This book tells the story of the exploration and conquest of South America in the words of the discoverers themselves. By employing written accounts of certain key expeditions the author takes the reader on a whirlwind tour up the Amazon, around the Horn, and into the misty Andes. The saga begins with Columbus and concludes in 1911 with Bingham’s discovery of Machu Picchu.
Hanson, a professional geographer, devotes the first three chapters to the historic and geographic setting, and to the native inhabitants. Later chapters treat Columbus; Vespucci; the conquests of Panama, Peru, Chile, the Amazon, the River Plate; the quest for El Dorado; the missionaries; the English; and important men from the South American scene, such as La Condamine, Von Humboldt, Darwin, Bates, Schomburgk, Fawcett, and Bingham. The specialist might question this list, but to Hanson they comprise the essential human ingredients for the tale.
The period after about 1515 seems to be handled with more sophistication than the time before. The almost total omission of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés is a mystery. Of two index references to the great chronicler one is not fully documented and the other does not appear on the page cited. There are many instances of misquotations or wrong interpretations. Preston James is misquoted (p. 24). Nicuesa was not killed by the Indians (p. 89), and he did not abandon Castilla del Oro (p. 90). Balboa first saw the Pacific on the 27th of September, not the 25th (though this is a common error).
The period between 1501 and 1515 is sorely neglected, for this is when the Europeans were first really beginning to “dig in” on the American mainland. The book could have been greatly improved by the inclusion of a chapter on the attempts by Nicuesa and Ojeda to settle Castilla del Oro and Nueva. Andalucía. After all, these were the first two Spanish governors for the mainland, and it was from these expeditions that emerged Balboa, Pizarro, and (indirectly) Cortés.
The maps are simple and excellent; they illustrate what they are supposed to and nothing more. A bibliography is lacking. Few sources were used, and regrettably most of them are secondary ones. The book certainly has great value for the Latin Americanist, but caution should be exercised in view of the apparently large number of omissions and misquotations.