“Shores of Knowledge: New World Discoveries and the Scientific Imagination” by Joyce Appleby


Marco Polo, the 13th century traveler, landed in a Genoese prison on his return from the Far East. His cell-mate was a writer and that’s how his story came to be told. ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’ was Columbus’ favourite book. Columbus was Genoese but his sponsors were the King and Queen of Spain. When he returned from the West Indies in 1493 he presented them with six Taino Indians, besides many species of plants and animals. Columbus made three more voyages to the Americas in the next decade, and when Hispaniola ran out of gold, he introduced sugarcane cultivation using forced labour. Religious conversion happened simultaneously. In the meantime the indigenous peoples encountered European induced diseases such as small pox and died in droves.

On Columbus’ second voyage, the Spaniards discovered pineapple on the island of Guadeloupe. Little did they know the ‘Indians’ had imported these plants from Brazil and Uruguay in their ancient canoes!

There are stories within stories. Spaniards invaded Cuba in 1511 and Mexico in 1521. Seven decades after Columbus’ arrival the New World had seven times as many Africans as Europeans. Eventually it was Amerigo Vespucci (a Florentine) whom the great new continents were named after. Unlike others before him Vespucci realized that the spot where he had landed (Brazil) was part of a new continent. His travel accounts published in 1502 won him instant fame. Martin Waldseemuller, a German cartographer, while preparing a new map in 1507 chose the name ‘America’ for the two continents in the western hemisphere. The rest is history.

Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean, but it was Magellan who named it. John Cabot (a man from Genoa) had explored Greenland, Newfoundland and the east coast of North America under the English flag in 1497-98 but he didn’t get much press. (Cabot’s expedition is believed to be the first by Europeans to mainland North America since the Vikings landed five centuries earlier.)

Hernan Cortez, conqueror of Mexico, wrote about the Spanish occupation of Tenochtitlan and their utter surprise at finding resplendent buildings, stone statues, gold artifacts, frescoes, floating gardens et al. Bartolome de Las Casas (traveler and writer) denounced the cruelty of the conquistadors in his 16th century book “The History of the Indies”. When other European writers mentioned the Aztecs’ human sacrifices and the cannibalism of the Caribs in the Lesser Antilles, Las Casas reminded them of the biblical story where God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his only son.

Ferdinand Magellan did not really circumnavigate the globe but one of his ships did. Magellan was killed in the Philippines and only one of his five ships, the Victoria, returned to Spain in 1522 with 18 survivors and 26 tons of cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. Magellan was Portuguese but he took Spanish citizenship in order to participate in the exploration.

The book is full of interesting facts that a lover of history and sociology is sure to lap up with immense pleasure. Here are some samples:

  • Jeanne Baré, the first woman to circumnavigate the globe (1766-69), went on Bougainville’s expedition disguised as a man, but on landing in Tahiti was instantly recognized as a woman by the natives.
  • The Aztec jugglers whom Cortez brought to Spain were later sent to Rome to entertain the Pope. That’s when rubber balls had their European debut. Yes, the Aztecs were rubber-tappers!
  • Francis Drake looted the Spanish silver fleet during his 1577-80 circumnavigation of the globe. This enabled Queen Elizabeth to pay off her country’s debt.
  • In Java, Antonio Pigafetta (a writer accompanying Magellan) “learned about the practice of suttee, described by his native interpreter in glowing terms as a ceremony in which a flower-bedecked widow happily accepted her duty to join her husband’s corpse on the funeral pyre.”
  • An island near Borneo “was occupied by Muslims who, though as naked as the other natives, adhered strictly to Muslim rules about diet and hygiene.”
  • “When the Lutheran archbishop of Uppsala, chided him (Carl Linnaeus) for placing humankind among other primates, Linnaeus replied airily that he knew of no way that would follow from the principles of natural history to make a generic difference between humans and simians. Either the archbishop should find one or cease his complaint.” Wow! So much for the Creation myth and the cute tale of Noah’s Ark!
  • “Thomas Jefferson, then the United States foreign minister to France, supposedly brought back the recipe for French fries, which he served over the next decade at the White House.”
  • In 1867 America bought Alaska from Russia. The purchase was described as “Seward’s Folly” after Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward who had negotiated the treaty.
  • In 1785 Napoleon Bonaparte, then aged 16, made an effort to join a naval expedition but did not qualify. The two ships carrying 220 men met a tragic end after leaving their last port of call in New South Wales, Australia in January 1788, and were never heard of again.

The story of the potato is a must-read. And that’s not all. Pedro Alvares Cabral, Charles Darwin, Alexander Humboldt, the Medicis of Florence, Adam Smith, Voltaire, Alexander Selkirk, Captain James Cook, and a horde of other stalwarts make guest appearances that are sure to leave the reader absolutely delighted.

Overall assessment: A scholarly masterpiece.

Shores of Knowledge: New World Discoveries and the Scientific Imagination
Author: Joyce Appleby
Publisher: W .W. Norton & Co.
Year of Publication: 2014

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

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