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The Other Side of the World

Os Descobrimentos Portugueses e a Europa do Renascimento/Portuguese Discoveries and Renaissance Europe and Culture, Lisbon, 1983

Commissariat for the Seventeenth European Exhibition of Art, Science

The Pacific since Magellan Vol. 1: The Spanish Lake; Vol. 2: Monopolists and Freebooters

by O. H. K. Spate
University of Minnesota Press, Vol. 2, 426 pp., $59.50

Lisbon this summer provided the setting for a great international exhibition—the Council of Europe’s seventeenth exhibition of art, science, and culture—devoted to the Portuguese discoveries and Renaissance Europe. The exhibition was skillfully planned to take advantage of the splendid Lisbon waterfront, where houses, churches, and convents jostle for a view of the Tagus as it opens out to join the sea. No other setting could have been more appropriate for an attempt to depict in visual terms how a small medieval state on the remote western fringes of Christendom became a pioneer in overseas navigation and discovery, and how its bold initiative led to the transformation of Europe and the world.

The exhibition, which closed on October 2, was housed in five historic buildings which themselves added immeasurably to its impact by recalling, through their origins and architecture, or simply through the sudden glimpses they offered of the water, the pervasive theme of discovery and Renaissance. Appropriately the exhibition moved westward by stages toward the Atlantic from its starting point at the Renaissance convent of Madre de Deus on the eastern side of the city. Here the display was devoted to medieval Portugal and its contacts—commercial, religious, cultural—with the other lands of Europe and also with Islam.

Through maps and manuscripts and models of ships we were introduced to a society that lived on and by the sea, looking out with a lively curiosity on the world beyond its shores. Although this part of the exhibition was concerned solely with the Middle Ages, the convent itself hinted richly at the splendors to come as we emerged into the cloister with its blue-and-white tiled panorama of sixteenth-century Lisbon, and then gazed down from an upper window onto the nave of the ornate church, resplendent with the gold of Brazil.

From the Madre de Deus we threaded our way through Lisbon’s impossibly crowded streets to the Casa dos Bicos, a sixteenth-century mansion—its façade ornamented with pyramid-pointed stones—which was built for the Albuquerques, the family of the man who founded Portugal’s Indian empire. The newly reconstructed interior was used to display, in a sequence of darkened galleries, the complicated history of the matrimonial alliances that bound the Portuguese ruling house of Aviz to the principal dynasties of Europe. There is a fascination about many of the royal portraits, down to the degenerate King Sebastian, whose crazed vision of crusading glory brought about the extinction of the dynasty and of Portuguese independence in the wastes of North Africa. But this was the least satisfying part of the exhibition, being too fragmented and incoherent to make its point effectively.

More rewarding was the fine display at the next port of call, the National Museum of Ancient Art. This section of the exhibition was designed to illustrate the artistic achievement of late medieval and Renaissance Portugal, and the interplay between Portuguese art and that of Renaissance Europe. In this setting, with its constant reminders of the interaction between Portugal, Europe, and the newly discovered overseas worlds, Nuño Gonçalves’s famous double triptych of the veneration of St. Vincent acquired an additional dramatic intensity from our new-found familiarity with the age. The shrewd, determined faces of Henry the Navigator and his companions were those of a generation whose ability to combine its vision of distant worlds with a fiercely calculating sense of the practical is apparent at every turn.

The more practical aspects of overseas navigation and conquest constituted the theme of the display in the Torre de Belém, that superbly graceful Manueline tower overlooking the estuary, which was the landmark of every returning navigator. The exhibits here were all related to the technology of conquest—the arms, the armor, and above all the guns which gave the Portuguese in the East their early, but transient, advantage. Even among these grim reminders of the conflict and destruction that lurk beneath the bland euphemism of “overseas discovery,” the visitor who climbed the tower could not fail to be struck at every level by the sheer beauty of Renaissance craftsmanship, whether in the delicate inlay of the muskets or the intricate chasing of the suits of armor.

But it was in the great monastery of the Hieronymites that the virtuosity of craftsmanship was most spectacularly displayed. Once memorably described by J. B. Trend in his Portugal (1957) as “a King’s College Chapel which has been sunk to the bottom of the Indian Ocean and come back as something rich and strange, encrusted with sea-beasts and nautical gear and all the paraphernalia of a voyage of discovery,” the monastery itself casts a magic spell. This was enhanced by the temporary installation of a multitude of objects chosen to illustrate the meeting of worlds brought about by the Portuguese voyages. Here were the Africa of the first navigators and the India of Vasco da Gama. On display were bronzes from Benin and ivories from Sierra Leone, lacquerwork and mother-of-pearl from Goa and Macao, porcelain from China.

On the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century maps—marvels of artistic cartography which were among the great delights of the exhibition—we can trace the points of contact produced by the outward thrust of Portuguese commercial and missionary enterprise. If we then turn to the artifacts, we can see what this contact of worlds meant for aesthetic creativity and observe the countless ways in which Western and non-Western civilization borrowed from each other. Even Portuguese liturgical objects, the most uncompromisingly Western—at least in their function—of all the objects introduced into the East, do not remain immune to the influence of their new environment, any more than Portuguese Christianity itself remained immune.

This vast exhibition inevitably had its defects. The objects on display varied greatly in quality, and some of them had only the remotest of connections with the central theme. The labeling, which was exclusively in Portuguese, was laconic in the extreme, and the only catalog available was a multilingual handbook consisting of brief and highly generalized essays on the themes of the five sections into which the show was divided. But as an evocation of an age, the exhibition was a triumph. Not only was it full of individual enchantments, but it was conceived and presented on such a scale that one came away from it with an overwhelming sense of the virtuosity of artists and craftsmen in East and West alike, and of the creative stimulus administered by the sudden opening of closed windows onto worlds till then unknown.

Nowhere are these galvanizing effects of the shock of contact more suggestively revealed than in the Japanese screen paintings that were on display in one of the halls of the Hieronymite monastery. As we scrutinize these brilliant visual representations of the Portuguese presence in Japan, we are made sharply aware of what it must have been like to come face to face with these alien intruders. For the Portuguese, the “Great Ship” from Macao was the fragile link to the isolated Christian outpost which their traders and missionaries had established in Nagasaki. For the Japanese, it was the “Black Ship,” a looming silhouette peopled by curious figures in ballooning white trousers scurrying about the decks with their bales of goods, or poised precariously like dancers on the rigging. How strange those alien intruders must have seemed with their long pointed noses, their comical felt hats, their flowing cloaks, and their baggy breeches! How arrogant, how imperious, how lacking in the virtues of civility!

It is this alien intrusion of Europe into the world of the Pacific, begun by the Portuguese and Spaniards, and followed up in turn by the Dutch, the British, the Russians, and the French, which forms the theme of the two splendid volumes so far published by O. H. K. Spate in his ambitious history The Pacific since Magellan. Although the author and his work have been acclaimed, especially by historical geographers, his enterprise has not yet perhaps received the attention it deserves, especially in the Atlantic-bound world of Anglo-American historiography. The publication of volume two, Monopolists and Freebooters, provides an opportunity to remedy the oversight.

It is reported that Secretary of State Shultz once showed his executive assistant how American map makers almost always make the Atlantic, flanked by the United States and Europe, the center of everything. In the closing years of the twentieth century, at a time when many of the societies that border the Pacific are displaying a creative dynamism that makes the Atlantic societies appear jaded and worn by contrast, it is none too soon to redress the balance. It is this that Professor Spate attempts to do through the grand design of his history. Now emeritus professor of Pacific history in the Australian National University, it was not for nothing that he made his career as a geographer. The eye and the mind of the geographer are clearly at work both in the text and in the many remarkable maps, with their vivid conception of the great spaces of the Pacific.

But can the Pacific properly be regarded as anything more than a cartographical convention? As Professor Spate points out, the Pacific is in reality a European artifact which came into being with Magellan, and was more commonly known for the best part of three centuries as the South Sea, the Mar del Sur. The central theme of his first two volumes is essentially the invention of the Pacific—the way in which, through hazardous voyages and the slow accumulation of experience, it came to be plotted on the maps of Europeans.

The author himself is the first to admit that this approach is likely to lead to a somewhat Euro-centric history. In the circumstances it could hardly be otherwise, although the third volume will include an account of the great diaspora of the peoples of Oceania. It may well be that the ethno-historians of the future will succeed in piecing together a Pacific history very different from that of Spate; but if, as he modestly suggests, his work may come to look like “a requiem for an era of historiography,” it is certainly a requiem in the grand manner.

The facility of the writing should not be allowed to conceal the magnitude and difficulty of the enterprise. Professor Spate has had to make himself the master of an enormous literature in a variety of languages. He is a little defensive about the fact that he is not an “archival historian” and is therefore dependent on the findings of others, but to be a generalist in an age of specialists is no cause for stigma. The overwhelming need at this moment is for someone to sift through and organize the vast quantity of material in print—the published documents, and contemporary and modern accounts of Pacific voyages—and to produce a readable narrative within a coherent frame. This is what Professor Spate set out to do, and what he has triumphantly achieved.

If there is a single quality that shines through these two volumes, it is the quality of enjoyment. Professor Spate writes with the verve and enthusiasm of a man who lives and loves his subject. In his combination of practical common sense with a well-stocked mind he is reminiscent of Samuel Eliot Morison. Like Morison he allows himself the occasional humorous aside in his text and notes, and does not shrink from the entertaining excursus. Inevitably this sometimes exacts a price. There are times when the narrative gets too clogged, and matters are not helped by his addiction to the colon: this form of punctuation when used to excess makes for heavy reading. But discursive narrative has its charms, especially when read at leisure, and there is much to be learned if we take Professor Spate as our traveling companion on the long ocean voyage. How many, for instance, are aware that George Shelvocke’s Voyage round the World by the Way of the Great South Sea (1726) contains the story of the man who shot the albatross, the original ancient mariner? Or, if aware of it from Lowes’s Road to Xanadu, knew that Lowes had already been preceded in 1816 by “the admirable Burney” in his Chronological History of Discoveries in the South Sea or Pacific Ocean?

Of the two volumes under review, the first, The Spanish Lake, seems to me particularly successful. Covering the sixteenth century and the Iberian phase of expansion into the Pacific, it has a natural unity denied to its successor, Monopolists and Freebooters, which runs from 1600 to the later eighteenth century, a period in which one European nation after another entered the Pacific sweepstakes. Here there is bound to be a certain relentlessness as expedition follows expedition, although the clarity of exposition remains consistently impressive, and numerous incidental curiosities lighten the narrative. We learn, for instance, that as early as 1615 a minor Spanish official in Peru was able to observe the approach of the marauding Dutch fleet through a telescope.

But here for once the immensely wellread Professor Spate manages to miss a trick. He might have recalled a marvelous episode in Quevedo’s La hora de todos which gives this piece of information a nicely ironic twist. Quevedo, in his attack on new-fangled notions, describes with approval the contemptuous reaction of the Chilean Indians to the gift of a telescope by Dutch privateers (on this same expedition?) to observe the moon and the stars, and the approach of enemies. It is good to know that even in those remote regions Quevedo’s compatriots possessed the monstrous device already.

It would be a mistake, however, to give the impression that these volumes are no more than old-style exploration history, however expertly and engagingly retold. It is true that Spate’s Pacific is nearer in character to Morison’s Atlantic than to Braudel’s Mediterranean. But in conception, if not in execution, these volumes bear the stamp of the Braudelian age. They start, after all, from the hypothesis that the Pacific is an entity; and indeed it could plausibly be argued that it has more claims to be regarded as a single entity than Braudel’s Mediterranean, if only because of its origins as a construct of the European mind in relatively recent times. Given this hypothesis, the history of the Pacific (but not, as Spate is at pains to make clear, the history of the Pacific peoples) becomes, in his own words, an explanation of “the process by which the greatest blank on the map became a nexus of global commercial and strategic relations.”

It is hard to see how the outcome of such a project could be anything other than narrative history on a vast scale. The alternative is to postulate, as Braudel postulates for the Mediterranean, a unity of civilization based on common geographical features. Even for the Mediterranean this is to stretch the evidence to the limits and beyond, and for the Pacific it places an impossible strain on credulity. As the traveler in New Zealand surveys the landscape of the South Island he may for a moment feel himself in Chile; and the alleged responsibility of El Niño for the vagaries of this year’s weather, from the terrible droughts in Australia to the heavy rains in Peru, may indeed suggest that the Pacific does after all exist. But Professor Spate is too conscious of the infinite complexity of things to impose unity where none exists.

What he does do, however, is to let geography frame his narrative without dictating it. He describes a world in which Geoffrey Blainey’s Tyranny of Distance* prevails, but it is a tyranny challenged and defied not only by romantics like Mendaña and Quiros, but also by the hard-bitten pilots and crews of the famous Manila galleons on their regular annual run. He shows how the winds and currents of the Pacific impose certain navigational patterns that offer the possibility of links between the eastern and western shores of the ocean—a possibility that was realized in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as the result of remarkable human endurance and capacity, coupled with a large measure of human greed.

Perhaps the most important contribution of Spate’s history lies precisely in this determination to depict the Pacific from the start as a potential unit in process of realization. This leads him to pay attention to its western and eastern littoral alike—to the Moluccas and Peru, to Japan and California. He therefore treats his readers to an extensive account—of a kind not normally to be expected in a book devoted to the Pacific—of the Spanish conquest and colonization of America. But it is an account that derives its justification and its interest from the way in which it is slanted toward the Pacific—to the opening up, whether by Balboa in the early sixteenth century or by Father Kino at the end of the seventeenth, of an expanding Pacific frontier. Similarly, in Monopolists and Freebooters, we watch the complementary advance to the Pacific of the Russia of the czars, until, in eighteenth-century California, Spain and Russia meet.

If by the end of the second volume one is left with a slight sense of disappointment, this is because Spate’s ambitious approach seems to promise more novelty than it actually delivers. A history from the Pacific viewpoint of the Spanish colonization of America or the “Christian century of Japan” does not in practice seem markedly different from the histories already available. Perhaps the enterprise is simply too vast for a single historian, however widely read. Perhaps, too, the trans-Pacific connections in the early modern period are just too tenuous to permit the kind of historical cross-referencing which makes Braudel such exciting reading.

Yet there are rewarding moments when Spate’s Pacific suddenly seems to shrink, and the wider implications of his story become dramatically apparent: in 1637, for instance, when a peasant rising in Japan leads to the calling off at the last moment of a projected Dutch-Japanese attack on the Philippines, that far-flung outpost of the Spanish crown and the European economy. The fall of Manila, Spate suggests, might have turned back across the Atlantic the flow of American silver that made its way to Asia by way of the Philippines, with incalculable consequences for the economic life of seventeenth-century Europe. “Rarely can an obscure and failed peasant rising have had such an influence, even if a negative one, on the course of world events.”

Even if it is not always perfectly realized, it is precisely its imaginative attempt to approach the past with fresh perspectives that makes a work like Professor Spate’s so valuable historically. What he has sought to do, and with a fair measure of success, is to shift the center of historical gravity for a traditionally Western-minded readership. His globe has Mexico rather than Europe as its center, and his routes lead to Manila, not to Rome. Most of all, he is concerned to depict one world, or, more accurately, one world in the making, as the activities of a handful of sailors and soldiers, merchants and missionaries, begin to bind its different parts together. This is the world in embryo whose lineaments are already to be discerned in the great Lisbon exhibition on the Renaissance and discovery. No more appropriate symbol could be found for it than an exquisite object on display in the Hieronymite monastery: a porcelain jug bearing the Manueline device of an armillary sphere, manufactured in Ming China for a Portuguese clientele.

  1. *

    The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia’s History (Melbourne: Sun Books, 1966; new edition, Macmillan, 1982).

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