Was this the route to Asia?
The 85ft-long wooden ship De Halve Maen (“half moon”) had just braved a westward journey across the Atlantic—in search of Asia.
This was De Halve Maen ’s captain Henry Hudson’s third attempt at finding a new route from Europe to the Far East. After his first two voyages had ended disastrously, his bosses at London’s Muscovy Company had fired him. When his new Dutch employers in Amsterdam asked him to take another shot at finding Asia in 1609, it looked like Hudson’s last chance.
It was the age of exploration. Hudson was convinced he belonged with the likes of Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Hernán Cortés and Sebastian Cabot. He knew there had to be a new route to Asia. He had heard of a wide, deep river to the north of Virginia that he believed would flow inland into America and open up into the sea of Cathay from the East. Hudson wanted to cross the Atlantic from Amsterdam, sail up this river, arrive in Asia and open up the lucrative spice trade to the Dutch.
After five and a half months of sailing, Hudson’s De Halve Maen had rounded a sharp bend of land on the Atlantic coast of America. Ahead was a harbour, from which a river flowed inland. “The river is a mile broad: there is a high land on both sides,” wrote Hudson’s first mate.
Surely this was the channel to the other side of the world. The air of Asia, thick with the smell of cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon, couldn’t be far now. Hudson was convinced, more than ever before, that the jingle of riches and comforts of fame were close by. He could picture his statues and portraits lording over the palaces and squares of Europe for centuries to come.
Hudson spent the next 10 days sailing 150 miles upriver, his hopes swelling with every moment. But alas, the climax he expected was not to be. Soon the river narrowed, and his hopes dwindled. No ship could pass through the upper reaches of the river. There were no spices or riches to be found here. The De Halve Maen went back to The Netherlands empty-handed. Hudson deemed his journey and life a failure—and died on another voyage two years later.
When Dutch traders who had sent Hudson were poring over reports of his voyage, the words “many skins and peltries, martins, foxes” leapt out from the pages. These were the goods that the American Indians had offered to trade with Hudson on the islands he had passed on his way upriver.
Fur, it turned out, was expensive—and in raging demand in Europe. Fur had made British fortunes in Russia. Hudson’s discovery was an unexpected opportunity for the Dutch. Suddenly, the shortcut to Asia seemed no longer important. The commercial potential of “skins and peltries, martins, foxes” seemed limitless, as did that of the virgin, undiscovered continent that lay inland from the port Hudson had discovered.
The Dutch decided to set up a trading base on the first island that Hudson had passed by, setting into motion a complex and unprecedented chain of developments that would make this wild and remote island into one of the world’s foremost urban centres.
Over the next few centuries, the hills on the island Hudson had passed were flattened into plots. Streams were filled in. Fields were covered with houses. Jungle trails were widened into avenues. Trees were replaced by skyscrapers. Grass, swamps and shrubbery gave way to glass, steel and concrete.
The island of Mannahatta became Manhattan.
When I moved to New York last August, I knew nothing about the city except the names of its tourist attractions—Times Square, The Statue of Liberty, Broadway and their ilk. On my second day there, I walked west from Times Square and found that the row of concrete towers around me ended abruptly in a stretch of water. The Hudson River, a signboard said.
Who was this Hudson dude anyway?
I tapped away on Google later that day—and soon picked up the book The Island at the Center of the World about New York’s early history, by Russell Shorto. I read the tragic story of Hudson’s unfulfilled ambitions, and the improbable tale of how an untamed, remote island that was settled just over 400 years ago became the cultural and financial centre of the world, overtaking older and more prosperous cities like London, Amsterdam and Rome.
I decided to make my way to downtown Manhattan to take a look at the parts first occupied by the Dutch, whose early influence had driven the city’s meteoric rise, even though they stayed in New York for just 38 years. I wanted to walk in the tiny area that was the embryo from which New York City sprouted, to see what its earliest parts look like today.
Manhattan’s Broad Street looks like the interior of a 150m-tall box. Skyscrapers hem me in on every side, their shadows revealing almost none of the 8am sunlight. The only light comes in from the narrow spaces overhead, from tiny patches of sky between the tops of the towers around me.
As I go westward, the high-rises part, and orange shafts of light wade in between concrete faces. The open surface of the Hudson river lies ahead, just beyond the lawns of Battery Park. The solid land of these lawns was where Hudson had first weighed anchor on his 1609 voyage. There was no land here back then—the river flowed here until the park was built on a landfill in the 1970s.
At Battery Park, there are no signs or inscriptions announcing that this was the site of Hudson’s landing; that it was here that the small seeds were sown that had blown up into the gigantic beanstalk of New York. The monuments inside Battery Park honour worthies of questionable stature such as Admiral George Dewey, “Norwegian veterans” and John Ericsson, the designer of the iron-clad ship USS Monitor. Yet there is nothing here to commemorate the man who started it all—Henry Hudson.
A sandstone fort, the Castle Clinton, crouches at one end of Battery Park. Inside, the mouth of a black cannon points towards one of the fort’s loopholes. Castle Clinton’s 20ft height is easily dwarfed by 300ft-plus tall towers that loom in its background, almost as if they were Godzillas poised to pounce on it.
In the nearby Whitehall Building built in 1904, curled patterns, stone flowers and carvings of faces decorate the brown, pink and yellow frontage. Behind it, a more recent building’s flat surface is shrouded with black glass, its windowless exterior looking like a massive fish tank.
Just across the road lies another iconic spot in New York’s history. Once again, signboards make no mention of the landmark transaction that happened here. Boards mention the current occupant of the site—the National Museum of The American Indian, and its predecessor, The US Customs House—but say nothing of the pivotal incident that set New York firmly upon its frenzied growth trajectory.
In the years after Hudson’s voyage, Dutch traders settled down in New Netherland (as the Dutch called the New York region) to trade in fur with the American Indians. In 1626, Peter Minuit, the leader of the settlers, realized that it would be prudent for the Dutch to settle in a single place rather than spread out across New Netherland and lay themselves open to attack by the Indians.
The island of Mannahatta at the mouth of the river was thickly forested. It had animals and plants in plenty that provided food, and many freshwater streams that supplied water. Indian fur traders from nearby regions came to the mouth of the river to trade their goods—the island lay at the entrance to a bay located in a harbour. Minuit realized that the island could be a conduit between inland America and Europe—and critical for the control of the fur trade that had brought the Dutch to these shores.
So Peter Minuit bought the island. He met Indian leaders at a spot to the east of today’s Battery Park and purchased Manhattan for goods worth 60 guilders, the equivalent of $24 (around Rs.1,300).
The die was cast. Mannahatta became New Amsterdam (though it continued to be called Manhattan). The deal was perhaps one of the best-known land purchases in history, yet neither Minuit nor the Indians seemed to have any idea that this remote island worth $24 would appreciate in value to trillions of dollars. After all, there seemed to be nothing special about this island. With a sparsely populated continent just inland, land was anything but scarce.
Today, the National Museum of The American Indian stands at the spot of this transaction, its Beaux Arts style building’s front lined by tall columns. In the museum’s main hall, diffused sunlight squeezes in from an oval glass ceiling. Just below the ceiling are murals with images of ships and names of explorers—(Giovanni) da Verrazano, Cabot, Hudson and (Estêvão) Gomes, among others.
Outside, a line of seven-year-old schoolchildren walks towards the museum’s entrance. A sign on a basement reads “United States Bankruptcy Court”. A man carries a signboard soliciting clients for the “Cheetahs Gentlemen’s Club”. If that wasn’t clear enough, the board spells out “bikini bar”, “topless lounge” and other highlights of the said club.
Minuit and the Indians chose the location of their transaction because it lay at the starting point of the Wickquasgeck trail, the most important route across the island of Mannahatta. This trail snaked through swamp, forest and shrub, and connected the south of the island to its north. After the Dutch bought the island, they called the trail BeerdeWeg. When the British conquered the island from the Dutch in 1664, BeerdeWeg simply became its English translation, “Broadway”, and New Amsterdam became New York.
The moment I exit the museum and enter Broadway, I see a gash of flaming red. A circular arrangement of red tulips comes aflame in the centre of New York’s oldest park, Bowling Green. This teardrop-shaped park is only around 80m at its longest, but the benches around the cup-shaped tulips are packed with people even though it’s a Tuesday afternoon. Cameras are unsheathed, lunch salads and sandwiches unpacked. The fiery red flowers are a contrast from the stone, concrete and glass that surround it on all sides.
Broadway’s theatre district is still a few miles north, but closer, just a few blocks away from Bowling Green, is the site of another erstwhile symbol of early New York.
The Dutch director general Peter Stuyvesant wanted to defend the settlement from attacks by the Indians. He therefore had an earthen wall built half a mile from the southern tip of New Amsterdam, for he believed this half-mile length would be enough for the new colony’s settlers to live comfortably in for a long time. This wall was destroyed by the British in 1699, but the street along this wall survives today. It’s called Wall Street.
There are hardly any glass-fronted buildings on Wall Street. Curls, spirals and faces jut out of stone walls peppered with windows, often flanked by monstrous columns. High brass and wooden doors stand guard at these buildings. From a street corner, one can catch a glimpse of the stepped pyramidal tower of 14 Wall Street, modelled after the mausoleum of Halicarnassus.
Nothing looks like it’s from after 1950, yet nearly every building on Wall Street is over 400ft in height. On one side of a barricade, above a brass door, the words “New York Stock Exchange” are etched in stone. Three policemen chat beside a police car just outside this door.
After seeing photographs of the shining glass peaks of the Manhattan skyline, I hadn’t quite expected that the heart of the neighbourhood would be packed with sturdy, stone structures from decades ago instead of ethereal vertical towers from the future that fill up the rest of Manhattan.
Most of these buildings originated as headquarters of corporate behemoths from another age—like the Irving Trust Company and Bank of Manhattan Company on Wall Street, and Standard Oil and Cunard Steamship Company on Broadway nearby. These companies had sought to make these buildings symbols of their own aspirations of immortality. The clean, vast faces of the strongholds stand steady, even as the companies that built them faded away, much like the Dutch pioneers who had built their residences in these areas to the south of Stuyvesant’s wall centuries before these companies were conceived.
Outside Wall Street, it’s hard to miss the one structure that dominates the skyline to the west. The new World Trade Center that will replace the destroyed twin towers is under construction. The floors that aren’t completely built up look like pigeonholes hundreds of feet in the air—and break the continuity of the tower’s steel-grey surface.
As it happened, it was on 11 September 1609 that Henry Hudson’s De Halve Maen had sailed into New York Harbor, with no idea of the kind of metropolis it was spawning. In its 404 years, Lower Manhattan had come full circle—from unlikely birth, dizzying growth, the departures of settlers and industries, stock market crashes, terror attacks—and back to business as usual.
An elevator wedged to the outside of the tower floats more than a thousand feet in the air—just looking at it makes me dizzy. An aeroplane flies overhead, almost touching the tower’s top. On a spaceship-shaped spire on top of the tower, an American flag flutters in the wind.
(Much of this article draws from the research of Dr Charles Gehring, whose work forms the basis of the book The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto.)
Shamanth Rao is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York.