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Book Review


Fritze, Ronald H. New Worlds: The Great Voyages of Discovery 1400-1600 (Sutton Publishing Limited, 2002). 285 pp, $36.95 (cloth).

     Ronald Fritze has written an engaging synthesis of literature produced during the 500th anniversary celebrations of Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and Vasco da Gama's famous voyages. By his own admission, the work is inherently Eurocentric in that it focuses on European "accomplishments" and does not attempt to present African, Asian, or Native American perspectives. One might chide him by saying that we cannot possibly understand the European expansion without carefully considering the manner in which non-European peoples alternatively constrained and facilitated that expansion. This may be true, but, as he indicates, such a story would have resulted in a much larger—and much different—book. Even so, while Fritze's Eurocentric perspective does not prevent non-Europeans from coming into the story, the reader nevertheless is left with the feeling that story is incomplete. 1
     New Worlds begins with two chapters that lay the historical foundation for European expansion. Chapter one surveys the European worldview before the age of exploration, including the myth of three continents and the idea that there were monstrous races lurking on the margins of the European geographical knowledge. The chapter is a fascinating exploration of the European mind as well as the ethnographic and geographical models that informed European perceptions and influenced their behavior, especially when they came face to face with a reality that did not fit their own cosmological preconceptions. 2
     Chapter two places European expansion squarely in the context of the centuries-old trading contact with the much more extensive and much richer African and Asian worlds. Chapter three demonstrates that the early European expansion into the Atlantic was really an extension of these trading activities. Most of the chapter logically covers the Portuguese expansion into Africa and the Atlantic islands. In chapter four, Fritze's balanced and succinct synthesis of Columbus' progression towards his first voyage could hardly be improved upon. Likewise, his summary of why the Portuguese ruler D. João II delayed following up on Vasco da Gama's first successful voyage is interesting and informative. 3
     Chapter five explores how Europeans went about mapping the coastlines of the Americas, and how they finally understood that a large landmass stood in the way of their efforts to reach Asia by water. The last chapter follows Portuguese attempts to wrest control of the Indian Ocean trade from Muslim merchants. It then traces the Spanish conquest of both the Aztec and the Incan empires before detailing Spanish explorations into the interior of North America. The conclusion quite nicely summarizes the impact of European expansion for the world. 4
     Fritze excels in not only synthesizing the existing literature on European exploration, but also in creating an interesting narrative that helps sweep away many of the myths that still cloud contemporary perceptions of the first century of European expansion. One particular strength is that Fritze resists romanticizing European explorations and conquests. The Spaniards and Portuguese explorers and conquistadors are depicted as the ruthless self-serving men they often were. Fritze is also at pains to show that the conquests of Mexico and Peru were not the glorious victories of superior Europeans over inferior natives they are often purported to be. For example, he discusses how the Inca system collapsed more from its own weight and internal divisions than from anything Pizzaro did. 5
     That said, Fritze's discussion of Cortés and Mexico would have benefited from a closer perusal of the works of Inga Clendinnen and Ross Hassig. He cites Hassig, but not Clendinnen. Clendinnen has a brilliant essay showing how and why Mexica-Spanish miscommunication resulted in the destruction of Tenochtitlan.1 Hassig approaches the conquest from the Indian perspective and convincingly argues that it was more an internal Native American war than a Spanish conquest.2 6
     James Powers' work on the municipal militia in Spanish history might also have helped Fritze see Cortés in the context of the Iberian municipal militia tradition that Cortés so cleverly manipulated to justify and legitimize his otherwise illegal activities.3 This tradition also formed the context in which Cortés and his men understood their own actions, and helps explain why men like Bernal Dias so roundly criticized Cortés for his mishandling of the division of the booty of conquest. 7
     Despite a compelling narrative, there are a few editorial infelicities here and there. On page 95 padrão is misspelled two out of three times with different spellings for each. Professor Fritze also failed to include the formal D. in front of the names of the Portuguese kings, which stands for Dom and is required in both English and Portuguese before the names of Portuguese royalty. 8
     New Worlds is richly illustrated, with useful maps and both color and black and white illustrations. The images and maps presented in chapter one are extremely helpful in illustrating the European worldview. Unfortunately, many of the illustrations depict Native Americans in stereotypical terms without any attempt to identify or dispel those stereotypes. Many illustrations are also from nineteenth century publications, which lends an anachronistic air to the illustrations. 9
     New Worlds represents a clear, insightful, and engaging synthesis of the last two decades of scholarship on the first century of European expansion. Whether we view that expansion from the perspective of the Europeans or from the perspective of those they encountered, it remains arguably one of the most significant episodes in the history of the world to date. Indeed, its consequences are still being felt. For that reason alone such a synthesis is both timely and well conceived. This is especially true given the current debates over globalization. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and New Worlds will find its place on my bookshelf and in my classrooms. 10
James E. Wadsworth
Stonehill College

1 Inga Clendinnen, " 'Fierce and Unnatural Cruelty': Cortés and the Conquest of Mexico," Stephen Greenblatt, ed., New World Encounters (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 12-47.

2 Ross Hassig, Mexico and the Spanish Conquest (New York: Pearson Education, 1995).

3 James F. Powers, A Society Organized for War: The Iberian Municipal Militias in the Central Middle Ages, 1000-1284 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988).

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