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Journal of World History 12.1 (2001) 201-203

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Book Review

The Emperor's Giraffe, and Other Stories of Cultures in Contact

The Emperor's Giraffe, and Other Stories of Cultures in Contact. By SAMUEL M. WILSON. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. Pp. xii + 223. $25.00 (cloth).

This book's whimsical title is the first hint of its delightful contents. It is a collection of twenty-three brief essays, most of which were formerly published from 1990-95 in Natural History magazine, a journal of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The author, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at Austin, states that his goals in these vignettes are "to focus on the way individuals understood their historical situation," and "to see that chance events play an immense role in human affairs" (p. 3, 5). Few readers will disagree that these modest goals have been met.

First encounters among human groups of different languages, customs, and levels of economic complexity offer a fascinating opportunity for analysis and commentary by anthropologists and historians alike. These cross-cultural meetings take on added importance in light of the increasing interest in cultural studies and a growing awareness that physical or cultural differences among people did not inherently create hostilities. Disputes, when they did arrive, were the clear-cut result of uneven power relationships and goals in conflict. Smugly simplistic notions of racial or cultural superiority are contradicted here as well by the evidence that great accomplishments of navigation or discovery were by no means a unique European attribute of the fifteenth century.

The title piece, The Emperor's Giraffe, describes the extraordinary voyage, that began in 1414, of a fleet of more than sixty enormous trading galleons from Ming China into the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and down along the south coast of East Africa. The largest of these ships were more than 400 feet from bow to stern and their beam was 150 feet across. Columbus's largest ship, the Santa Maria, in contrast was but 90 feet by 30 feet. The Chinese crew and company numbered 30,000! Columbus made his initial voyage with fewer than 100 men altogether. Two giraffes, both of which originated 5,000 miles away in the prosperous African trading kingdom of Malindi in today's [End Page 201] Kenya, were among the treasures of discovery carried home from Bengal as gifts to the Chinese Emperor. By the early 1430s economic and political problems at home caused an end to those years of maritime activity, and the prospect of a meeting of the Chinese with the Portuguese then or later in that century never materialized. Nor did Chinese ships enter the Atlantic or the Mediterranean. There seems little doubt that their capabilities clearly enabled them to do so if they had chosen to.

The essays are divided into five sections, though more than half of them deal with Europeans in the Americas from the Colombian era through the English colonial period. They vary considerably in style and substance. Some are very finely drawn depictions of social and cultural practices as familiar to anthropologists. Others are commentaries on singular issues or topics. Food for sustenance and profit is the topic of "The Gardeners of Eden." Epidemic disease and mosquitoes are taken up in "The Matter of Smallpox" and "Pandora's Bite." The first Opium War in 1839 is put in clear historical perspective in "Coffee, Tea, or Opium?"

The defeat of the English cricket team by a West Indian team in the important Test series of 1950 on Lord's Cricket Grounds in the presence of King George IV may have been given undue meaning by Professor Wilson. He regards it as significantly congruous with the passing of colonialism, "the empire strikes back." Jack Johnson, not mentioned here, was Heavyweight Champion of the World forty years earlier with no noticeable consequence for Jim Crow practices in the United States. Did the West Indian victory alter British cultural attitudes, foreign, or colonial policy? It was most definitely...