Introduction
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Introduction The [1492] discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope [in 1497], are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind. —Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, 1776 Columbus and Consequences On the morning of Oc­to­ber 12, 1492—some half a century after Johannes Guten­ berg had published the first book printed with moveable type, and thirty-­ nine years after the Turks had taken Constantinople and thus ended the last po­ liti­ cal vestige of the Roman Empire, and the same number of years after the Battle of Castillon at which the cannons of the French had decisively ended the supremacy of the English longbow—three ships commanded by Christopher Columbus landed on a speck of land in the Bahamas, one the admiral took to be an offshore isle of Asia.1 The European Middle Ages had already largely given way to the Renaissance, helped along by expanded learning and the widening use of gunpowder, and the Great Age of Discovery was in progress. The ultimate legacy of Columbus’s landfall, accomplished on behalf of the Castilian crown, was a world changed in revolutionary ways, and the year 1492 signaled the commencement of unprecedented far-­ flung extrahemispheric conquests and colonizations on the part of several emerging European nation-­ states. Migrations of Europeans to the “New World” (a world not recognized as “new” by Columbus himself) grew from the ensuing trickle of the 1490s into an ever-­ increasing tide. Natives of the Americas—and those of Australia and the Pacific islands—came to be decimated, displaced, and deculturated. Surviving populations underwent vari­ ous degrees of miscegenation and were subjected to Latin-­ and German-­ derived languages and to Roman Catholic and, later, Protestant Christianity. At the same time, the interlopers introduced to the natives crops that these indigenes had not previously known, such as wheat, barley, and rice, as well as Eurasian domesticated animals: sheep, goats, cattle, horses, donkeys, and hogs. The harvests, cuisines, and demography of the Old World were for- 2 / Introduction ever, if slowly, altered as well by the bringing back of potatoes, manioc (cassava ), and so forth. More insidiously, diseases of the Old World were transmitted to the non­ immune native ­peoples of the New, with devastating results—the Native Ameri­ can population crashed from perhaps 44 million to a mere two or three million in less than a century. Too, these seemingly ocean-­ isolated ­ peoples and their continents—mentioned by neither Aristotle nor the Bible—created a crisis in European thought concerning an unthinkable separate creation. In brief, the greatest demographic and cultural collapses and most massive migrations and cultural and biological transfers of human history, as well as the transformation of traditional perceptions on both sides of the seas, had commenced, and the modern era had truly begun. West­ ern civilization, and then much of the rest of the world, was to be metamorphosed from cultures based almost entirely on tradition into ones founded on innovation; from religion-­ driven ways of life to a significantly secular emphasis; and from essentially rural populations to mostly urban ones. Earth was to become definitively interlinked in a transportational , economic, and po­ liti­ cal network. The Rutgers sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel has written, “only from Europe’s standpoint was America discovered by Columbus. Only from an extremely narrow Eurocentric perspective can Oc­to­ ber 12, 1492, be seen as a beginning.”2 But “discovery” is not the main point of 1492; that year symbolizes the initiation of the unprecedented era of continuing European overseas exploration, exploitation , and colonization, of the development of a truly global modern “world system,” and of the massive so-­ called Columbian exchange of ­ people, animals, plants, and pestilences. Despite Columbus’s status in this regard, it is now agreed that he had a handful of Norse predecessors, as far as Europeans actually reaching the New World and establishing (temporary) settlement there are concerned. These known pre-­ Columbian sojourners in North America beyond Greenland, first sailing under the command of the Icelander Leif Eiríksson (Erikson)—now of­ Greenland—­ reached what is presently east­ ern Canada around AD 1000 and overwintered, with Leif’s kinsman and successor Thorfinn Karlsefni establishing a short-­ lived settlement in this “Vínland” in about 1008.3 However, this Norse feat is usually not accorded great cultural importance, because the lasting impacts of the brief European presence in Norse Vínland and environs are usually perceived...