arrested John Bowne, the Quaker, because of his beliefs,” Regier said.

De Koning conceded that Stuyvesant, the son of a minister, was a very intolerant man and would have wanted to establish a Calvinist state. “But he was the seventh governor of the colony and the tradition of pluralism was already established,” de Koning said.

It is only just after the 350th anniversary of the founding of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, the first synagogue in the country, but de Koning took the opportunity to correct what he believes is a common misconception.

The Sephardic Jews who came from the Dutch outpost of Recife, Brazil, aboard the Santa Katrina in September 1652 landed a few weeks after a boatload of Ashkenazi Jews from Amsterdam, de Koning said. Moreover, the Ashkenazim had valid passports and the Sephardim did not. The Sephardim, however, were more organized and established the first synagogue, which was open to all Jews — a tradition that continues at Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese temple, to this day.

De Koning’s hope for a Tolerance Park on Governor’s Island is still alive, but he doesn’t think much of the request for expressions of interest issued at the end of March by the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation. The May 16 deadline for submissions has been extended a month, but there is widespread skepticism about whether the R.E.I. counts for anything, de Koning said.

“After all the pages I sent to the Clinton and Bush administrations, the Giuliani and Bloomberg adminstrations and to Pataki. I don’t know if it means anything, I’ll probably make a small formal submission,” he said.

(For more information on the Tolerance Park proposal, visit the Web site www.tolerancepark.org.)

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