Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: Daniel Snowman Meets the Historian of Columbus, Barcelona, the Millennium, Truth, Civilisations, Food and the Americas. (Cross Current)

By Snowman, Daniel | History Today, July 2003 | Go to article overview

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: Daniel Snowman Meets the Historian of Columbus, Barcelona, the Millennium, Truth, Civilisations, Food and the Americas. (Cross Current)


Snowman, Daniel, History Today


FELIPE FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO'S PUBLISHED bibliography, if printed in its entirety, would take up half this article. Helpfully, many of his books have one-word titles. But the brevity of the titles often belies the immense ambition of the projects they are chosen to encapsulate. 'I only do one planet,' replies this self-confessed agent provocateur when asked about his field. And his period? 'From primeval slime to the future.'

Felipe was born in Britain in 1950 to a Spanish father and English mother, both of them journalists. His father is still recalled affectionately by old-timers in Spain for having filed sympathetic reports to the leading Barcelona paper La Vanguardia from wartime Britain (where he was also, it seems, doing intelligence work for the Allies).

The household was Anglophone, but Felipe soon felt the pull of his Spanish name and ancestry. His Oxford doctoral dissertation was a study of the Canary Islands in the years immediately after Columbus, for which he drew on a mass of surviving notarial archives. Arcane, specialised stuff? Perhaps. But far from constricting his islanders within a narrowly academic coastline, Felipe contrived to give them an extensive waterfront, revealing aspects of their social and economic life, agricultural methods, governmental and judicial systems, faith and mores. The result (as he says in the preface to the later published version) was 'the first attempt comprehensively to depict the society of a Spanish overseas colony in the sixteenth century'. Moreover, it was written in a style that, while making due obeisance to the formalities required of an aspiring young academic, gave notice of a writer prepared to risk the arresting phrase, the big idea, the bold generalisation--including the impossibility of generalising. The Canaries (he concluded with a characteristic flourish) did not provide an archetype of Spanish colonial development; rather, they were 'a crucible into which ingredients were flung at random, as though by a sorcerer's apprentice, not by a laboratory technician'.

When I first met Fernandez-Armesto a dozen or more years ago, he had done a stint as history master at Charter-house and as a lecturer at Warwick and was a Fellow of St Antony's, Oxford. He had already produced a succession of books and articles on the history of Spain and its interactions with the wider world, all of them suggesting a writer keen to expand his horizons and perhaps his audiences. The journalistic heritage gave him a good eye for a centenary and his early oeuvre included books on the Spanish Armada timed for the 400th anniversary (1988), followed by a biography of Columbus and a history of Barcelona both published as Spain geared up for the quincentenary--and Barcelona Olympics--of 1992. Then, as the mother of all anniversaries loomed, he published Millennium. The transformation from Hispanicist to Globalist was complete.

There is of course an element of playful posturing to Fernandez-Armesto's boast that he 'only does one planet', as there is to many of his deliberately provocative bons mots. But in Millennium the word becomes flesh, as it were. It is true that we travel through merely the last thousand years or so (as in Barcelona). But the journey is of truly global scope. One boards the millennial magic carpet with some trepidation, or at least I did. For this is a voyage that will dazzle and bewilder as we swoop down into the Maya Renaissance, the myths and markets of early Islam, the conquests of Timur or the exploratory voyages of the Chinese navigator Cheng Ho. Europe is not ignored. But Fernandez-Armesto suggests that anyone looking back from some futuristic galactic museum will probably see our much-vaunted Western culture--the Renaissance heritage, the hegemony of North America--as a brief episode that soon gave way to resurgent Islam or the culture of the Pacific Rim.

Most historians regard the past from the perspective of the present. …

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