Gómez, Nicolás Wey. The Tropics Of Empire: Why Columbus Sailed South to the Indies. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008. Pp. xxiv + 592. Hardcover, $42.95.
Columbus started his first voyage of discovery by sailing from Spain to the Canary Islands, then due west until reaching the Caribbean Islands, and then explored in a southerly direction. The other voyages followed the same pattern. Wey Gómez argues that Columbus chose to go south because of his belief that the tropics, all tropics, were a place where the hot sun produced gold and other riches and where the people were more timid, although ingenious, than in the temperate zones. This belief in the overriding importance of place came from extensive study of contemporary and classical scholarship. Further, when Columbus made landfall, he was convinced he had reached Asia and thought south to India was better than north to China—more gold in India and less danger from Mongol armies. A political reason also existed. A peace treaty, written with West Africa in mind, between the governments of Castile and Portugal gave sovereignty of everything south of the Canary Islands to Portugal. Columbus was mystified by the place he reached because it was unlike the tropics he expected. The weather was temperate and the people looked like those on the Canary Islands, rather than like the “Ethiopians,” expected in such a place. The expectation of place and the people living there lead to an attitude that enslavement and exploitation was legitimate. This is a very impressive historical work based on both ancient and medieval documents, showing how a world-view directed the course of exploration.