In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Age of Discovery
  • Peter C. Mancal (bio)

“[B]ecause I know you will take pleasure in the great victory that Our Lord has given me in my voyage, I write this letter to inform you of how in twenty days I reached the Indies with the fleet supplied to me by the most illustrious King and Queen, our Sovereigns, and how there I discovered a great many islands inhabited by people without number.” So began the published version of Columbus’s letter to Ferdinand and Isabel, the so-called Barcelona Letter of 1493, in which the mariner went on to report—still in the first paragraph—that he had not only “discovered” new lands but named them: San Salvador, Santa Maria de Concepción, Ferrandina, Isabella, Juana Island, “and so to each a new name.” 1

Europeans devoured news about Columbus’s voyages; the Barcelona Letter went through perhaps 20 editions by 1500. 2 Over the course of the sixteenth century, the news about the feats of the conquistadores and other Europeans who traveled to the Americas spread throughout Europe. By the end of the eighteenth century, after hundreds of thousands of Europeans had moved to colonies in the Western Hemisphere, no less an authority than Adam Smith pronounced the “discovery” of America a turning point in world history. In the 1840s, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels agreed about the significance of Columbus’s discovery, seeing the event as crucial for opening “up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie.” 3

But if Columbus’s achievement attracted rapt audiences at the time and was, in retrospect, a defining moment in the history of the world, the Europeanization of the Americas was not inevitable. The renaming of islands in the Caribbean did not mean that Europeans already controlled them. Similarly, information alone did not necessarily translate into a yearning to colonize the Western Hemisphere. Many Europeans were already familiar with lurid travel accounts such as those circulating about Mandeville’s fantastic trips, with their depictions of the half-beast, half-human denizens who resided beyond the fringes of Europe. 4 Schooled in such fantasies, few Europeans were eager to establish overseas colonies. Nor did information about America quickly reshape the way that Europeans looked at the world around them. As late as the 1630s one character in an English travel play expressed the common fear of what existed in the tropics, in “the Antipodes” [End Page 26] beyond the so-called “burnt zone.” To travel to such places was to go “beyond the line of madness.” 5

Modern historians have done much to explain how Europeans overcame their fears about the world beyond their borders. Ever since the late eighteenth century scholars have analyzed the initial European forays to North America, seeing in the age of discovery the logical starting point for American history. Nineteenth-century writers often venerated Columbus and the explorers who followed in his wake. Though many historians demonstrated little interest in the subject for much of the twentieth century, the 1992 quincentennial of Columbus’s first voyage—and a growing awareness of the potential contributions of scholars in fields such as literary criticism and archaeology—led to an outpouring of new work on American history before 1607. This new work on what we might term the “long” sixteenth century, running from 1492 to the establishment of English colonies in mainland North America during the early seventeenth century, has deepened our knowledge of the forces that led Europeans across the Atlantic Ocean and the consequences of their decision to establish colonies in the Western Hemisphere.

The new work needs to be set into its proper historiographical context. After all, the age of discovery had many chroniclers who left to posterity written records of the events that transformed the Atlantic world during the long sixteenth century. To understand this period, we need to read the texts and pictures of those who observed the process of discovery, as well as modern accounts. There was no “American” history before 1492 but instead separate, if often overlapping, histories of hundreds of distinct peoples on each side of the Atlantic basin. The renaming of the Western Hemisphere to honor the Florentine navigator Amerigo...