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Hardcover | $43.95 Short | £36.95 | 616 pp. | 8 x 9 in | 6 b&w illus., 8 maps, 40 figures | June 2008 | ISBN: 9780262232647
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The Tropics of Empire

Why Columbus Sailed South to the Indies


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. Nicolás Wey Gómez is Assistant Professor of Hispanic Studies at Brown University.

About the Author

Nicolás Wey Gómez is Professor of History at the California Institute of Technology.


“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


“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


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).