The Discovery of Mankind: Atlantic Encounters in the Age of Columbus

June 19, 2008

The European discovery of the Americas has always been seen as signalling the origins of modernity. For Adam Smith, it kick-started a revolutionary series of changes in European commerce and the division of labour; for Marx and Engels it established the emerging bourgeoisie's first world market.

It is salutary to have David Abulafia remind us in this intelligent and readable book that these economic transformations were created only through the dehumanisation, exploitation and eventual destruction of the indigenous peoples of the New World. No less necessary is his revision of the longstanding narrative of Old World history spun around the magical date of 1492. As a highly respected historian of the Mediterranean Middle Ages, Abulafia tears down the notion that the medieval world ended and the modern began when Columbus, making his way to fame and fortune in China and Japan, bumped into the Bahamas. Columbus was a man steeped in the past, and the early Spanish colonies in the Caribbean he did so much to create were the last of Europe's medieval empires rather than the first of its modern global imperialisms.

In pursuit of this thesis, the first part of the book shows how more than 300 years before 1492 metropolitan Europeans had been busy formulating complex series of images for understanding and classifying people they saw as savage or primitive, ranging from the Celtic Irish in the 12th century to the black West Africans encountered by the Portuguese in the 15th. At one extreme these "inferior" peoples might be innocent and pristine children of nature, and potential converts to Christianity, at the other bestial and wild barbarians, fit only for the hard rod of correction. These images, and the techniques for dealing with the real people to which they were applied, were honed during the 14th and 15th centuries in the Canary Islands, where a dry run of the American conquests was carried out by Franco-Iberian conquistadors between 1341 and 1496.

The second part of the book demonstrates how these diverse expectations were exported to the New World by Columbus and his contemporaries, only for European greed for gold and labour rapidly to push aside any sense of wonder at the imagined innocence and purity of the native Tainos. By the time Cuba was invaded in 1511, despite some theoretical attempts to ameliorate their condition, the vanishing Indian populations had been reduced to stereotypes of evil, ignorant savages, lacking fully human qualities. It was this "discovery of mankind" in the late-medieval Atlantic that created the template for all future European-native encounters, running through the grander Spanish conquests of Mexico and Peru into the British, French and Dutch global empires, and which even today stubbornly refuses to die.

It is no discredit to Abulafia's book to say that no expert is going to be especially surprised by any one particular aspect of his thesis. He clearly and generously states where he is following in the footsteps of others (although he is unnecessarily snide toward postmodern and postcolonial "literary scholars", and Claude Levi-Strauss).

Instead, the success and originality of the book lies in showing how several well-known stories too often treated independently - of Columbus, of early Spanish and Portuguese encounters with the eastern edges of the Americas, and of the conquest of the Canaries - can be brought together in a fresh and mutually illuminating way. Both academic and non-specialist readers will find here new insights into how, to return to Adam Smith, the "savage injustice of the Europeans rendered an event, which ought to have been beneficial to all, ruinous and destructive".

The Discovery of Mankind: Atlantic Encounters in the Age of Columbus

By David Abulafia
Yale University Press
ISBN 9780300125825

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