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January 18, 2010

A Voyage Long and Strange

Rediscovering the New World
Tony Horwitz - ISBN - 9780805076035

As in his other books, he gives the subject a new and refreshing look, with his usual sense of excitement. He apologetically identifies himself as "expensively educated at a private school and university--a history major, no less!--[who had] matriculated to middle age with a third grader's grasp of early America." He stole the title from Columbus' original notes.

Like reading Mayflower (reviewed earlier on this site), you will likely feel the same. Most ever'thin' ya thought-cha knew ain't true. As well, there's a world of stuff out there that you didn't know; a veritable avalanche of facts and stories. It is informative, breezy, off beat, honest, critical and long on analysis. He compresses much history into a few pages without being flip, dry or equivocal, all the while making it delightfully readable while exhibiting verbal parsimony. His periodic levity in anecdotes is both interesting and charming.

He glides quickly thru the landing of the Vikings, which impacted the locals not at all, then begins with 1492. Columbus, a "knight-errant," sailed believing that Asia was about where he found America (though he was 8,000 miles off) and thereby changed the world because he was wrong. While recognized as the discoverer of the New World he neither knew nor accepted that he wasn't somewhere near China. Time is spent on Columbus, reviewing his other trips here before being wholly disgraced and lost to history.

We've been told that he had to repeatedly rag on the Spanish Crown to fund his expedition, when in fact it was for other reasons they'd refused. The cost of the eventual mission was but a thirteenth of what Ferdinand and Isabella spent on their daughter's wedding. And thus goes the remainder of this fascinating tale.

He begins with the Indian cultures of the Southwest, and emphasizes that the earliest exploratory efforts were made by Spaniards who are seldom mentioned. DeVaca sailed from Vera Cruz to Tampa Bay, hiked up and across the Florida panhandle, sailed west to Galveston, then marched again across nearly to the Gulf of California before returning south and east back to Vera Cruz; a thousand miles by water and thousands more on foot. Never heard of him, didja? Coronado similarly explored the desert southwest and Mexico nearly two centuries before an Englishman got anywhere near it. He found irrigation systems of immense complexity, and fertile land with crops he'd never seen. He brought horses, but the immense herds of buffalo had him "buffaloed."

The Spaniards kept very good records of their atrocities, thus establishing that while germs killed a lot of natives, thousands were murdered, too. They were nothing if not resilient: "Hunger, heat, harsh winters, a steady diet of buffalo meat--none of this deterred them from their mission. . . . I started to wonder if the Spaniards weren't so much dogged as possessed. Greed and desperation I could grasp . . . but [their recorded exploits are] evidence of a tenacity that bordered on derangement."

Some became very wealthy; DeSoto's share of Peru's gold and silver came to more than ten million dollars in today's currency, yet he blew it all on additional ventures. He financed a venture on foot from Tampa thru Georgia, the Carolinas, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and down the Mississippi River to the Gulf, then back and around Texas; uncharted country, endless swamps, deserts and ordeals unimaginable. He left behind a devastated country with myriad destroyed cultures. The dead of the massacre at Mavila alone rivals Antietam as the deadliest day in combat on U.S. soil. The leftovers from these disintegrated city-states coalesced over time into the Creek and Choctaw tribes. Few have heard of DeSoto, but, then, he wasn't a Yankee. (Oh, yea, there was that Chrysler product some centuries later.)

Moving from the southwest back thru the southeast, then north along the Atlantic the author gives similar narratives of the discovery and destruction from St. Augustine to Plymouth. Along the way he does include discussions of the Huguenots--French Protestants--massacred in Jacksonville, FL by the Catholic Spaniards of St. Augustine; so it wasn't just the natives who "bought the farm."

The cold, stony, unforgiving region Sir Francis Drake hoped to sell to his countrymen he poetically named Nova Albion: New England. For centuries most every historian has bashed Roanoke as wholly failed and omitted discussion of Jamestown altogether, "eager to anoint Plymouth as the birthplace of America." He explains wryly that most historians from the 18th thru the early 20th century were historians from Massachusetts who held that the founder of Jamestown was a disgrace and a colossal liar. Actually, in Tony's 42 page discussion of Jamestown he says more, better than the entire book on Jamestown which I reviewed here some months ago. His canvas is not unlimited, but he paints well.

In one rather sad interview he discusses the disappearance of Indian ways; that with a modern Algonquian who really does want modernity, but with the serenity of Indian life. His discussion of Plymouth is short but interesting, and he ends with the observation that there is history and then there is myth (playing on the line from Who Shot Liberty Valance: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.")

He has corrected that. Good read.

Posted by Curmudgeon at January 18, 2010 12:20 PM