Monday, December 28, 2009

Dutch Treat: Library's Documents Reveal City's Scandalous Secrets

Pieter Schenk. View of New Amsterdam, ca. 1702.
(New York Public Library Digital Archive.)

History records it was a city founded by sober, God fearing church-goers seeking religious freedom. A colony ruled by conservatives who thought gambling, the theater, sex outside of marriage, colorful clothing, and even celebrating Christmas were immoral. But what if it was all a whitewash? An attempt to hide the secret history of the earliest settlers: pirates, prostitutes, smugglers, adventurers, and fortune seekers. Free thinkers for whom even the most liberal city in Europe wasn't liberal enough? That's the truth being revealed about the city of Manhattan by Charles Gehring, an archivist working at the New York State Library.

Gehring has made it his life's work to translate documents that tell the story of New Netherland and its capital New Amsterdam. These seventeenth century Dutch documents describe the beginnings of the colorful metropolis we now call New York. A city filled with lively, vivid, red-blooded characters. This vibrant city never ceased to exist; it was merely hidden by a thick coat of Puritan gray. The result is a historical pentimento--one painting on top of another--two very different images of the same place vying for the eye of the modern observer.

Charles Gehring At Work In New York State Library
(Photo by Nathaniel Brooks, Courtesy of The New York Times.)

According to a December 26, 2009 article in The New York Times, Charles Gehring is one of the few scholars equipped to decipher the documents held by The New York State Library. He earned a PhD. in German linguistics and specialized in Netherlandic studies. The materials Gehring translates into English are hand written, and the old Dutch language they were composed in is a far cry from the Dutch spoken today. The best comparison might be to a modern American trying to decode Shakespearean English written by a quill pen, in a florid secretarial hand, on 400 year old parchment faded by centuries of decay, and damaged by fire, water, and mold.

Gehring is not the first translator to try to put the historical record of New Amsterdam into modern English. According to author Russell Shorto, whose 2005 book, The Island At The Center of The World, was based on Gehring's work: "In 1801 a committee headed by none other than Aaron Burr declared that 'measures ought to be taken to procure a translation,' but none were." In the 1820's, the first man to actually try his hand at it was "a half-blind Dutchman with a shaky command of English [who] came up with a massively flawed longhand translation."

Arnoldus Montanus. Map Of New Amsterdam (Novum Amsterodamum) As It Appeared In 1651. Published In His Book De Nieuwe en Onbekende Weereld (1671).

Bad luck seemed to follow anyone who tried to tell this secret history of Manhattan. In 1911, archivist and librarian A.F. Van Laer had just completed his translation of a portion of the documents. As he was reviewing the final version, a fire broke out in the State Library. Desperately trying to save his work, and more importantly the original documents, Van Laer repeatedly ran to and from the burning building snatching up whatever writings he could find, until fireman finally doused him with a hose to prevent him from burning to death. In the end, his years of work--and many of the originals he translated--were destroyed. Only an earlier rough translation by Van Laer survived. Distraught by the ravaging of his work, Van Laer suffered a nervous breakdown and gave up on the project forever.

Johannes Vingboons. View of New Amsterdam ( ca 1665, from Nationaal Archief Of The Netherlands).

Gehring's over three decades of work on the documents has revealed the spicy stories of some fascinating historical figures. For example Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert, a barber/surgeon who became the commander of Fort Orange near what is now Albany. A married father of four, he led a secret gay life and was reportedly discovered in flagrante delicto with his black male servant, Tobias. Convicted of sodomy, he escaped a mob of angry colonists bent on lynching by jumping on an ice flow in the Hudson River. Before he could reach relative safety in Indian country, van den Bogaert's frozen refuge melted and he drowned in the same frigid waters that had provided his escape.

Peter Minuit (1589 - 1638), Director Of New Netherland Colony, Purchases Manhattan Island From The Native Americans In 1626, For Chests Of Goods.

In the pentimento of Manhattan, the Puritans came out on top. The history of colonial America schoolchildren learn is the story of The Mayflower and its somber passengers, not the flamboyant tale of the settlers who preceded them on good ship New Netherland. But both of these stories are critical to creating a complete history the United States. And the two still battle it out for the hearts and minds of Americans in today's "culture wars." What is the real America? A Christian nation ruled by traditional family values, or a country where radical ideas, artistic freedom, and cultural diversity are preserved by The Bill of Rights? The answer, of course, is it is both. A schizophrenic country where two wildly different images of a nation somehow survive on the same canvas, neither completely obscuring the other. The work of scholars like Charles Gehring ensures that the riotous, disturbingly colorful picture painted first won't disappear under the bland blanket of soothing drabness added on second thought.


Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email