Parry’s book is not the usual story of the Great Age of Discovery. Instead of an account limited to incorrect geographical theory, cartography, and adventure, we receive a thorough survey of all that went into making the great age possible and conclude with an analysis of the results.
Of the three parts of the work, Part I, consisting of seven chapters, assesses the physical, intellectual, and economic means at the disposal of Europeans when they began exploring in the 15th century. Part II, six chapters long, furnishes the narrative, mostly of the Iberian peoples but with attention also to the English, French, and Dutch, of the sea voyages, land discoveries, and earliest conquests in the Old World and the New. Part III, also in six chapters, describes the empires, once founded, and discusses their economies, the character of their colonists, and the nature of their governments. The concluding chapter, entitled “The rights of conquerors and conquered,” analyzes the thoughts and writings of three Spanish political theorists, Vitoria, Las Casas, and Sepúlveda. While not leaning to the side of Sepúlveda in his famous debate with Las Casas over Indian rights, Parry does him more justice than he usually receives.
There are eighty illustrations, grouped together between pages 176 and 177. These are mostly, but not entirely, old, and include pictures of ships and shipbuilding, real and imaginary portraits of characters, interesting pictures and woodcuts of colonial scenes, and reproductions of old maps.
Any undertaking of the scope of Parry’s is apt to he a balance sheet of good and not-so-good qualities. Beyond question, the good overbalances the bad in this case. The narrative parts are not remarkable, but the organization is excellent. The author skillfully weaves together complicated threads of world history and the reader encounters the world’s highest cultures and the world’s lowest, from Papacy to Papua and from Paris to Patagonia. He also encounters all the continents, including Australia, and all the oceans except the Antarctic.
Yet the present review is not a paean of praise, for Professor Parry commits errors; altogether too many of them. Most could have been avoided by consultation with the right books or the right persons. It is worse than loose phraseology to speak of Timur the Lame as “the last great nomad Mongol Khan,” when he did not use the title khan and was neither nomad nor Mongol. The accompanying remark that a Castilian embassy to Timur found him already dead is likewise incorrect. The statement (p. 139) that Pero de Covilhã lived only thirteen years after his arrival in Abyssinia in 1493 is directly contradicted by our one piece of evidence on the subject, which shows him still alive in 1520. The elopement of Machin and Anna d’Arfet was doubtless fictitious, as Parry agrees (p. 146), but the fiction makes them go to Madeira and not the Azores; indeed the author is on doubtful ground when he says the Azores were known at all in the 14th century. Atlantis and Antilla (or Antiilia) were not simply different words for the same place as is assumed on page 148. The statement (p. 157) that after Vespucci “all Europe recognized America for what it was, a new continent and barrier between Europe and Asia,” will not do, for much of Europe recognized no such thing, as the Magellan voyage and much later cartography prove. The sentence at the top of page 160 can only be taken as meaning that Magellan avoided touching Brazil, whereas he really spent some time there as Pigafetta attests. It would be better to say (p. 170) that human sacrifice had become rare among the Incas than that it had ceased altogether. It is worse than useless to cite as sole source for a very brief account of Amerigo Vespucci the inadequate and wholly out-of-date work of Clements Markham (p. 341). Finally, the modern map of the East Indies following the conclusion is entirely off in latitude: the 10th parallel north is drawn where the equator should be.
The list of errors, some trivial and some more serious, could be extended considerably beyond the one given here. They mar but do not spoil what might have been a superb book, and it is a tribute to Parry that his work remains good in spite of itself.