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¡Adiós Columbus!

The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World

by Carlos Fuentes
Houghton Mifflin, 399 pp., $35.00

New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery

by Anthony Grafton, with April Shelford, by Nancy Siraisi
Harvard University Press (Belknap Press), 282 pp., $29.95

The Times Atlas of World Exploration: 3,000 Years of Exploring, Explorers, and Mapmaking

edited by Felipe Fernández-Armesto
HarperCollins, 286 pp., $75.00

Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900

by Alfred Crosby
Cambridge University Press, 368 pp., $13.95 (paper)

The Early Spanish Main

by Carl Ortwin Sauer, foreword by Anthony Pagden
University of California Press, 306 pp., $16.00 (paper)

The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus

by Irving Rouse
Yale University Press, 211 pp., $25.00

Disease and Demography in the Americas

edited by John W. Verano, edited by Douglas H. Ubelaker
Smithsonian Institution Press, 294 pp., $62.00

Letters from a New World: Amerigo Vespucci’s Discovery of America

edited by Luciano Formisano, foreword by Garry Wills, translated by David Jacobson
Marsilio, 214 pp., $24.00

Portugal and the Discovery of America: Christopher Columbus and the Portuguese

by Alfredo Pinheiro Marques
Portuguese State Mint, 135 pp.

L’expansion Portugaise dans la littérature latine de la renaissance

by Luis de Matos
Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, 671 pp., 70,000 escudos

Isabel The Queen: Life and Times

by Peggy K. Liss
Oxford University Press, 398 pp., $30.00

The Portuguese Empire in Asia 1500–1700: A Political and Economic History

by Sanjay Subrahmanyam
Longman, 324 pp., $13.25 (paper)


Columbus was mugged on the way to his own party. The American quincentennial year drew to a close with barely a mention of the Admiral of the Ocean Sea and would-be “Viceroy of India.” Even the advertising agencies found him too hot a potato (the potato of course being one of Europe’s more useful American acquisitions resulting from Spain’s conquests in the New World). By October Columbus had become what advertisers dislike most, especially when they are promoting department store sales on family holidays: he had become controversial.

Kirkpatrick Sale made a preemptive strike against Columbus as a destructive colonizer in The Conquest of Paradise (1990), and in spite of criticism of Sale for tendentiousness, the wave of subsequent publications could not erase the initial tone he had set. The great birthday therefore passed with barely a murmur of national celebration. Two multimillion-dollar movies about Columbus came and went, largely unattended. Carlos Fuentes presented several hours of televised historical travelogue in Europe and the Americas, ending predictably at the US-Mexican border, where he asserted (at least culturally speaking) Mexico’s claim to the lost northern territories, an irredentism President Salinas must have found singularly illtimed as the debate over NAFTA heated up.

Fuentes’s book The Buried Mirror, like much of its bibliography, in fact appears firmly stuck in the 1960s. His presence seemed intrusive in the otherwise well-filmed and constructed television series with the same title, which would have been much better had it made more use of the originator of the idea, Peggy Liss, a distinguished historian of Spain and Spanish America and author of an excellent new biography of Columbus’s sponsor, Queen Isabella. Fuentes, never one to use two words if more will do, throws in virtually every stereotype of hispanidade propaganda (Bulls, Virgins, Tangos, Gauchos, Don Quixote) while adding little that is distinctive of his own. Latin America, mired in disaster, is somehow to be “rescued by culture.” His book looks attractive, as do parts of the television series in which he appeared, and we are given good views of the crossing of the Andes by San Martín, of the Baroque churches of Mexico and Peru, and of paintings by Velázquez and Goya. Such skillful and expensive packaging is not an uncommon characteristic of the quincentennial year, where the wine is often less impressive than its container.

The Spanish government had earlier set store by the quincentennial (and had subsidized the Fuentes undertaking along with the many other projects, books, and exhibitions in the quincentennial cause); but it virtually banished Columbus’s name from the great Seville exposition as soon as the organizers began to realize that Spain risked alienating Jews, Muslims, and much of Latin America by too direct a celebration of Columbus’s accomplishments. As for the Pope, in arranging his long-planned visit to Hispaniola in commemoration of the evangelization of the New World, some last-minute rescheduling was needed so that he might avoid the controversy surrounding the inauguration of the giant “lighthouse” constructed in Columbus’s memory by Santo Domingo’s blind president to illuminate the evening sky with an ethereal cross.

What remains of this curious, diverse, and singularly unenlightening year? The most curious thing about the mountain of books the quincentennial has produced is how little they tell us about the significance of what Columbus did in his own time, and how little they reflect the rich scholarship on Latin America of the past two decades. Some of the better books published during the quincentennial year, like Anthony Grafton’s New Worlds, Ancient Texts, deal more with the intellectual imagining of America than with its social reality. Grafton’s book has in fact a much broader scope than its quincentennial timing would imply, and Columbus himself is disposed of in a few brief if instructive pages.

Grafton’s intention is to look at the long, convoluted, and contradictory process by which European scholars absorbed and dealt with the experiences forced on them by the existence of a New World unforeseen in the intellectual tradition they had inherited. “Ancient texts did rise like revenants around them,” Professor Grafton writes in his epilogue,

paradoxically providing the language and images that enabled them to explain away a fact unknown to the classical writers they revered. A potentially revolutionary discovery was given a noble name, a biblical pedigree, a place in existing geographies and ethnographies; much of its sting was thus removed.

Grafton follows the revisionist argument of J.H. Elliott’s brilliant book The Old World and the New (1970) that the European discovery of the New World had very little impact on European thought (or at least much less impact than had been claimed by the Enlightenment). This is all very well so far as it goes, but unlike Elliott, who never lost sight of the wider world, Grafton takes a view that at times seems antiquarian, and tells us very little about the real consequences for most people outside the print shop or the academic cloister of Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean. Grafton says little about the establishment of European hegemony over large parts of the globe, which was the most lasting result of Columbus’s stumbling into the New World in 1492; and he gives no clear sense of the broader movement of the European overseas expansion, of which the Columbus voyages were part. Visitors to this autumn’s New York Public Library exhibition which was the occasion for Grafton’s book will hardly appreciate the vast shaking up of the world that occurred as a result of the voyage of 1492, with consequences that deeply affect the life of New York City today.


A major point that was largely ignored in 1992, although it has been demonstrated by a quarter century of historical research, is that the European discovery of America in 1492 was not an isolated event. This is very well demonstrated in the excellent Times Atlas of World Exploration, edited by a group of scholars under the direction of Felipe Fernández-Armesto. The voyage of Christopher Columbus was in many respects an offshoot of an oceanic system of commerce and navigation which preceded and outlived the epoch of Columbus; and the speed and success with which Spanish rule was imposed in the Caribbean and later on the mainland are in large part explained by this broader process.

It was the great innovation of the fifteenth-century mariners and entrepreneurs, among whom the Portuguese were the most precocious, to learn how the winds and currents of the Atlantic Ocean could be used to make travel among the continents possible. They perfected navigational instruments, in particular the astrolabe and the quadrant, which enabled them to take accurate readings on the celestial bodies in order to find their latitude when on the high seas.

The Portuguese also made their audacious Atlantic explorations a profitable enterprise. As with all great revolutions the discovery of how the ocean could be conquered by sail was a revolution of perception: the recognition of patterns of nature which before had been only imperfectly comprehended. For centuries European sailors had seen only the edges of an oceanic world; in a mere two decades, they were able to discern its totality. Hence, quite suddenly and with spectacular consequences, the Atlantic Ocean, which for millennia had been the great divider between continents, became the means of intercontinental contact, the pathway to new continents in the West and to empires in the East.

The Atlantic commercial system evolved around two intersecting ellipses of seaborne communications, one in the North Atlantic and the other in the South Atlantic. The trajectory of each was governed by the prevailing winds and ocean currents. These two Atlantic ellipses could finally be traced and mastered because of the collective experience gained from the voyages of oceanic exploration. Bartolomeu Dias in 1488, encountering contrary winds and currents on the southwest African coast, had swung out in a wide circle to round the Cape of Good Hope, thus demonstrating the possibility of sailing from the Atlantic into the Indian Ocean. By reaching the greater Antilles in 1492, Christopher Columbus showed the outbound and the inbound route between America and Europe.

Five years later, Vasco da Gama, leaving Portugal in 1497, was the first to trace the wide arc of wind systems of the South Atlantic (he was ninety-three days out of sight of land compared to the thirty-three days of Columbus), thereby making it possible to sail into the Indian Ocean, where he was able to draw upon Arab navigational experience to reach Calicut in 1498, and return to Lisbon in 1499. The elliptical routes, and hence the trajectory of all subsequent wind power navigation, were discovered during a remarkably short period between 1492 and 1500.

Skillful navigation meant very little in itself. The North Atlantic had been crossed before 1492 by the Vikings, who had established colonies in Iceland and Greenland. In the early fourteenth century, merchant adventurers from Barcelona had gone at least as far as the Canary Islands. These achievements, however, had little long-term effect. What mattered was the ability to take advantage of the opportunities oceanic exploration opened up and to sustain them within a network of commerce and regular communications.

The second great achievement of the fifteenth century was to make sailing on the Atlantic routes profitable for many years to come.1 The first steps, again, had been taken by the Portuguese when they established the maritime connection between Europe and the West African coast. Their principal aim had been to tap the supply of African gold which had previously reached Europe by means of the camel caravans that provided a trans-Sahara trade connection between West Africa and the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Beginning in 1443, the Portuguese broke the monopoly of the Saharan land route and established a string of trading posts (their so-called feitorias) along the West African coast, at Argium, then Sierra Leone, Cantor, and eventually, in 1482, at the great fort of São Jorge da Mina on the Gold Coast.

By outflanking the long established Arabic trans-Saharan trade connections between Guinea and North Africa the Portuguese succeeded in capturing a part of the landborne commerce of West Africa for the new European-dominated sea route. The caravel—a fast, small ship adapted by the Portuguese from the Arab and Mediterranean vessels and used for voyages to West Africa—effectively competed with camel caravans. The Portuguese exchanged cloth, carpets, silks, brassware, and trinkets for gold, slaves, and “grains of paradise” (malaguetta pepper), sometimes through intermediaries or by direct bargaining at the fairs in the West African interior. Portuguese domination of the African coast, such as it was, remained essentially commercial. They never became involved directly in West African gold mining. All this is clearly and beautifully laid out in the Times Atlas of World Exploration.

With a prosperous seagoing link established between West Africa and Lisbon, control of the offshore archipelagoes, of the Canary Islands, of Madeira and the Azores, became the next and inevitable order of business. Incorporating these Atlantic islands into the expanding network of commerce, initially as sources of water and supplies, coincided with the establishment of the seaborne routes between West Africa and Europe. But the islands soon produced valuable return cargoes in their own right. The settlement by Portugal of the uninhabited archipelagoes of Madeira (1420–1425) and the Azores (1427–1439), and the gradual decimation and enslavement by Spain of the Guanches—settlers probably of Berber origin—who inhabited the Canaries (1483–1500), were followed by the introduction into the islands, by the early European settlers, of sugar cane from the Mediterranean.

  1. 1

    Fundamental to the reinterpretation of early Atlantic history are the three great works by Pierre Chaunu, Vitorino Magalhães-Godinho, and Frédéric Mauro; Pierre Chaunu, Séville et l’Atlantique, 1504–1650, twelve volumes (Paris: SEVPEN, 1959); Vitorino Magalhães-Godinho, L’économie de l’empire Portugais aux XVième et XVIième siècles (Paris: SEVPEN, 1969); and Frédéric Mauro, Le Portugal et l’Atlantique au XVIIième siècle, 1570–1620 (Paris: SEVPEN, 1960).

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