1492: The Year the World Began (2009)
Felipe Fernández-Armesto (1950)
“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Children learn this rhyme in school to help remember the year of the voyage that changed the course of history. In his book 1492, however, historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto argues that Columbus’s discovery of the New World was only one of a number of significant events that occurred world-wide in (and around) 1492, and that together have had a lasting impact on the path of world history through to our present day; as his subtitle states, 1492 was “The Year the World Began.”
Fernández-Armesto opens with a chapter in which he describes European understanding of world geography in the 1400’s, and how a growing group of geographer with an interest in exploration were, in part out of self-interest, beginning to argue that the world was actually much smaller than Eratosthenes of Alexandria had (correctly) calculate around 200 B.C. He also explains his choice of 1492, clarifying that though the events he describes in the subsequent chapters have a tie-in to 1492, they were not necessarily each reaching a turning point precisely in that year. 1492 is a marker for Western societies --- a famous way-point in our understanding of our history --- but Fernández-Armesto wants us to understand that the path of development of the world’s societies over the last 500 years can be traced to events in the late 1400’s.
In the remaining chapters we are taken on a truly Grand Tour of the 15th century world. Fernández-Armesto describes events in Spain, where the final victory of the Catholic Reconquest over the Moors occurred in 1492; this was followed a few years later by the expulsion of the Sephardic Jews, and he recalls their varying degrees of success in settling around the Mediterranean. He reviews the histories of the competing kingdoms of western Africa in the 14th and 15th centuries, where Islam was spreading into pagan lands, and from there the struggles in Catholic Italy as the beginnings of Protestantism were stirring. To the east, we learn about the growth of the small principality of Muscovy into what would become Russian, as the centuries old Mongol domination in the area disintegrated, and farther east yet how the Chinese were turning inward and largely abandoning maritime exploration as the Confucians tightened their grip on power. The thriving markets among the states around the rim of the Indian Ocean are described (highlighting at the same time the relative backwardness of Europe): Fernández-Armesto argues that the success of these markets left little motivation for these states to explore westward beyond Africa or eastward into the Pacific, and as a consequence their leadership would begin to wane after 1492 as Europe gained momentum through the exploitation of the New World. Finally, of course, Fernández-Armesto describes the voyages and discoveries of Columbus, his motivations and experiences, and the Indian societies that lay just beyond his view, on the continents of the New World.
The effect of reading each chapter is one of spinning the globe, having it stop at a particular point, and then zooming in to a region and getting a glimpse of its history. Fernández-Armesto descriptions lie more to the narrative or anecdotal side than a straight, dry telling of history. This makes the book a fascinating survey of the history of parts of the world I would venture to say few readers will have learned much about in the normal progression of history classes in school. And, as Fernández-Armesto makes clear, these are not just ancient histories with no bearing on our present; the histories of these areas have led to the wealth distribution and conflict points of our modern day world. Just as one example, the current front-page stories covering the conflicts and violence in and around Mali make the history in 1492 come to life in the descriptions of the warring empires in that same area in the 1400’s, as societies sided with the Islamists or the pagans, and the Tuareg people of the desert north struggled against the prosperous peoples of the Niger river valley.
Fernández-Armesto’s approach lends a wonderful story-like feel to the histories he tells. At the same time, it can be a bit frustrating if one tries to follow the details more closely. In each chapter, it is as though he began with an idea that he wanted to expand on, and then followed a bit of a stream of conscious path from that beginning, proceeding with a description of one sequence of events or of one person’s life, and then, when it encountered a point of contact with another interesting history, switching to follow that path or person. Thus it can be a bit difficult at times to step back from the interesting stories and try and piece together the bits into a coherent understanding of the period being discussed.
The stream of conscience feel of the book comes out in another way: I found odd occurrences of repetition at several places in the book --- a phrase would be used and then repeated a few lines later. (As I did not mark those when I encountered them, and I am having trouble looking back and finding an example, I must leave this ‘accusation’ undefended, but it was something that struck me at several points in the book.)
Also a bit disconcerting for me were instances where Fernández-Armesto makes unequivocal statements about what he considers false understandings of some aspect of the history he is covering. One example from among several in the book:
The conventional explanations [for the success of Spanish conquests in the New World] --- that the Spaniards were inherently superior, that they were mistaken for gods and preceded by omens, that their technology was decisive, that disease undermined defense, and that their enemies were subverted by corroded morale – are all false. But a glance at the Aztec and Inca realms in about 1492 helps explain how so dramatic a debacle was possible.
I am not a historian, having simply a layman’s interest in the subject, but from other books I have read the precise explanation for the success of the Spanish conquest is a matter of on-going debate among historians, and not a settled point that allows the string of explanations that are listed above to be bluntly labeled as “false”. This dismissal of the complexity of the history on this particular topic, and similar condemnations on other topics in the book, can seem to undermine the general authority of the histories presented.
These observations aside, however, 1492 is an engaging and informative survey of a point in history in which, as Fernández-Armesto states, “a new world, the world we are in, began to take shape.”
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