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The Age of Reconnaissance by J. H. Parry

The Age of Reconnaissance (1963)

by J. H. Parry

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This is a wonderfully broad survey of European exploration and colonization between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. One of the general conclusions of this book is that European adventurers were motivated far more by hopes of economic gain than by geographic or scientific curiosity. Its overarching theme is therefore conquest in the name of trade, but the narrative also branches out to a multitude of other topics, such as proselytization, forced and voluntary migrations, government and even the theoretical justifications for conquest and conversion (in Spanish colonies in particular).

I particularly liked the opening chapter which clearly explains the political and technological reasons for the limitations of European geographic knowledge prior to the 15th century. Travel by land eastward was difficult and dangerous, while ships could only cover the Mediterranean ocean. The author seems to have had a particular fondness for naval history, as he goes into great detail in describing the evolution of ships and navigation methods which enabled Europeans to start exploring the big oceans. He closes the book by emphasizing that the world known to Europeans by the middle of the seventeenth century was still mostly a world of coastlines.

One strength of this book is that it reveals the mixed motives of explorers, conquistadores, traders, colonists, royalty and their colonial representatives in this age. They rarely viewed discovery as an aim in itself, as some modern historians are accustomed to do. Conquest was mostly profitable, but fortunes changed swiftly and there were many exploratory and colonial dead ends. European monarchies frequently lost interest and influence in their colonies when wars and revolutions at home required urgent attention. The seeds of colonial independence were planted in this period, but how independence eventually came about is a story for another book.

Another positive is that this book treats eastward and westward reconnaissance evenly. The westward story gets a bit more attention, but this is clearly justified because strong political organizations in Asia prevented eastward travelers from controlling anything more than seaborne trade. European undertakings on the American continent were far more pervasive and consequential. Overall this book is a very useful complement to internal European history in these centuries. European reconnaissance had a substantial impact not only on the places where Europeans came ashore, but on Europe itself.
  thcson | Jun 5, 2015 |
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