Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto – review

From medieval mudflats to the Shangri-La of sex: the story of a much-loved city’s fragile freedoms

Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Centre of the World (2004) must always be near the top of the list of great books about New York. Revelling in the heaps of recently translated records from the 17th-century Dutch colony of New Netherland, Shorto recreated a time when Manhattan was full of wolves and bears wandering through fields of strawberries, when settlers (initially a job lot of seasick Walloons) clung only to its southern tip (New Amsterdam), and when the currency of trade was guilders, beaver pelts and wampum. It is a true obsessive’s book, throwing in everything from the story of the farcical little colony of New Sweden to the origin of duffel cloth. It is also a superb exercise in prelapsarian pastoral, conjuring up the half century or so during which Europeans heading up the Hudson river would find prosperous and settled Mohawk towns and traded with them on equal terms, sharing meals of beans, pumpkin and corn. By the time the English finally took the region from the Dutch in 1674, this idyll was already severely damaged and on Manhattan itself by 1680 “the Manhattan Indians are referred to in the past tense”.

One of Shorto’s principal reasons for writing The Island at the Centre of the World was a sense that the unique Dutch contribution to the DNA of the US had been played down, relegated to a mere handful of picturesque scraps – the Bronx being named after Farmer Bronck, the words coleslaw and stoop and so on. Looking at the Atlantic seaboard in the 17th century there are three principal experiments in European settlement. In the English colonies to the south what emerges is a faux-bluff squirearchy based ever more crushingly on black slavery. In the English colonies to the north, ship after ship of distasteful nutters struggled to create a monochrome theocracy. The third experiment is the Dutch one on the coast in between, which results in a chaotic, tolerant, ethnically all-over-the-place amalgam – the real winning mixture, both for the future of New York City and as a key strand within the US itself.

Shorto’s new book about Amsterdam is in a sense a sequel to and justification for The Island at the Centre of the World. In the earlier book he sketched briefly but effectively the history and atmosphere of New Amsterdam’s mother city and why it mattered so much; here he looks at the deeper roots of Amsterdam’s liberal exceptionalism and its significance for the wider world, from the city’s origins as a squashy medieval mudflat to its current glowing reputation among the ignorant as a sort of sex/bong Shangri-La. It is inevitably a less original book and suffers from the usual problems of history focused on a single city, but Shorto is an excellent storyteller and rootler of strange facts, and Amsterdam should be issued as standard kit for anyone visiting the city who is not entirely corroded by vice.

Amsterdam’s luck lay in its dreadful location. By the time it was founded in around 1100 all the more desirable sites in Europe had long been parcelled up and covered in a dense web of lay or religious aristocratic ownership. For obvious reasons a shambles of shifting mudflats in which handfuls of fishermen and reed-cutters slithered around were not viewed as a high prize. Locals banded together to improve their lot, developing ever more elaborate systems to control the water that so often engulfed their rather unpleasant homes. In 1200, a dam was built across the Amstel river, giving the settlement its final name and marking the centre of what became through luck, ruthlessness and ingenuity a great city. It was this mix of seigneurial indifference to the area and enforced co-operation (which extended to other neighbouring areas such as Zeeland) that gave the region from its very beginning a unique social as well as geographical flatness.

Shorto ably and entertainingly takes the reader through the grandeurs and miseries of Amsterdam’s rise to power. The least effective parts of the book are those featuring famous people who have lived in the city (here comes Rembrandt; oh here are John and Yoko at the Hilton). In an audacious but welcome move he hardly bothers with most of the 18th and 19th centuries as so little of wider interest happens in the city. What he does focus on is the extraordinary efflorescence of Amsterdam in the 16th and 17th centuries, and its terrible fate in the 1940s, and then weaves these togetherto understand the inhabitants’ persistent liberalism, which remains so marked in the 21st century. Amsterdam’s liberalism is important in itself, but also because it was exported, not just to North America but also, through the Glorious Revolution, to Britain and its empire, and to the rest of Europe through the writings of Spinoza.

An obvious problem with city history is that cities themselves are so rarely independent actors and often what is most interesting about them happens elsewhere. Shorto deals with this problem through the merry expedient of just ignoring it. This creates all kinds of oddities. There is no discussion, for example, of the powerful influence of its German neighbours on Amsterdam. Is the city’s liberalism merely a local node for ideas just as ingrained in places such as Hamburg or Lübeck? Even stranger is that Shorto is effectively unable to come up with a way of integrating (or even starting to explain) the complex relationship with The Hague or the resentments and aspirations of other Dutch towns. Above all, he seems to see something natural, special and organic about Amsterdam’s freedom. But the city could equally be seen as just a fortunate, remote northern survivor from what had once been a dense network of Low Country “liberal” trading cities, most of which were successfully crushed and normalised by French or Spanish troops. The ghastly fate of its southern twin Antwerp, once the biggest importer in the world – its people slaughtered, the survivors violently recatholicised or expelled and its access to the sea blocked for two centuries – could easily have been shared by Amsterdam.

On occasion, Shorto is good at wrecking his own argument for Amsterdam’s baseline liberalism, by coming up with spectacular examples of city officials being no less terrible than the Spanish. In the first throes of Protestantism, the city was the site of appalling scenes, as Anabaptists had their chests cut open and hearts pulled out to be smeared, still beating, on their faces. And once the Reformation had settled in, as the people of Scotland, New England and elsewhere can testify, there is nothing inherently whatever-bag-you’re-into and free-wheeling about Calvinism. Amsterdam’s espousal of reform was accompanied, before and after, with ferocious violence. In his grim, well-handled, sections on the Holocaust in Amsterdam, Shorto shows how, under acute pressure, illiberal, mercenary or vicious strains in the population could be nurtured just as much as in the rest of Occupied Europe.

Amsterdam is worth buying for chapter four alone: a superb, gruesome account of the early years of the East India Company (another, on reflection, not brilliantly liberal outfit). Shorto ends by discussing multiculturalism and the new threats it presents to the city’s long-cultivated civilised indifference. As his book makes clear, almost despite itself, Amsterdam’s form of liberalism cannot be taken for granted, and is more fragile and less ingrained than one would like to think. The argument within the city about its own identity has been going on for almost a millennium; it can never be assumed that the right people will win.

• Simon Winder’s most recent book is Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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