Beasts or Brothers?

J.H. Elliott

  • The Discovery of Mankind: Atlantic Encounters in the Age of Columbus by David Abulafia
    Yale, 379 pp, £25.00, April 2008, ISBN 978 0 300 12582 5
  • Hans Staden’s True History: An Account of Cannibal Captivity in Brazil edited and translated by Neil Whitehead and Michael Harbsmeier
    Duke, 206 pp, £12.99, September 2008, ISBN 978 0 8223 4231 1

David Abulafia ends his engaging survey of the first encounters between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of the New World with the words of the prophet Malachi: ‘Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us?’ This question, with its corollary, ‘Why do we deal treacherously, every man against his brother, profaning the covenant of our forefathers?’ looms large in his book, just as it did in the minds of more thoughtful 16th-century Europeans as they became aware that the world was more diverse and more crowded than their forefathers could ever have imagined.

Medieval Europeans had, of course, known that they shared the world with peoples of other races and religions. Some of these groups, notably Jews and Muslims, either lived among them or were close at hand, and the proper response of Christians to their presence was a subject of continuous debate. Others as far away as China had been visited in their own countries by merchants or missionaries who reported, with more or less accuracy, on what they had seen in the course of their travels. Still others were known through the writers of classical antiquity, above all Herodotus and Pliny, whose mixture of fact and fiction had peopled the world indiscriminately with real races and tribes, like the Scythians, and monstrous peoples, always just over the horizon, like the headless Blemmyae and the dog-headed Cynocephali.

It was, however, the increasingly bold incursions of European mariners and merchants into the Atlantic from the mid-14th century onwards that dramatically widened the horizons of Christendom and confronted it with societies and peoples of which it had previously known nothing or, at best, was only dimly aware. European voyages along the west coast of Africa are known to have taken place from the 1340s, and it was in the same period that expeditions sent out from Portugal rediscovered the Canary archipelago (known to classical antiquity as the Fortunate Isles) and encountered the uninhabited islands of Madeira and the Azores. The 15th century would see a great escalation of this maritime activity. Portuguese mariners probed further and further down the African coast, passing in 1434 the terrifying barrier of Cape Bojador, and preparing the way for the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope by Bartolomeu Dias in 1488 and Vasco da Gama’s arrival in the Indian Ocean ten years later. The first steps towards Atlantic colonisation were taken by the Portuguese in the 1420s and 1430s, with the occupation and settlement of Madeira and the Azores. The Canary Islands were extensively inhabited, but this did not prevent Castile and Portugal competing for their possession, nor their gradual conquest and colonisation by Castilians over the course of the century. Columbus was well acquainted with the Canaries and, drawing on his knowledge of the winds and currents of the eastern Atlantic, chose the archipelago as the starting point for his Atlantic crossing in 1492.

His landfall in the Bahamas on 12 October marked the first known contact between Europeans and indigenous inhabitants of America since the time of the Vikings. The story has often been told. ‘Soon they saw naked people,’ as the journal of the first voyage recorded. Columbus and his two fellow captains went ashore with royal banners and, in total ignorance of where they might be or on whose territory they had stumbled, took possession of the island in the names of the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. It was the beginning of the drama – and tragedy – of encounter, intrusion, conquest and settlement that culminated in the 1520s and 1530s in the Spanish overthrow of the empires of the Aztecs and the Incas.

Many accounts have been written of the process by which Spain acquired its ‘empire of the Indies’, the most recent in English being Hugh Thomas’s vivid and comprehensive Rivers of Gold (2003), which ends the story as Hernán Cortés prepares to embark on his epic conquest of Mexico. The purpose of Abulafia’s book, which ends at around the same moment, is very different. His concern is with the nature of the initial encounters between Spaniards and other Europeans, and the indigenous peoples with whom they came into contact as they ranged into the Atlantic and found what for them was the New World of America.

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