Passionate History

The Early Spanish Main

by Carl Ortwin Sauer
University of California, 306 pp., $7.50

Geography is a science of space; history is an art of time. If a good geographer happens to be a good historian, he’d better thank nature for the bounty. It happens now and then. Normally, however, it does not. We need not wonder then if this book turns out to be the work of a good geographer who is a bad historian. Professor Sauer, is at his best in the passages of his book in which he moves within the square for which his mind was evidently born: geography, ecology, economy, biology. Within this area of knowledge, he has put together a number of acute, concrete, pertinent observations which will remain as a solid contribution to the geography and therefore to the history of that part of the new world which received the first impact of the discovery.

This first impact is his subject, possibly a unique subject in the history of man, the originally and the novelty of which remain to this day, so to speak, engraved in that medal-phrase: New World. What nature is this? What society? Who are these people, neither Christian nor Moor? How are we to deal with them? What standards, principles, precedents, are there to go by? Negroes can be turned into slaves—everybody does it—but can one turn these new people into slaves? And if we must keep to principles and precedents, shall we be able to do so, to preserve our self-control and discipline here in the wilderness, away from Pope and Emperor? Wealth for the body or conversion for the soul? Fiends, monsters, slaves, or brothers? A free-for-all or a State-controlled Christian society transplanted from Spain? Gold, land, food, or souls? More conquests further afield? Who is to command? Who is to obey? All these questions, problems, queries of thought, action, rushed at once and mixed up in turmoil on the astounded Spaniards to whom Columbus had suddenly revealed a New World which, for him, however, remained the other end of the old. And the sudden meeting of the two worlds, like the confluence of two mighty rivers, raised such stormy currents that it threatened to drown the wit of the newcomers as well as the very existence of the natives.

IN THUS CHOOSING the first generation of the discovery and conquest for his subject, Professor Sauer revealed an instinct for the most dramatic aspect of history. Yet this instinct seems to have foresaken him as soon as he set to work. The causes of his failure seem to be two-fold: His narrative sense is weak and he exhibits a certain shyness towards what the French describe as idées générales—a shyness the Anglo-Saxons glory in as “empiricism.” He cannot tell a story plainly and clearly, and is apt to produce his characters out of his inkpot as suddenly as in a Punch and Judy show. “Who is this fellow?”—the reader asks. “Never heard of him.” Unperturbed, the author goes on, leaving the reader all the trouble of finding the answers. Characters…

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