The Discovery of Mankind, by David Abulafia

Why Africa dropped off history's map
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The Independent Culture

In recent years, "Atlantic history" has opened up in recognition that narrow histories of Europe or the US fail our international era. Although for most people the Atlantic is an ocean, for many historians it is now the place where "our understanding of human nature began to emerge".

No book has really popularised Atlantic history, but this one just might do it. Addressing the encounters between Europeans and non-Europeans, Cambridge historian David Abulafia wants to show how they shaped the crucial 16th century. As the number of encounters grew, an intellectual tradition emerged in which "it was precisely the demotion of some or all of these peoples to a lower status than Europeans that moulded European relations with the wider world".

Abulafia's narrative is as wide-ranging as the ships of those brutal years. He eloquently portrays the wonder of Europeans as they glimpsed new peoples and places, and shows brilliantly how they so often saw the new through preconceived categories. He explores the fated cultures of peoples from Atlantic islands and the Americas, and the result is accessible and illuminating.

If readers understand some of "Atlantic" history by the end, they are also left with a puzzle. Why has Abulafia, hitherto a historian of the Mediterranean, entered the wider space of the Atlantic at all? The likely answer reveals much about tensions convulsing not just historians, but the wider world.

Abulafia emphasises his disdain for the theorists, treating "post-structuralism" and the like as useless ballast. He bats aside Freud and Lévi-Strauss, and reverts to "letting the sources speak for themselves". Yet the problem is exactly that this approach deals with European responses, not other peoples'. Infuriating though theoretical jargon is, as Derrida said, it tries to undercut the Eurocentric conceptual viewpoint – an essential move if the precious goal of developing a shared grasp of history for all humans is to be reached.

Abulafia's suspicion of theory goes with the sense that what emerges in his book is an immensely intelligent and subtle attempt to reposition the debates around Atlantic history through a more Eurocentric focus. For not only is the reader encouraged to imagine these Atlantic encounters from the prism of what they meant to Europeans, but the vital role of Africa in this history is erased.

Thus 56 pages are allotted to events in the Canary Islands, and only five to West Africa, though for the 50 years prior to 1492 it was to Africa that the major portion of explorations were directed. The significance of Columbus's prior knowledge of West Africa is ignored, even though he traded there for slaves. The same African experience of Brazil's first commercial contractor, Fernam de Loronha, is also ignored

With Africa airbrushed from history, what is presented is the familiar story of the Spanish discovery, rape and dispossession of America via the Canaries. To be sure, Abulafia pulls no punches in describing these atrocities, and there is no denying his brilliance at analysing European motivations and responses. But today, Europe is no longer enough.

Toby Green's 'Inquisition' is published by Pan