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1492 by Felipe Fernández-Armesto


“In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” goes the schoolhouse rhyme, yet for historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, that famous year was one of incomparable global significance that extended far beyond Columbus’ famous voyage. In 1492, he takes readers on a grand tour of the year that marks the beginning of our modern world. Of course, Columbus’ explorations do play a big role in the world-changing effects of 1492. Columbus exposed the wind system of the Atlantic, where the northeast trades, which helped Columbus make his legendary crossing, could be used to link to the Brazil Current, sweeping southward into the path of the westerlies of the South Atlantic and on around the globe.

Once navigators had detected this pattern, the circumnavigation of the oceans became an irreversible process, and Fernández-Armesto explores the geographic and cultural reasons why it was the Europeans who made this breakthrough, rather than explorers from other cultures, allowing the resources of the Americas to become accessible to Westerners while remaining beyond the reach of rival civilizations.

 Meanwhile in 1492 the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella not only launched Columbus’ voyage, they also forced Spain's Jews to choose between conversion and expulsion. By effectively compelling conversions, Fernández-Armesto argues that Spain actually profited by forcing former Jews into the mainstream of Spanish life and reaping the benefits of their many talents. “Converted Jews were the alchemical ingredient that made Spain’s golden age,” he writes. And though the Ottoman Empire was surging at the end of the 15th century, the conquest of Granada and the handing over of the Alhambra in 1492 marked the extinction of Islam in Western Europe.

Other big transformations were on the horizon. Across Europe, events on the eastern edge of Christendom elevated Russia to the status of a great empire, while in Africa, the Portuguese consolidated their influence, carving the continent between Islam and Christianity. In China, the Ming rulers were ending trade on the Silk Road in favor of isolationism, while in India, the booming spice trade was trembling on the brink of a future of European interlopers. And back in the Americas, the Aztecs and Incas, at the peak of their language and art, were about to face their demise at the hands of the Spanish Conquistadores. Fernández-Armesto shows how, by opening the Americas to Christian evangelization and European migration, the events of 1492 radically redrafted the map of world religions and shifted the distribution and balance of world civilizations. Ultimately 1492 is a comprehensive account of how a single year can be seen to mark the beginning of modernity and the inexorable ascent of the West.

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