A new view of the connections and intrigues that bound together the New World’s principal discoverers.
London-based historian Boyle (The Troubadour’s Song: The Capture and Ransom of Richard the Lionheart, 2005, etc.) reconsiders the 15th century’s wave of transatlantic discoveries in terms of three prominent figures who not only knew each other but both collaborated and occasionally betrayed each other’s trust. It’s a grand span of history, still subject to revision as new information comes to light. In 1453, the Turkish conquest of Byzantium (Constantinople) threatened the Italian city-states’ opulence, heavily dependent on eastern trade routes to Asia. Christopher Columbus was then two years old, soon to be scampering the same Genoa back alleys as his boyhood pal (Boyle speculates) John Cabot, two years older. The author follows these two and their Florentine contemporary, Amerigo Vespucci, stressing that their primary motives were neither heroic nor humanitarian. The soon-to-be-named American continent had already been visited, either purposefully or by accident, he notes, by various other Europeans: Vikings briefly settled it 500 years earlier; English, Breton and even Basque cod fishermen had been driven ashore in gales, etc. The difference? These three were “ambitious but rather unsuccessful merchants…armed with a method—at least Columbus and Cabot—to profit by their discoveries that their rivals lacked.” These stateless mercenaries offered the New World’s largesse to monarchs of Spain and Portugal in return for a percentage for themselves. It didn’t pan out. Columbus’s fall was the hardest; in lieu of the gold he never found, he ultimately sent Taino Indians to Spain as slaves. The Tainos were probably already being enslaved, even cannibalized, by rival Caribs, Boyle comments, but Columbus was supposedly performing Christian acts. The author also suggests that Cabot’s death at sea, accepted as fact for centuries, may not have happened; here he elaborates on an alternative survival theory.
Easily satisfies Boyle’s premise that telling the customary three stories as one sheds valuable light on the Age of Exploration and its portent.