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  • The Discovery of Mankind: Atlantic Encounters in the Age of Columbus
  • W. Jeffrey Bolster
The Discovery of Mankind: Atlantic Encounters in the Age of Columbus. By David Abulafia . New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008. 408 pp. $35.00 (cloth); $25.95 (paper).

In what is simultaneously a social and intellectual history of the highest order, David Abulafia has reconstructed the heretofore veiled tale of Renaissance Europeans' virtual extirpation of isolated peoples in [End Page 601] the Atlantic world. Of course, the bold outlines of the story have been known for centuries. Canary Islanders, then Taino and Carib people in the Caribbean, and finally the Tupinambá of coastal Brazil were all decimated by European conquerors armed with scripture and steel, and unwittingly accompanied by disease. Abulafia's lucid and encyclopedic account, however, restores the wonder of those encounters, which "opened the eyes of Europeans to a vast range of practices and beliefs that no one had previously suspected to exist" (p. 4).

Given that myths of dog-headed people, mouthless people, pygmies, wild men, and other monstrous races had circulated in Europe since classical times, it might be assumed that explorers would take any sort of encounter in stride. As Abulafia shows in painstaking detail, however, European mariners were shocked to discover Stone Age people whose appearance and morality were strikingly different, people who unashamedly wore no clothes, who occasionally ate each other, and who had never heard of Christ or Moses or Mohammed. As encounters went from the imaginary to the actual, first in the eastern Atlantic, then in the western Atlantic and along the shores of Atlantic South America, a set of thorny and intractable questions came to the fore.

Why had God allowed such people to fester without his word since the crucifixion? Were those people also Adam's descendants, sharing a common lineage with the nations of the Old World? Or were they a separate creation—not fully human? And in light of the conflicted teaching of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, did such people have the right to be free? Could they govern themselves? Could they know God? What obligations did Christians have to such people, and how could those obligations be squared with conquerors' greed? The book reconstructs those conversations in all of their audacity, conversations among clerics, intellectuals, attorneys, and seamen.

As Abulafia sees it, two criteria set apart the encounters between 1341 (the first known landing by European sailors in the Canary Islands) and 1520 (when Cortez stumbled upon the Aztecs' sophisticated and extensive empire in Mexico). One criterion was distinctiveness from the known world. In this sense, encounters in the Canaries and the Caribbean were dramatically different than those in Africa or Asia, which, however remote, were nonetheless part of a geographic continuum familiar to Europeans. The second criterion was primitiveness. In the Canaries, the Caribbean, and the coast of Brazil European sailors confronted Neolithic societies vastly different in scope and scale from those of Aztecs, Incas, Asians, and Africans. This history is thus defined temporally by 1341 and 1520, though the author's familiarity [End Page 602] with classical texts allows him to situate the encounters he examines in light of a longstanding European intellectual inheritance.

In the simplest sense the book is about the enlargement of Europeans' horizons, both geographic horizons, and—more especially—mental horizons. In twenty-three compelling chapters (actually twenty-two chapters and a conclusion) Abulafia provides a nuanced exploration of each locality, Europeans' discoveries there, and the questions and consequences that followed. One of his most impressive accomplishments is the sense of newness associated with what is, after all, a very old tale. The freshness originates in the author's erudition, his conversancy with classical and Renaissance history, and his reliance on recent findings in archaeology and anthropology. In his provocatively titled chapter "Turtles, Shamans, and Snorting Tubes," for instance, he provides an insightful textual exegesis of the first European book written on the soil of the Americas, a tract by Fray Ramón Pané about the mythological and sacred world of the Taíno on the island of Hispaniola.

Pané was not an intellectual. And he wrote in service of the church...