The Tropics of Empire
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From Transformations: Studies in the History of Science and Technology

The Tropics of Empire

Why Columbus Sailed South to the Indies

By Nicolás Wey Gómez

A radical revision of the geographical history of the discovery of the Americas that links Columbus's southbound route with colonialism, slavery, and today's divide between the industrialized North and the developing South.

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Summary

A radical revision of the geographical history of the discovery of the Americas that links Columbus's southbound route with colonialism, slavery, and today's divide between the industrialized North and the developing South.

Everyone knows that in 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed west across the Atlantic, seeking a new route to the East. Few note, however, that Columbus's intention was also to sail south, to the tropics. In The Tropics of Empire, Nicolás Wey Gómez rewrites the geographical history of the discovery of the Americas, casting it as part of Europe's reawakening to the natural and human resources of the South. Wey Gómez shows that Columbus shared in a scientific and technical tradition that linked terrestrial latitude to the nature of places, and that he drew a highly consequential distinction between the higher, cooler latitudes of Mediterranean Europe and the globe's lower, hotter latitudes. The legacy of Columbus's assumptions, Wey Gómez contends, ranges from colonialism and slavery in the early Caribbean to the present divide between the industrialized North and the developing South. This distinction between North and South allowed Columbus to believe not only that he was heading toward the largest and richest lands on the globe but also that the people he would encounter there were bound to possess a nature (whether “childish” or “monstrous”) that seemed to justify rendering them Europe's subjects or slaves. The political lessons Columbus drew from this distinction provided legitimacy to a process of territorial expansion that was increasingly being construed as the discovery of the vast and unexpectedly productive “torrid zone.” The Tropics of Empire investigates the complicated nexus between place and colonialism in Columbus's invention of the American tropics. It tells the story of a culture intent on remaining the moral center of an expanding geography that was slowly relegating Europe to the northern fringe of the globe. Wey Gómez draws on sources that include official debates over Columbus's proposal to the Spanish crown, Columbus's own writings and annotations, and accounts by early biographers. The Tropics of Empire is illustrated by color reproductions of period maps that make vivid the geographical conceptions of Columbus and his contemporaries.

Hardcover

$43.95 S ISBN: 9780262232647 616 pp. | 9 in x 8 in 6 b&w illus., 8 maps, 40 figures

Reviews

  • This work is a significant milestone in the study of Christopher Columbus, his psyche, and the academic pursuit of history in general.

    Clinton R. Long

    Fordham University

    The European Legacy

  • [A] hefty and impressive study executed with erudition, skill and considerable insight... Those who believed, following the Columbus quincentennial, that there was little left to say about a Genoese sailor's extraordinary adventures overseas will now be convinced otherwise.

    Neil Safier

    American Scientist

  • The Tropics of Empire deserves to become a landmark in the study of the inaugural stirrings of European overseas expansion.

    Gabriel Paquette

    The Times Literary Supplement

  • Mr. [Wey] Gómez's volume... offer[s] tremendous insight into the prevailing medieval understanding of the shape of the world Columbus encountered and absorbed.

    Alfred W. Crosby

    The New York Sun

Endorsements

  • In this challenging book, Nicolás Wey Gómez proves something everyone thought was impossible: there are useful new things to say about Columbus.

    Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

    Department of History, Tufts University

  • The Tropics of Empire is an extraordinary work of history, learned, imaginative, and immensely revealing. Nicolás Wey Gómez recreates the complex and now forgotten world of cosmological and geographical learning within which Columbus planned his voyage to Asia. Through close reading of a vast range of sources he shows us exactly why Columbus thought he could sail south, as well as west, to Asia, and how he envisioned the material and human world that he would find there. Wey Gómez makes clear that Columbus's wide reading and speculative thinking had dramatic consequences in the real world, not only for him but for the inhabitants of the Americas.

    Anthony T. Grafton

    Henry Putnam University Professor of History, Princeton University

Awards

  • Honorable Mention, World History & Biography/Autobiography category, 2008 PROSE Awards presented by the Professional/Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers.
  • Winner, Katherine Singer Kovacs Prize given by the Modern Language Association (MLA).