The Old World Meets the Neolithic Age

Review of The Discovery of Mankind: Atlantic Encounters in the Ages of Columbus, by David Abulafia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008)

Traditional histories of the Old World's encounter with the Americas typically follow a deterministic trajectory: Christopher Columbus "discovered" the New World and then Spanish conquistadors tamed this new land and conquered its empires, thus paving the way for Spanish and subsequent European hegemony of the globe from the sixteenth century onward. A simple and straightforward story, but one that does not tell the entire history of Europe's meeting with the native populations of the Americas and their culture.

Instead of emphasizing the technological and military innovations that underlay the European exploration and subjugation of the New World, David Abulafia, best known for his work on the medieval Mediterranean, highlights the immediate impact of the meeting between these two worlds on the explorers and intellectuals throughout Europe. In writing about the New World, fifteenth- and sixteenth-century explorers, such as Columbus, brought their own preconceptions with them, based on the ancient writings of Aristotle and Pliny the Elder as well as the medieval travelogues of Sir John Mandeville and Marco Polo.

Expecting to find Japan and Cathay, Columbus landed with visions of wealthy cities laden with gold and spices and lands populated with dog-headed men and other oddities. Instead, he found semi-nude natives who led simple lives without the accoutrements of civilization. Columbus, although fascinated with Indians and their "paradise," never stopped believing that the islands he had found were not located on the fringes of the Indies. It took later explorers and writers to announce the "discovery" of the New World.

The shock of the discovery of people, whom neither the ancients nor the Bible ever mentioned, is the main theme of Abulafia's history. The indigenous peoples of the Americas both fascinated and alarmed European intellectuals. Columbus provided the first ambivalent account of the Indians of the Hispaniola and Cuba. While he praised the simple, peaceful Tainos, extolling their virtues as potential subjects of the Spanish crown and followers of Christ, he condemned the belligerent, cannibalistic Caribs, suggesting that only slavery could tame them.

Subsequent writers, many who had never stepped foot in the New World, argued over the humanity of the Indians. Were they humans? Did they have souls? Could Europeans lawfully take their lands since they were not Christians? European intellectuals fell back on the writings of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas in attempting to answer these questions. In the end, however, they rejected Aquinas, who had written that it was unjust to attack peaceful pagans and take their lands.

The Spaniards, the first to tackle this problem, instead followed the Augustinian and Islamic idea of a just war—that pagans could be attacked by virtue of their lack of faith. This became the foundation for the "Requirement" (El Requerimiento), the notorious document that the Spanish read to the uncomprehending Indians before seizing their land. These arguments, despite criticisms from the likes of the Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas, provided the justification for the conquest of the New World and the enslavement of the Indians.

The debate over the humanity of the Indians is what Abulafia means by entitling his book, "The Discovery of Man." But it is also an explicit reference to Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt's argument that during the Renaissance the modern individual emerged to take his place in history. This is an extremely interesting part of the book, although Abulafia never really develops how the discovery of the Indians and the debate over their nature fits into the Renaissance worldview. In fact, the very authors he cites tended to fall back on medieval writers and ideas to form arguments about the Indians. This is particularly troublesome since the existence of a new continent, populated with unknown flora and fauna, ultimately called into question the authority of classical authors, whom the humanists frequently cited in their letters.

Perhaps the most innovative part of Abulafia's story is his section on the earlier European encounter with the Canary Islands. Here Abulafia argues that the Portuguese landing on the Canary Islands in 1336 and the gradual Spanish subjugation of the islands (not completed until 1496) prepared Europeans for their encounter with the New World after 1492. Like the debates over the humanity of the Indians, fourteenth-century writers, beginning with the prominent humanist Boccaccio, attempted to make sense of the indigenous population of the islands, the Neolithic Guanches, who shared a common ancestry with the Berbers of North Africa. And like the Indians of the New World, these authors both praised their simplicity and criticized their wild state of nature. Columbus and other explorers, familiar with these writings on the Canary Islands, compared their encounters with the culture of the Indians to the similarly simple culture of the Guanches. Thus, the Canary Islands, rather than the wealthy, sophisticated and islamized kingdoms of West Africa, prepared Europeans for the shock of the New World.

Abulafia provides a fascinating narrative of the background and first twenty years of the European encounter with the New World. This very narrative format, however, often prevents him from exploring arguments in greater depth. Moreover, his habit of ridiculing authors he labels "postmodern," trivializes their work and unfairly represents their arguments. For example, Abulafia cursorily dismisses arguments that the cannibalism of the Caribs was a myth employed by the Spanish in order to justify enslaving them. And yet he never provides any evidence—other than the biased accounts of explorers and contemporary armchair scholars—that the Caribs did practice cannibalism. Elsewhere in Renaissance Europe, unfounded charges of man-eating were variously leveled against enemies and perceived outsiders, such as witches (poor women), Jews, and the Uskok pirates of the Adriatic Sea. Abulafia's reluctance to view the European discussion of Indian customs as a discourse grounded in power is thus problematic.

Despite this last reservation, I found Abulafia's narrative exciting and informative. It should force us to ask more questions about the initial encounters Europeans had with cultures vastly different from their own.