The Tropics of Empire: Why Columbus Sailed South to the Indies

July 17, 2008

When he arrived, against the expectations of many, at the island he named San Salvador, on 12 October 1492, Christopher Columbus appeared to have proved that inhabited lands lay across the Atlantic. But underneath the certainty were many uncertainties. Which lands had he reached? Some mapmakers portrayed Japan lying in mid-Atlantic, separated from China by thousands of small Spice Islands. As he explored, Columbus's opinion whether Cuba was Japan or part of the Asian mainland oscillated. In June 1494, he forced his sailors to swear that Cuba was part of the mainland, under threat of having their tongues excised.

This behaviour suggests a deeply rooted uncertainty in his mind. There were other uncertainties and ambiguities. He took possession of the islands in the name of Castile, and yet he carried polite letters from Ferdinand and Isabella for the Mongol Khan, written in the hope that the Spaniards might establish trade counters at Hangchow and unaware that the Mongols had fallen from power in China 124 years earlier.

Nicolás Wey Gómez deftly seeks to resolve these contradictions. He argues that Columbus was aiming not just westwards but southwards, using the Canaries as a springboard into the Tropics; there he would find "India" rich in gold. Wey Gómez notes that on none of his four voyages did Columbus head due west from Spain; but China was generally assumed to lie on the latitude of Europe, so (he argues) generations of historians have misread Columbus's target. The first difficulty here is that Wey Gómez admits that winds and currents made a voyage due westward from Spain physically impossible. The second is that the term "India" was enormously flexible, meaning any land bordering the Indian Ocean. The third is that Columbus was playing a political game: by sailing west from the Canaries - Spanish territory - he was able to claim that the islands he discovered were "New Canaries", also to be held by Spain and not by Portugal.

Wey Gómez insists that the Spaniards claimed dominion over the peoples of the Tropics because they possessed a naturally docile and cowardly temperament, generated by the torrid climate. These assumptions about the nature of tropical peoples went back to classical writers, who also suggested that the peoples of the far north lacked prudence. The best place to be born, Aristotle had said, was - naturally - Greece. In 1510, the Scottish scholar John Mair ignored his nation's lack of prudence and cited with approval Aristotle's argument that tropical peoples were slaves by nature. These ideas certainly circulated, and Wey Gómez is to be congratulated on bringing them to greater prominence; he mobilises arguments that preceded and postdated Columbus but that (as he admits) cannot be proved to represent his own position.

Wey Gómez sees in 1492 the beginning of a colonial enterprise in which Europeans would assert their moral and political superiority over temperamentally inferior peoples in the south. This important book sets out one explanation of Columbus's aims. But the best explanation is that he had many, often contradictory, objectives and exhibited a turbulent combination of outward certainty and inward uncertainty.

The Tropics of Empire: Why Columbus Sailed South to the Indies

By Nicolás Wey Gómez
The MIT Press
616pp
£25.95
ISBN 9780262232647
Published 29 June 2008

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