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1492: The Year The World Began

August 24, 2016

1492(One in a series of posts about 1492: The Year The World Began.)

If you like your history big, broad and sweeping, you’ll love Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s 1492: The Year The World Began. “The year 1492…refashioned the world” he asserts on the opening page and—with breathtaking scope—demonstrates in the following 300 pages.

Fernández-Armesto adds a throat-clearing and palate-cleansing professional historians epilogue wherein he appends a number of disclaimers to reinforce the following point:  “History has no course…(and) because history has no course, it has no turning points. Or rather, it has so many that you might as well try to straighten a tornado as attempt to sort them out.” (p. 311)

After several pages in this vein , filled with numerous examples snatched from today’s headlines (“Gays can adopt children…. The pope has prayed in a mosque.” p. 315) and perennial historiographical debates (the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the causes of the French Revolution), Fernández-Armesto returns to his original assertion:

Nevertheless, the world did change in 1492. Events of that year started to change the balance and distribution of power and wealth across the globe, launching communities in western Europe across oceans, empowering a mighty Russian state for the first time, and prefiguring (though not of course producing) the decline of maritime Asia and of traditional powers around the Indian Ocean and its adjacent seas. Until the 1490s, any well-informed and objective observer would surely have acknowledged these regions as homes to the planet’s most dynamic and best-equipped exploring cultures, with the most impressive records of long-term, long-range achievement. In that fateful decade, rivals from western Europe leapfrogged ahead, while the powers that might have stopped them or outstripped them remained inert. (pp. 317-18)

(Note: The following series of posts doesn’t discuss the key events of 1492 in the order Fernández-Armesto writes about them, but it’s the order in which they occurred.)

Other posts in this series:

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From → Books, History

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