Gerald Sinstadt's Reviews > Toward the Setting Sun: Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci, and the Race for America

Toward the Setting Sun by David Boyle
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's review
Jun 30, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: history
Read from June 30 to July 10, 2012

Who discovered America? Christppher Columbus. Everyone says so. Anyway, I've seen the statue in Barcelona where he stands gazing out across the ocean.

Time for a rethink.

David Boyle's wonderful book first establishes that this is a tangled subject and then proceeds to unravel the strands with thrilling dexterity. The time is towards the end of the 15th Century. The motivation is the urge to bypass the long and winding trail of many hands that brings coveted spices from Asia. The world is only very partially mapped. To travel down the coast of Africa, round and beyond for unknown miles is unappealing and dangerous. Perhaps one might reach the east by sailing west. This is the story of three men who did, without actually arriving where they wanted to be.

The author makes the point that the three - Columbus, John Cabot and Amerigo Vespucci - were known to each other; and at various times they were partners, and at others rivals. Columbus and Cabot, indeed, were both born in Genoa. Vespucci was a Florentine. None was exactly a saint, Columbus probably the worst. In fewer than four hundred eminently readable pages, Boyle steers the reader through the overlapping careers. At the same time, he puts them in context - social, political, nautical and cosmological. The origins of later significant events are signposted - the conquest of Peru and Mexico, the American Civil War among them.

Above all, real human beings leap from the page. Through the three navigators we get to know Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile and Aragon, Henry VII and VIII, the Medicis, Savonarola, sundry popes, Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci. Francisco Pizarro and Hernan Cortes make fleeting cameo appearances. The action moves from Genoa and Venice to Cadiz to Lisbon to Bristol to Hispaniola (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic). How, in the end, did America come to be called America?

Finally, let me confess that in many books I find footnotes an irritating distraction. In Toward the Setting Sun they are not to be missed; many are small gems.

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