The Discovery of Mankind: Atlantic Encounters in the Age of Columbus
Yale University Press
A sense of the past: exploring sensory experience in the pre-modern world
On his arrival in the Caribbean in October 1492 Christopher Columbus experienced a sensory explosion: fragrant scents, tropical fish, sweetly singing multi-coloured birds and encounters with unknown peoples whose erotic nakedness, incomprehensible language and apparent lack of social organization clashed with his perception of mankind (Fig. 1). As far as we can determine from the European sources and surviving archaeology, the indigenous islanders on their part were astounded by the sound of cannon firing, their first meeting with a chicken, speaking paper (writing), brass tacks and bells and the taste of sugar and other new foods. Much has been written on this first encounter between European and Caribbean peoples, but focusing on its sensory impact as David Abulafia does in a new book helps to explain the subsequent sordid tale of slavery, disease, ambition and greed far better than can any political or commercial history (Abulafia, 2008).