Lost Tribes and Promised Lands: The Origins of American Racism
The Church Militant and Iberian Expansion, 1440-1770
The search for the origins of modern racism—the word but not the reality is a twentieth-century invention—has a way of leading back sooner or later to the sixteenth century. Understandably so, since this was the first great age of European overseas empire, and imperialism and racism have come to seem inextricably conjoined. Where better, then, to look than to Spain and Portugal, as the pioneer colonial powers of the modern world? Professor Charles Boxer, in his brief but invigorating volume on The Church Militant and Iberian Expansion, remarks that “attitudes and convictions formed as the Iberian mariners, missionaries, merchants, and men-at-arms spread around the globe lasted for centuries, and are still with us in varying degrees.” The twentieth-century Westerner who examines the words and works of those Iberian pioneers glimpses, as in a murky mirror, the forms and lineaments of a too familiar world.
It is the realization of this that inspired Ronald Sanders’s personal odyssey back across the Atlantic to the fifteenth-century Mediterranean. His Lost Tribes and Promised Lands is a highly ambitious book, as its subtitle, “The Origins of American Racism,” immediately makes clear. Here is nothing less than an attempt to trace the development of racial attitudes in the New World of America from the age of Columbus to that of Captain John Smith. This demands an extensive knowledge of the colonial records and activities of the Spaniards and the Portuguese, the English and the French, and Mr. Sanders has a first-hand acquaintance with a range of printed sources that would put most professional historians (except Professor Boxer, who has read everything) to shame. It is also obvious that what he calls his “homework” has given him great enjoyment, much of which immediately communicates itself to his reader. If his book is often disconcerting and sometimes exasperating, it is also richly textured and consistently alive. But Mr. Sanders never quite seems to have decided whether he wants to tell a story or to argue a case.
Much of his book is in fact taken up with descriptions of episodes in the early history of Europe’s overseas expansion which have come to be regarded as standard fare: the search for Prester John; the story of Columbus; Las Casas’s defense of the Indians; the story of the black slave Estevanico (but was he really black?) and the search for the seven cities of Cibola; the tragic history of the Roanoke colony; John Smith and Pocahontas. These stories are graphically told and provide the material for an often perceptive commentary, but they contribute to the impression of a discursive and essentially episodic book, an impression which is further reinforced by the inclusion of two brief literary “interludes” on the Celestina and Shakespeare. The resulting sense of diffuseness in the book’s form is compounded by the rather tenuous character of its central argument.
Throughout his episodes Mr. Sanders is concerned to illuminate the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.