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.

The sugar cane from the Atlantic islands soon found ready markets from the Baltic to the Italian port cities, and the wide distribution of Atlantic island sugar in Europe dramatically brought down its price. Sugar consumption was also apparently stimulated, for sugar cane production expanded quickly in the Cape Verde archipelago, and later, by 1490, to the islands of São Tomé e Príncipe in the gulf of Guinea off the African coast. The tropical soils and climate of São Tomé e Príncipe in particular provided an ideal environment. African slave labor was soon imported from the nearby mainland.2

The experience in Madeira, Porto Santo, and the Canaries was important for other reasons. As Professor Alfred Crosby has shown in several original and fascinating books, particularly Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900, the Europeans tried to make use of the landscape, flora, and fauna. Bartolomeu Perestrello, future father-in-law of Columbus, set loose a female rabbit and her offspring in Porto Santo, the latter born on the voyage from Europe. The rabbits reproduced so rapidly as to “overspread the land, so that our men could sow nothing that was not destroyed by them.” The settlers in fact were forced to retreat to the larger island of Madeira nearby. They returned, but rabbits remained a problem for crop growers, not to mention for the indigenous plants and animals.

Madeira and Porto Santo had been previously uninhabited by human beings. The Canaries had not; and as Professor Crosby demonstrates, the fate of the Guanches there also prefigured later experience. In particular, the Europeans brought with them “their extended family of plants, animals, and microlife,” as Crosby puts it. He observes, “Very few experiences are as dangerous to a people’s survival as the passage from isolation to membership in the worldwide community that included European sailors, soldiers, and settlers”—carriers of parasites and pathogens to which isolated people would be susceptible. The experiences of the Atlantic islands thus taught two lessons: that Europeans, and their plants and animals, could do quite well in new lands; and the indigenous population, though numerous and brave, could be conquered, and could indeed disappear, to be replaced by laborers imported from Europe and Africa.

The evolving Atlantic commercial and maritime complex was also linked to a broader network.3 The Portuguese, by developing the seaborne route between Europe and West Africa, were establishing new connections between known sources of supply for products such as sugar and existing markets.

Lisbon and Seville both benefitted from the new oceanic commerce and seaborne traffic. These ancient Atlantic port cities possessed long-standing trading connections with the Muslim world, especially in North Africa, and their traders had long been aware of the existence of West African spices and gold. Their ports were favorably placed geographically for the mariners using them to take advantage of the currents and winds for the run to the Canary Islands, Madeira, and the African coast. Both Lisbon and Seville were situated at the edge of fertile valleys, rich in olives, vines, and fruit, with access to nearby salt pans, vital for the preservation of meat and fish.

But, above all, Lisbon and Seville had attracted large colonies of Italian traders who used both ports as way stations in their commercial dealings in the Iberian peninsula and as ports of call for their shipping between the Eastern Mediterranean and northwestern Europe. Genoese merchants, in particular, contributed their commercial sophistication. They were skilled at bills of exchange and credit, and knew how to raise large amounts of capital needed to deal with the risks and delays of long-range oceanic commerce.

Between 1450 and 1500 the number of Genoese in Seville almost doubled. Great Italian merchant-banking families originally from Genoa, such as the Spinoli, Grimaldi, and Centurioni, acted as contractors supplying naval stores or, often, as dealers in regional agricultural products and imported grain; they at once became involved in the new Atlantic Ocean trades. In Lisbon, a major port of call for Genoese and Venetian galleys en route for England and Flanders, Italian merchants such as Lomellini, Affaitati, Giraldi, and Marchione were bankers and moneylenders to the court and its envoys; they too invested in the new Atlantic island sugar production and in the slave trade. In association with the great south German bankers, the Welsers and Fuggers, these experienced Italian entrepreneurs supplied, through Antwerp, German silver and copper in return for olive oil, wine, fruit, Setúbal salt, and African spices and gold.

Thus when within a very few years of one another Bartolomeu Dias reached the Indian Ocean (1488), Christopher Columbus reached the Antilles (1492), and Vasco da Gama arrived on the coast of India (1498), they did so against the background of a preexisting and thriving system of Atlantic commerce based on sugar, slaves, and gold, and firmly supported by a strong if largely informal partnership between the Spaniards and Portuguese who contributed their political and navigational skills, and the foremost Italian and German bankers and merchants who were able to raise capital and sell the goods throughout Europe. Oceanic expansion at the end of the fifteenth century therefore succeeded largely because Spanish and Portuguese oceanic commerce could feed into a receptive network of European commerce; the two combined to stimulate and underwrite further expansion.

Once the Portuguese established trade with India after 1498, they also found it profitable to pay for Asian spices with silver, which was valued more highly in India than in Europe. In consequence, traders in south German silver found Lisbon an even more attractive market. The south German capitalists who controlled the production of Central European and Hungarian precious metals took advantage of the possibilities for commercial and financial expansion in the new overseas enterprises. The Imhoff merchant banking family of Nüremberg doubled their profits between 1503 and 1508 while taking part in the Asian spice trade. The Fuggers and Welsers from Augsburg invested heavily in the Portuguese Indian fleet of 1505 among other ventures. The vast fortunes of the participating merchant capitalists had other consequences, for example loans to states; the dramatic expansion of commerce and the money market made Antwerp an important source for short-term loans used by both Spain and Portugal to support their expensive courts and pay for their even more costly wars.

Christopher Columbus himself was a very typical product of this early Atlantic commercial system. Genoese by birth and an experienced seaman, he had worked as an agent for the Centurioni firm, which did business in Spain and Portugal. Linked to the sugar interests of Madeira by his first wife, he had also traded along the Guinea coast (c. 1482–1485) and gained much practical knowledge of Portuguese navigation and especially the Atlantic wind system in the Portuguese-controlled Atlantic archipelagoes. The vessels for his transatlantic crossing (like those of Vasco da Gama for his Indian voyage) were filled with the cheap trinkets, beads, and brass utensils used by the Portuguese in their West African trade. Recent research shows that the approximately 1,300 Spanish ducats which Columbus contributed to the venture (the Catholic monarchs contributed about 3,000 ducats) were borrowed from Italian merchants, especially the Florentine Juanoto Berardi, a slave trader since 1486 who remained a close associate of Columbus until his death in 1495. The instinctive reaction of Columbus to the economic possibilities of the Caribbean was conditioned by his previous experience. His obsession with gold and slaves was not a personal foible; it was built into the system of which he had long been a part.


But if recent scholarship has helped to explain the setting within which Columbus made his voyages, the second great contribution of the past two decades has been to explain why Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean had effects throughout the world. The European intrusion into the fringe of the New World in 1492 had a devastating impact on the indigenous inhabitants quite unlike that arising from the simultaneous contacts between Europeans and the populations of Africa and Asia. The Caribbean experience, moreover, was to prefigure the widespread death that took place elsewhere in the Americas—most especially in the lowland tropical and sub-tropical regions, but also in the highlands. Why did this happen?

The early relations of Spaniards and native populations in the Caribbean were dominated by the Spanish desire to extract gold. Unlike the Portuguese in Africa, whose gold trade depended on African intermediaries, Columbus and his agents and successors found shallow gold deposits on several of the islands. To work the placer mines of Cibao and San Cristóbal in Hispaniola, and later the gold-rich streams of Puerto Rico (1508), the Isthmus of Panama (1509), and the arroyos of the central mountains of Cuba (1511), the Spaniards organized large gangs of Amerindians. To secure European domination over the Caribbean populations and thus obtain the labor needed to exploit the gold deposits, they quickly asserted direct control over the Indians’ lives.

By contrast, in Africa and Asia the European intruders rarely were able to establish direct administration over the local population beyond a few fortified enclaves. The methods used to draft labor in the Caribbean varied and passed from the loose per capita tribute system devised by Columbus himself and administered through the local Amerindian chieftains (caciques) to a period when Indian communities were given over to individual Spaniards by Adelantado Bartolomeu Columbus, and then to the more systematic mobilizing of labor imposed by the Governor Nicolás de Ovando (1502–1509). Governor Ovando linked the use of Indian labor (encomiendas) to the building of an economic base for the new towns (villas) he intended to settle with Europeans; he wanted to provide a source of income for their European residents (vecinos), who would either hire out the Indians for use in the gold mines or directly exploit the Indian labor themselves. The governor added an incentive to gold mining by lowering the share of the gold demanded by the Crown from one half to one fifth. Nicolás de Ovando also acted with great brutality. Soon after his arrival, the Higüey Indians rebelled to avenge the killing of one of their chiefs by a Spanish attack dog. Irving Rouse describes the consequences:

Ovando rounded up six or seven hundred of them, put them in a chief’s bohío, or house, and had them knifed to death. He then ordered the bodies to be dragged into the adjoining plaza and publicly counted. In the fall of 1503 he paid another formal visit to Xaraguá, where he was well received by Chief Anacaona, whose brother Behecchío had died. She convened a meeting of some eighty district chiefs in her bohio, whereupon Ovando ordered his soldiers to block the door and burn them alive. Anacaona herself was hanged in deference to her rank.

Carl Sauer’s brilliant pioneering book on the early Spanish Main, originally published in 1966, and reissued for the quincentennial, as well as the work of the recent generation of demographic historians, showed that at the time of the arrival of Columbus in 1492, the island of Hispaniola supported a very substantial native population. There is a very heated debate over the numbers, with low estimates in the 100,000 to 200,000 range (Angel Rosenblat) to figures as high as 8 million (Woodrow Borah and Sherburne F. Cook). The consensus seems to point to a figure of over a million while Las Casas’s estimate of three and one half million is within the range of possibility. The various estimates are well summarized in the new edition of William Denevan’s The Native Population of the Americas in 1492, which contains contributions by Woodrow Borah and William Sanders, and others who have revolutionized demographic history. The latest archeological evidence is clearly described in the Smithsonian Institution’s Disease and Demography in the Americas.

The Caribbean islands, unlike Europe, enjoyed a continuous growing season. Indian agriculture, Sauer shows, was highly productive, depending on root crops, which were planted in forest clearings that had been previously burned over and dug up with pointed flattened sticks. The Indians constructed earth mounds, or montones, that were knee-high and several feet wide. This planted area, called a conuco, provided well-aerated soils, and was effective against erosion and could be used on hill slopes; the root crops could be cultivated without greatly diminishing the fertility of the soil. In the montones the Indians planted bitter yuca, the roots of which were grated, drained of their poisonous juices, and baked into starchy unleavened bread (cassava) capable of being stored for long periods without deteriorating. Maize, beans, and squash, planted in the same montones, were grown from seed, and together with the abundant fish, salt, and turtles of the coastal waters provided the diet of the indigenous islanders. Bartolomé de las Casas, who arrived during 1502 with Ovando’s expedition, estimated that twenty men working six hours a day for one month could plant sufficient yuca to provide enough bread for three hundred people for two years.

Irving Rouse’s book, The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus, is a model of clarity and lightly worn erudition, and it contains the best and most straightforward description of the four Columbus voyages and their implications for the Amerindians I have seen. In it Rouse summarizes with great fairness the arguments for and against each position he takes. Columbus had found large, permanent villages of Tainos Indians in Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, each governed by a chief or cacique, and each containing an average of two thousand people. Rouse vividly describes their everyday life. The Spaniards were particularly amazed by their ball games, which they played in specially constructed courts using a bouncing ball made of rubber, whose elasticity the Spaniards had never seen before.

By 1530, however, only thirty-eight years after the arrival of Columbus, the original inhabitants of the islands had been reduced to a mere handful. The ecological base of their existence had been severely disrupted. By the third decade of the sixteenth century the Indians of Jamaica and Puerto Rico were almost extinct, and the Bahamas had none at all. The European incursion into the Caribbean unquestionably had produced a holocaust with few parallels in world history.

The primary cause of the demographic catastrophe that befell the Amerindians of the Caribbean islands was certainly virulent epidemic disease. Isolated as they were, the people of the islands had little capacity for resisting imported diseases, even less so than the people of the Canary Islands when the Spanish had arrived. The introduction of temperate and tropical infections, including, probably, malaria, yellow fever, sleeping sickness, yaws, biharzia, influenza, typhus, smallpox, and plague, brought havoc.

But many of the diseases were no less lethal to Europeans and Africans, and the catastrophe of the islands was compounded by other factors. The pre-Columbian population maintained a fragile equilibrium in an environment peculiarly rich in vegetable products, and without animals who would compete with human beings for food. The Europeans not only introduced disease, they also brought the first livestock, including cattle, horses, pigs, and dogs, all of which increased with phenomenal rapidity. The consequences for the Amerindians were disastrous. Feral hogs rooted up the conucos and disrupted the base of the Indian food supply. A lethal competition for food and land took place between the native population and the newly introduced animals. The European animals won. Indian plantings were replaced by pasture or reverted to forest land. The ecological transformation of the islands, which occurred within little more than half a century, contributed to the deep psychological shock that resulted from the arrival of Europeans. The Amerindians’ physical environment was shattered.

Harsh labor in the gold fields also contributed to the decline of the island population. The crowded and unsanitary conditions of the mining camps encouraged the rapid spread of disease. According to Bartolomé de las Casas, during the labor draft (demora) which lasted from six to eight months, a quarter to one third of the work gangs died. Many of the Indians in the camps suffered from malnutrition; although they were amply supplied with starch in the form of cassava bread, they were unable to acquire the necessary protein and fats, since hunting and fishing were prohibited by the Spaniards, who feared that the Indians would flee. Sauer argues that the indiscriminate use of female workers in effect transformed the low fertility of Indian women into de facto sterility. Certainly the population had little chance of reproducing itself. By 1514, on the royal estates of Santo Domingo, where the working conditions of Indian workers were probably better than elsewhere, there was not even an average of one child to a couple. There was, however, a parallel process taking place: the census of 1514 found 40 percent of the officially recognized wives of the Europeans were Indian.

The equanimity with which most Spaniards accepted the huge loss of Indian lives did not result from mere callousness, though there was plenty of that. Monstrous death rates were a commonplace in Europe. Recovery from the plague, which during the fourteenth century had killed at least 20 percent of the European population, had been painfully slow. Nor were the behavior of the early adventurers and its consequences in devastation and disease unprecedented. Many of the soldiers who went with Pedrarias Dávila to the Isthmus of Panama in 1514 were veterans of recent barbarous military campaigns in Italy, where they ravaged the countryside, causing even the insensitive King Ferdinand of Aragon to complain about their behavior.

The loss of life among the Europeans in the Antilles was staggering as well. Of the 2,500 colonists who arrived with Ovando in Hispaniola in 1502 a thousand died within a short time. Without constant immigration, all the early European settlements in the Americas would have suffered the fate of the settlers who died after Columbus left them at La Navidad on the northern shore of Hispaniola. Continuous immigration to maintain the European population, let alone to achieve growth, was no less essential for the early transatlantic colonies than it was for the urban populations in Europe, where city death rates consistently surpassed birth rates and it was only the inflow of rural immigrants that kept numbers from declining.

Among the few voices raised to protest the extermination of the native population of the Caribbean and the Panamanian isthmus, the Franciscan Antonio de Montesinos (1511), Bartolomé de las Casas (1515), and the Licenciado Alonso Zuazo (1518) often proposed solutions no less destructive than the situation they sought to remedy. The reforming Hieronymite fathers, governors of the Indies between 1518 and 1519, attempted to preserve the remaining population by establishing pueblos (villages) of four hundred to five hundred people, each with its own plantings and livestock, only to find the newly concentrated Indians were immediately infected with smallpox. It was fortunate for Europe that the New World did not export virulent epidemics to Africa and Europe. The origin of syphilis, long claimed to be a New World importation into Europe, is still unclear. Grafton’s book provides a lengthy description of the reaction to morbus gallicus in sixteenth-century Europe, but next to nothing about the demographic collapse of the populations Columbus called “Indians.”


The ravages of disease in the Americas, especially in the Caribbean islands and the lowland zones of the mainland, had a very direct, rapid, and permanent impact on the history of three continents. Catastrophe for some, as always, brought profit and opportunities for others. The elimination of the Caribbean island Indians left some of the best agricultural land in the tropics without workers to farm it. Columbus had envisioned a profitable slave trade in American Indians to supply “Castile, Portugal, Aragon, Italy, Sicily, the islands of Portugal and Aragon, and the Canaries.” And as early as 1495 a cargo of five hundred Indians had been sent to Seville. The extermination of the Indians in the Antilles put an end to this prospect. Local entrepreneurs seeking replacements for the diminishing supply of local laborers raided other Caribbean islands for Indian slaves and then captured the Indians who lived on the South American coast. But the supply of labor soon proved insufficient to meet the demands, even on the island of Hispaniola. By 1524 there were more slaves than Tainos, and by 1540 the former had almost completely replaced the latter.

The suggestion of a different source of labor came ironically from the “protectors” of the Indians. Both the Licenciado Zuazo and Las Casas suggested that African slaves could be substituted for Indian labor, and, except for the temporary suspension of the African slave trade by Cardinal Regent Cisneros between 1516 and 1518, enslaved Africans were imported to help exploit the economic potentialities of the New World from the beginning of the sixteenth century onward.

The expanding demand for African slaves coincided with a significant shift of Portuguese interests in Africa. By the end of the first decade of the sixteenth century, the village of Mpinda at the mouth of the Congo River had developed into a major slave port, initially for the dispatch of slaves to Lisbon and the Algarve.4 Mpinda also exported slaves to São Tomé. By the 1530s some 4,000 to 5,000 slaves per year were exported from the Congo, and as the decade progressed an increasing number of slaves were also obtained from the region near the mouth of the Kwanza in Angola.5 By 1550, Lisbon had a slave population of almost 10,000, out of a total urban population of 100,000.

Philip Curtin estimated that during the sixteenth century some 50,000 enslaved Africans were sent to Europe, some 25,000 to the Atlantic Islands of Cape Verde, Madeira, and the Canaries, and 100,000 to São Tomé.6 As in the Portuguese-controlled islands in the Gulf of Guinea the African slaves were shipped in mainly to work in sugar cane fields. (The gold of Cibao and San Cristóbal in Hispaniola had given out within twenty-five years and that of Cuba and Puerto Rico in half that time.) Island-based entrepreneurs, among them lawyers, military functionaries, and agents of the great Italian merchant families of Seville, turned quickly to sugar production. By 1528 there were some twenty water-powered mills (ingenios) on Hispaniola, mostly near the town of Santo Domingo, and in 1520 a Genoese-financed mill was producing commercial sugar in Puerto Rico.

It may seem illogical today that labor should have been transported across the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas rather than used locally, and that plantation economies did not arise in West Africa, which was apparently closer to European markets.7 But linear distances in the sixteenth century bore little relation to distances as measured by time and difficulties of transport. The route from West Africa to Europe was, so far as the time and difficulty of travel were concerned, no shorter than from the Antilles. Ships from West Africa were obliged to sail near the equator, catch the southeast trade winds and westerly current and consequently join, at the Azores, the same route as ships inbound from North and South America. In fact for a sailing ship the coast of South America below the equator was often nearer to Europe in sailing time than the coast of Africa.

In addition, the diseases of West Africa caused intolerable losses of European lives, and made permanent settlement hazardous. Even in the early nineteenth century the death rates for British troops on the Gold Coast ran as high as 668 per thousand each year. The tsetse fly prevented draft animals and livestock from surviving in the West African tropical forest zones. The West African coast, moreover, lacked safe anchorage except near the mouth of the Niger River, which was dominated by Benin, the most formidable of the West African states. Ships sailing on the West African grain and ivory coasts had to anchor in open roadsteads, with little protection against the wind. Hence in Africa, the threat of disease worked in favor of the native inhabitants and against the outsiders.

In the Caribbean islands as in the Canaries, the opposite was the case, and the demographic collapse of the local population of Taino Indians opened up land for the taking. Tainos ironically played a great role in the distribution of food to tropical zones in the eastern hemisphere. Slave traders carried the Tainos’ principal crop, cassava, to sub-Saharan Africa. And they also contributed many products to what Professor Crosby has defined as the “Columbian exchange,” including the sweet potato, bean, squash, and peanut, fruits such as guava, mamey, and pineapple, and rubber and tobacco.

The rise of sugar production and the slave trade in the islands of the greater Antilles (Hispaniola, Cuba, Puerto Rico) placed them, together with the Canary Islands, Madeira, Cape Verde, and São Tomé, firmly within a new commercial system stretching from the African Coast to the Atlantic. Economic organization throughout these various archipelagoes, despite different chronologies of development, was remarkably similar. Almost always the distribution and marketing of sugar were in the hands of the Italians, who also predominated as slave traders, often working through Portuguese subcontractors. Production, on the other hand, was invariably controlled by Spanish and Portuguese settlers, sometimes on a small scale, as in Madeira. Often non-Iberian capital financed the sugar mills, which required substantial investment in machinery and tools. Transfer of expertise and skilled workers between sugar producing regions was common, from Sicily to Madeira, for example, or from the Canaries to Hispaniola.

The sugar technician was, in fact, among the more mobile and successful artisans of this early Atlantic world, and was capable of accumulating capital on his own behalf, for he received in most cases a percentage (often one tenth) of the sugar processed under his supervision. Sugar made an ideal freight. In the Canary Islands, in the period between 1508–1510, its value per pound was four to five times as much as the same quantity of wheat. Freight costs were relatively low, some 4 to 6 percent of market value as compared to 12 percent for wheat. It was therefore possible to transport sugar advantageously across the Atlantic to a profitable market in Europe. 8

The connection between the sugar trade and the slave trade was a direct one, and it turned out to be a compact of death. Most of the slaves sent to Hispaniola between 1530 and 1540 by Vazquez, Forne and Vivaldo, a Genoese company in Seville, were exchanged for sugar. Slaves, purchased in Africa with European barter goods of low intrinsic value, fetched high prices in the markets of the New World, where the price of African slaves in Hispaniola rose from forty-five ducats to one hundred between 1528 and 1556. Human beings shipped as a commodity provided the slave traders with a cargo of high value in relation to the space they took up. Slaves once landed were highly perishable, and required constant replacement, since they failed to reproduce themselves owing to the rigors of plantation labor, the low proportion of women imported, and the lack of incentive to procreate in conditions of forced labor and captivity. The more prosperous the sugar trade became, the higher were the death rates of slaves and the lower the proportion of women imported. Just as lands had been made available for sugar production in the first place by the extermination of the original inhabitants, the death rate of the imported labor force helped to guarantee the continuance of the slave trade, especially during the early years.

The planter did not have a strong incentive to encourage reproduction among slaves, for the return on investment of slaves was relatively rapid (between two years and thirty months, the period also required to recoup the purchase price of work animals such as oxen). The same capitalists who financed the slave trade would also sell the sugar produced on the islands, and insure the ships at staggering rates (under the terms of sea loans the merchant bankers accepted the risk of safe arrival of 80 to 90 percent of ships and 56 to 60 percent of the slaves on board); they would also sell to the new colonies most of the basic foodstuffs, clothing, and domestic animals they needed. The main profits of the early years in fact seem to have accrued more to the large foreign bankers than the Spanish or Portuguese shipowners and settlers.

The incorporation of Hispaniola into the Afro-Atlantic system was of great importance for the future development of the Caribbean and of many of the lowland coastal regions of the Americas. In their broad outlines the patterns established in the early years were to be repeated elsewhere. First, there was the headlong greed in the unscrupulous search for precious metals. Then the collapse of the indigenous population. Then the exhaustion of the mineral wealth and the introduction of cash crops worked by slave labor imported from Africa. For three and one half centuries the experience of the first thirty years was reproduced, and the resulting patterns of ethnic composition, economic possibilities, and social structure, and deeply rooted attitudes of resentment and resignation made the Americas what they are today. Here indeed was the “shock of discovery” to use the title of Anthony Grafton’s book, although the educated Europeans whose works he analyzes remained more concerned with classical and Renaissance literature and cosmology. But it should be kept in mind that they often did so while drinking their American-produced coffee, smoking American-produced tobacco, and binding their texts between American leather hides, and enjoying the leisure that the dividends from overseas investments made possible.

V.S. Naipaul’s comment in The Mimic Men almost a quarter of a century ago still holds:

It was my hope to give expression to the restlessness, the deep disorder, which the great explorations, the overthrow in three continents of established social organizations, the unnatural bringing together of peoples who could achieve fulfillment only within the security of their societies and the partial expression to the restlessness which this great upheaval has brought about. The empires of our time were short-lived but they have altered the world forever; their passing away is their least significant feature. It was my hope to sketch a subject which, fifty years hence, a great historian might pursue. For there is no such thing as history nowadays; there are only manifestoes and antiquarian research; and on the subject of empire there is only the pamphleteering of churls.

The outpourings during the quincentennial year have only demonstrated once again how right Naipaul was, and how the task he sketched out remains to be done.


Strangely missing among the books provoked by the quincentenary of the first Columbian voyage is adequate recognition of the importance of Spain’s main competitors, the Portuguese. In this respect their absence from Professor Grafton’s book is striking and means he does not discuss the experience of the first Europeans, mainly Portuguese, to explore around the African coastline from Cape Verde in the west to the mouth of the Red Sea in the east; and he does not describe how the Portuguese linked the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean through a maritime route and mapped virtually the whole coastline of Asia, including Japan. No Portuguese book is discussed or even listed in Grafton’s work—which is something like writing about the space age while ignoring the American space program. Luis de Matos’s encyclopedic discussion of the impact of the Portuguese on Renaissance literature at least deserved some notice here.

Few of this year’s historians seem to realize that while the Portuguese won the race to the East, Columbus lost it—even if he was never to admit to the fact; and the more bizarre and desperate his claims to have done so, the more recourse he had to the biblical and phantasmagorical allusions scholars like Professor Grafton take as confirming their arguments that surprisingly little had changed in the thinking of Europeans about the rest of the world.

Curiously, the only mention of Portugal in New Worlds, Ancient Texts concerns Prince Henry and the school for the study of geography and navigation that he allegedly established at Sagres in southwest Portugal during the early fifteenth century. The school’s existence has long been dismissed as a nineteenth-century myth but it is a very enduring myth nevertheless. In fact, Professor Charles Boxer, in his notes to the catalog of a 1990 exhibition at the New York Public Library, which is cited by Professor Grafton in his bibliography, succinctly demolished it.9 Younger Portuguese scholars like Professor Alfredo Marques are especially irritated at the myth’s persistence since it ignores a long and subtle process by which knowledge was in fact acquired. Despite the patient work of experts such as the late Professor Luis de Albuquerque, doyen of the Portuguese cartographical historians, the myth was revived by Daniel Boorstin, just when they thought it was finally buried, in The Discoverers; and it is now here once more repeated, which only goes to prove Professor Grafton’s point, I suppose, that “text” outlives “experience.”

There is much to be said for detailed analysis of texts in their own right, certainly by an erudite scholar like Professor Grafton. Valerie Flint’s book The Imaginative Landscape of Christopher Columbus is a good example of how revealing that type of careful exegesis can be. Through a meticulous examination of Columbus’s reading, annotations, and expressed religious beliefs, Professor Flint very skillfully shows us “not the New World Columbus found, but the Old World which he carried with him in his head.”

But not all scholars today have Flint and Grafton’s skills. In fact, most scholars today lack mastery of Greek and Latin and are less well prepared for these tasks than they were a century ago. The curious consequence of the surge of interest in literary analysis in the quincentennial year has been to revive most of Columbus’s most outrageous claims, and by doing so give emphasis to a resilient medievalism that emphasizes the continuities rather than the innovations of his period. Columbus, of course, paid dearly for his misapprehension of the territories he reached. Las Casas later complained bitterly that Amerigo Vespucci had stolen Columbus’s prize. But as Garry Wills points out in his preface to the Vespucci Letters from a New World, “Columbus had named what he had reached—the Indies. It was not a new name because he did not think he had found anything new. And his misnomer stuck.”

One also suspects that a closer examination of the Spanish background might have unraveled some of the enigmas in Columbus’s professions of orthodoxy. As Peggy Liss shows in her readable and comprehensive Isabel The Queen, this was the period in which the Inquisition was converted into a terrifying organ of state power, the Muslim inhabitants of Malaga were conquered, enslaved, and sold, the concept of “purity of blood” was used to humiliate and destroy thousands, homosexuality was declared to be high treason, and the Jews were expelled.

The books of the quincentennial year have also demonstrated how narrow and self-contained much contemporary scholarship, has become. Few of the recent books appreciate how the Portuguese and the Spaniards acted on a great leap of global geographical perception at the turn of the fifteenth century. It was the translation of this new geographical perception of the world into European commercial and military domination and, in the Caribbean and elsewhere, racial hegemony, which set the pattern for the explosive “encounter of civilizations” that the quincentennial used as an incantation but rarely examined.

It is therefore worth recalling that precisely during the long hiatus while the Catholic monarchs sought to confirm Columbus’s claims to have reached Asia, the Portuguese, in fact, reached India, and King Manuel of Portugal (1495–1521) wrote in 1499 to inform his Castilian colleagues of his claims to the “suzerainty and dominion of the navigation, and commerce, of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia, and India.” 10 This was of course hyperbole—but it demonstrated that the Portuguese had done in fact what Columbus claimed to have done—reach Asia by sea. And as Professor Pinheiro Marques argues in Portugal and the Discovery of America, it was no coincidence that Columbus was soon after recalled in chains from his “Indies.”

While Columbus and his travels cannot be fully explained without reference to the evolution of the fifteenth-century Atlantic system, their significance is even less understandable if we do not also take account of the global expansion by Europeans that took place early in the sixteenth century within an extraordinary period of no more than fifteen years, in which the Portuguese reached the Seychelles, Socotra, and the coast of Arabia (1503), Ceylon and the Bay of Bengal (1509). In the Pacific they explored the coast of Southeast Asia and reached China in 1513. Contact with Japan came during the 1540s. And even in the Americas, Portugal claimed Brazil in 1500.

Professor Marques provides an instructive comparison of the first images of the New World by juxtaposing two maps of the world as it was known in the first years of the sixteenth century—the planisphere made by the Spaniard Juan de la Cosa (c. 1501–1506) from the Museu Naval in Madrid, and the anonymous Portuguese planisphere of 1502 known as the Cantino after the Italian agent who smuggled it out of Portugal, and which comes from the Biblioteca Estense in Modena. Here the imprecise contours of the Spanish map stand in striking contrast to the impressive accuracy of Portuguese cartography. And the Portuguese did not intend that the point should be missed. With the famous embassy of Tristão da Cunha to Pope Leo X in 1514 King Manuel planned to dazzle Rome with Portugal’s Asian exploits. Here, as Angela Delaforce describes the spectacle,

a theatrical display of figures dressed in exotic Indian and African costumes, Persian horses and the first living elephant seen there since antiquity was paraded on the streets of the eternal city [and] captured the popular and artistic imagination of Rome.11

The most dramatic result of Portugal’s voyages and the explorations of Bartolomeu Dias, Diego Cão, Vasco da Gama, and Pedro Alvares Cabral was not the territorial empire they tried to claim in Asia and Africa and the Americas. By and large they lacked the resources for imperial dominance and power. What they did do, however, was establish connections: when we talk of relations among China, Japan, or India, or Europe for that matter, we are really talking about contacts established on their peripheries. The seventeenth-century Brazilian historian Father Vicente de Salvador tellingly compared the Portuguese to crabs crawling along a coastline. And if this was true of Brazil until well into the eighteenth century, it was even more true of China or of Japan.

With this first period of oceanic contacts an entirely new way of viewing the world emerged and the Portuguese were in large part responsible for it. They established an oceanic dominion that linked strategically placed trading posts in a worldwide imperial system.

In accomplishing this, the rapid evolution of Portuguese cartography during this period was particularly important; a new graphic conception of global space gave the Portuguese, and later Europe, a decided advantage. It permitted, for instance, a very rapid conversion of navigational knowledge to strategic and commercial (one might say proto-imperial) advantage. The political and economic aspects of the Portuguese intrusion into Asia and the subsequent vicissitudes of their presence there are well captured in Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s fascinating The Portuguese Empire in Asia. Synthesizing a generation of research, his book is an indispensable starting point for comprehending the Portuguese exploits both in Asia and Europe. He casts new light, for example, on the ways in which the Portuguese, by opening the oceanic routes, displaced the Venetians in importing spices, especially pepper, into Europe.

All the Portuguese outposts established while the Spaniards remained largely confined to the Caribbean were located at key strategic connections between seas and oceans, the key passageways for trade and naval control, for example, Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, Mombasa and Mozambique at the Malagasy Strait, Malacca for the passage between the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea, the Azores on the sea routes back from the North and South Atlantic to Europe, Macao at the mouth of the Pearl River in China, and Cape Verde, which could monitor movements across the Atlantic to the African coast. These places are still identified by naval strategists as “choke points.” Their importance for control of navigation had been known, of course, to those who had used them for centuries before the Portuguese arrived, but they had never before been seen as affecting movements across the globe.

With extraordinary rapidity at the beginning of the sixteenth century the Portuguese turned their geographical knowledge into a global system. Only at the mouth of the Red Sea, when they attempted to seize and hold Aden, did they fail. What is surprising in view of this record is how long it took Spaniards to reach Mexico, almost thirty years after Columbus’s landfall in 1492. It was after all not until 1513 that Balboa crossed the isthmus of Panama to see the Pacific Ocean. And the first circumnavigation of the globe (which achieved of course what Columbus had wanted to do—sail west to arrive in the east) was made possible when Fernão de Magalhães (Ferdinand Magellan), a Portuguese navigator in the service of the Castilian crown, set sail in 1519 to discover the straits that now bear his name and crossed the Pacific to the Philippines, in the same year in fact that Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlán.

The capacity of the Portuguese to see the big picture is one of the more remarkable perceptual innovations of the early sixteenth century. This was a leap of imagination that Columbus, despite his great voyages, singularly failed to make—at least in part because he had deluded himself, as, it seems, he still deludes some historians.

This Issue

January 28, 1993