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Victoria Schofield
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The World in 1492

History Today, May 1992, pp. 24-29

Excerpt:

When Columbus embarked on his ‘Enterprise of the Indies’ in 1492, he was carrying letters from ‘ther most Catholic majesties Ferdinand and Isabella’ addressed to the Great Khan of the Mongol Yuan dynasty in China; he also had letters of introduction to other Japanese and Indian princes. According to Marco Polo’s thirteenth-century account, which Columbus had studied at length, great wealth was to be found in the Indies, as China, Japan, India and Indonesia were collectively known.

In particular, Columbus hoped to return with ‘gold and spices in quantity’: gold, because it was the true measure of wealth; spices, because pepper, cinammon and cloves had become essential ingredients on a fifteenth-century European dining table. But increasingly high prices, maintained by the Arabs and Venetians, who controlled the spice trade to Europe, had prompted both Portugal and Spain to seek a direct sea route to Asia. Whereas the Portuguese edged their way around Africa, the Spanish monarchs agreed to Columbus’ bold plan to sail to Cathay by the uncharted western route.

Columbus also had a higher ideal. In the year that Granada had fallen and the Moors were expelled from Spain, he would be the first Christian to seek direct links with the Great Khan. With Christian Europe theatened by the rising power of the ‘infidel’ Ottoman Turks, the Great Khan might well be a useful ally, perhaps even a convert. Columbus of course never reached China, where the Mongol Khans had been driven out by a new dynasty – the ‘glorious’ Ming. Hung-chih, a devout Confucianist, was now Lord of the Middle Kingdom.

In 1492 the ‘known world’ of the Europeans, extending little further than the boundaries of the old Roman Empire, was regarded as the centre of civilisation. Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor, asserted that ‘the house of Austria [Habsburg] is to govern the whole world’. But beyond their limited vision, covering no more than 25 per cent of the earth’s surface, prospered peoples in Asia, Africa and the ‘Americas’ who had also reached a high level of development and activity. They too regarded their civilisations as supreme. The Mings believed their emperor was the only legitimate ruler for civilised mankind; the ruler of the Incas was revered as a ‘living god’ descendant of the sun. But illustrative of Europe’s sense of superiority, when they began to realise the extent of the land beyond their ‘known world’, by the Line of Tordesillas the Pope demarcated the entire area between the small countries of Portugal and Spain.

In 1492 informal political and commercial alliances already bound together the components of the ‘Indies’ of Columbus’ dreams, but the fear of conquest and assimilation kept them divided. The Silk road, which Marco Polo had traversed, was the most well-worn land route to China. By sea, Arabs from the Arabian peninsula had travelled widely in their dhows from the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf, establishing lucrative alliances with the local rulers whose territories bordered the Indian Ocean, from the East African coast to the Indian sub-continent. The Arabs regularly visited modern Indonesia, which harboured the prized Spice Islands – the Moluccas..…

[p.24]

There is no doubt that Columbus’ incidental landing on the islands of America in 1492 brought tremendous changes for the entire world. But it was clearly not a world waiting to be ‘discovered’. As Columbus journeyed across the Atlantic to visit the Great Khan, the Chinese were busy rebuilding the Great Wall, Askia Muhammed was founding his dynasty in Africa and the young Babur was dreaming of India; the Aztecs engaged in large scale human sacrifice to propitiate the gods since they feared, prophetically, that their world was about to end.

[p.29]
           

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