BOOK REVIEW / Savage reassessments: European encounters with the new world by Anthony Pagden, Yale pounds 18.95 Land without evil: Utopian Journeys across the South American Watershed

BY THE END of Christopher Columbus's damp squib of a party in 1992, there seemed to be little more to say about the encounter between the Old and the New Worlds. It had become a sterile argument between triumphalism and political correctness. Both sides pretended to talk about the Americas, but both seemed to assume that Europe had remained philosophically and spiritually unaffected by the discovery.

Anthony Pagden's scholarly and fascinating book is an exploration of the impact of the New World on the moral and intellectual identity of the Old. Its theme is the unbridgeable gap of understanding between Europe and the Americas. Europeans, Pagden suggests, were less concerned with the New World as it was than with how its existence could be squared with existing western traditions and political and religious ambitions. They remade the New World in the image of the Old.

The discovery was a profound challenge to Europe, and to Christianity. As Erasmus asked in 1517, if the Ancients, whose wisdom was the basis of knowledge, had been ignorant of the New World, what other flaws might not exist in their legacy? But Pagden argues that the problem of incommensurability was never overcome. Many European thinkers continued to believe that the cultures of the New World had no meaningful existence before the first European eyes sighted them. They saw in the peoples of the New World nothing more than a supply of slave labour, or live museum pieces from the dawn of civilisation. The role of the European, they thought, was to guide the savage towards modernity, to help him make the journey out of prehistory to the present.

There were men of letters who went to the New World and wrote about it. A few, like Bartolome de Las Casas in the 16th century, were passionate in their defence of the native peoples of the Americas against the realities of colonisation, enslavement, disease, war and the extinction of their cultures: the conduct of the coloniser, they contended, had called into question the legitimacy of European civilisation and fatally undermined the contemporary moral case for colonisation. Three centuries later, the device of the noble savage became a means of criticising European values: his innocence as against Old World artifice, his purity as against decadence. But as responses to the existence of the New World, Pagden asserts, both were false: the 'good' savage was as much a European invention as the 'bad' savage whose annihilation was the price of modernity: both were part of a debate that Europe had with itself.

There are moments when Richard Gott brings Pagden to mind. Land without Evil tells the dismal story of the conquest and colonisation of the South American watershed - that still inaccessible area that covers part of Paraguay, Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina - through a rather sparse account of a journey of his own, interwoven with the accounts of those who went before: Aleixo Garcia, the first European traveller across South America; the Jesuit fathers; Spanish and Portuguese explorers; the British traveller Colonel Percy Fawcett and many others.

Given the rich chorus of voices Gott has assembled, his opening lines seem curiously aggressive. 'This,' he tells us, 'is a book about places you have never been to, about a history you may never have read, and about people you have never heard of.' His own descriptions of the lands and peoples of the South American watershed are sadly lacking in enchantment. He makes up for it, though, by assiduous research and generosity in quotation. His enthusiasm gives the past a life that he fails to bring to the present. Land without Evil is history masquerading as a travel book.

By the end of Gott's journey, we know a great deal about the savagery of the Europeans who grew rich at the expense of the Americas. The peoples they conquered, though, hardly emerge from the shadows. Gott's book is only tangentially about them; its real focus is the villainy of those who destroyed them.

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