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An Ocean of Lost Worlds
The Discovery of Mankind by David Abulafia
© 2013 James LaFond
An appendix to A Sickness of the Heart
When a writer begins ransacking the available literature on his chosen subject, it is often a toilsome process. My most trying time as a researcher must have been the first 165 books I read on boxing. Although I loved the subject, the writing was so rife with sports writing jargon, critical typos [like the wrong name] and just plain sloppy work, it was real grinding work. No matter what subject is the object of research your quest will bring you eventually to university press books, written by academics who must write largely because they put their students to sleep with monotone lectures. So, when I am trudging through the muddy fields of the collective academic mind, and I find a good read, which also advances the discourse, you will read about it here.
The Discovery of Mankind
Atlantic Encounters in the Age of Columbus
David Abulafia, 2008, Yale, New Haven and London, 379 pages, with maps and illustrations
What was the mindset of Renaissance man?
Why did Europeans embark on a craze of exploratory voyages into the unknown?
What must it have been like to discover a lost world?
What must it have been like to be discovered by people conditioned to believe your kind did not exist?
David Abulafia begins his work with a dramatis personae list and a glossary, which is helpful in moving forward with the narrative. The book is organized into four parts:
Part One: Mental Horizons, puts the European mind in perspective and examines the cultural springboard for European expansion. This is an excellent primer on ethics and the state of knowledge in the time of Leonardo and Columbus, with discussions of pivotal yet now obscure thinkers.
Part Two: Eastern Horizons, deals largely with the discovery and colonization of the Canary Islands. For all of those who wonder how a few hundred conquistadors set down among the massive populations of the Americas and began toppling empires, this section holds the key. I remember as a boy wondering briefly about the watering hole of an island known as Gomera, where Columbus, and later all conquistadors, stopped to take on fruit and water and men before the transatlantic crossing.
Abulafia explains in great detail what a nightmare it was for the French, Catalan, Portuguese, Italian and Castilian [and also Moslem] expeditions who attempted to impose their will on the Canary Islanders. It took from 1341 to 1499 [158 years] for the efforts of these combined gunpowder age nations to subjugate the indigenous stone-age islanders. By the time that the conquistadors—with the hired help of the men of Gomera, who acted as human blood hounds—finally crushed the last islanders, they had developed a system, perfected on these rugged islands against big skull-crushing stone-age stick-fighters, for hunting human beings to extinction. Tactics developed for wiping out Moslems were modified, special troops were trained, man-eating dogs were bred, and the whole bloodthirsty menagerie was shipped to the New World in Columbus’ wake.
Part Three: Western Horizons, details the conquest of the Caribbean Islands, something that is usually glossed over in favor of the conquest of the Aztecs and Incas. As with Part Two this section does make a lot of perspective swings back to the European intellectual scene, to examine how this news of never-before dreamed of peoples, and their treatment, was debated and absorbed into the collective imagination and ethos of the time.
Part Four: Southern Horizons, introduces the reader to the tabloid journalist—the Geraldo Rivera of his day—Amerigo Vespucci, a man of dubious exploits and character, who managed to have his name affixed to a third of the world’s land mass. Imagine if you will, a modern infomercial figure from late night TV hitching a ride on a spacecraft which discovers two additional habitable planets that our astronomers have somehow failed to discover. Imagine then, that this guy who had recently been selling deck sealant, managed to have both planets named after himself!
Imagine living in that world?
Well, you do. Congratulations Americans, and think of Amerigo the next time you see a late night TV infomercial—and just go ahead and buy two, for twice the value!
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