1492: The Year Our World Began

Jerry Brotton savours a global history of a decisive year


Reviewed by: Jerry Brotton
Author: Felipe Fernández-Armesto
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Price (RRP): £8.99


Nobody writes global history better than Felipe Fernández-Armesto.

The year 1492 has always been a significant year in his understanding of world history, forever associated with Columbus’s discovery of a sea route to America, which united civilisations by transforming the Atlantic from an insuperable barrier into a highway of trade and ideas. But in 1492 the author gives the year added global significance.

Taking his readers on a marvellously evocative journey from the expulsion of the Moors in Spain, through Africa, the Mediterranean, Renaissance Florence, Russia, China, the Indian Ocean and finally back to the Americas, Fernández-Armesto traces the seismic shift in global economic and political power from Asia to Europe, from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic.

He starts with Christian prophecies of the end of the world, and ends with the birth of our ‘modern’ world system shaped by European beliefs and values.

The book is a miracle of compression. Its range is extraordinary, slaying various myths – the European Renaissance and Reformation, for example, are seen as “small-scale phenomena” – while addressing scandalously neglected aspects of 15th-century global history, such as the glories of the Muslim kingdoms of west Africa.

Fernández-Armesto rejects the story of the inevitable global triumph of western civilisation told by recent neoconservatives, and offers us a more contingent and wholly convincing account of the history of the world we currently inhabit.

Professor Jerry Brotton, Queen Mary, University of London
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