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European History


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


In Search of Robinson Crusoe by Daisuke Takahashi, translated Juliet Winters Carpenter (Cooper Square Press) seeks to discover the actual man and adventures behind the remarkable life of Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk (1676-1721), the "real-life Robinson Crusoe" who inspired Daniel Defoe's classic novel of a castaway's ordeal and survival.

Daisuke Takahashi, a world traveler and Elected Fellow of both the Explorers Club in New York and the Royal Geographical Society in London , spent seven years searching for the truth behind the legend. His journey ranged from the vil­lage of Lower Largo in Scotland, where Selkirk was raised, to Robinson Crusoe Island (four hundred miles off the coast of Chile), a largely uninhabitable islet where Selkirk was stranded from 1704 to 1709.

In an attempt to understand what life was like for Selkirk, Takahashi lived on this island without modern tools or equipment. While there, Takahashi explored landmarks like Selkirk's Lookout, a hill where the castaway watched for possible rescue, and the enig­matic "Robinson Crusoe's Cave;" where Selkirk almost certainly sheltered.

The author's search also brought him into contact with several relics that had once belonged to Selkirk: a coconut cup, a knife handle, and a sea chest‑objects that, under Takahashi's discerning eye, disclose both solid information and tantalizing possibilities about the intrepid castaway, his ingenuity, and his experiences.

Based not only on contemporary diaries, letters, and memoirs but also on Takahashi's own research, this work brings to vivid life Selkirk's extraordinary ordeal. Equal parts his­tory, detective story, travel writing, and true adventure tale, In Search of Robinson Crusoe removes encrusted myths to reveal a man whose adventures surpassed those of Defoe's fictional creation.

A HARVEST OF RELUCTANT SOULS: The Memorial of Fray Alonso de Benavides, 1630 edited and translated by Baker Morrow ($22.95, cloth, 111 pages, notes, bibliography, index, line drawings, University Press of Colorado, ISBN: 0-87081-385-4)

Fray Alonso de Benavides, a Portuguese Franciscan and third head of the mission churches of New Mexico, published this highly readable work in 1630 as his official report to the king of Spain. Now, nearly four hundred years later, this unique classic of southwestern American history becomes available in a modern translation accessible to a general reading public.

In 1625, Father Benavides and his party traveled north from Mexico City via creaking oxcart and mule back to reach the mission fields of New Mexico. A keen observer, Benavides described New Mexico as a strange land of frozen rivers, Indian citadels, and elusive mines full of silver and garnets. Benavides and his brother Franciscans built schools, and churches, engineered peace treaties, gazed in awe at endless miles of buffalo grazing on the Great Plains, and were said to perform miracles.

This is the most thorough, riveting account ever written of southwestern life in the early 1600s. It is at once medieval and a tale of the Renaissance, a portrait of the Pueblos, the Apaches, and the Navajos at a time of fundamental change. This translation will be important to all readers interested in the early Southwest and the Hispanic stamp on American history.

Baker Morrow is a landscape architect and landscape historian living in Albuquerque and a longtime scholar of the early American Southwest.

CONQUISTADOR IN CHAINS: Cabeza de Vaca and the Indians of the Americas by David A. Howard ($29.95, paper, 259 pages, notes, bibliography, indexUniversity of Alabama Press, ISBN: 0-8173-0826-8)

The current image of the Spanish conquest of America and of the conquistadors who carried it out is one of destruction and oppression. CONQUISTADOR IN CHAINS, this one conquistador, Cabeza de Vaca, does not fit that image.

A life-changing adventure led Alvar Nuffez Cabeza de Vaca to seek a different kind of conquest, one that would be just and humane, true to Spanish religion and law yet safeguarding liberty and justice for the Indians of the New World. His use of the skills learned from his experiences with the Indians of North America, however, did not always help him in understanding and managing the Indians of South America, and too many of the Spanish settlers in the Rio de la Plata Province found that his policies threatened their own interests and relations with the Indians. Eventually many of those Spaniards joined a conspiracy that removed him from power and returned him to Spain in chains. This work reconstructs that story and the vision of the man who fell from grace.

Lawrence A. Clayton of The University of Alabama, writes "A fresh and immensely satisfying new look at a man who paid the steep price of career and honor in defense of his Christian conscience, honed by a long and intimate contact with American Indians. This book highlights once again the contradictor, motives that drove the Spanish conquests of the Americas in the 16th century by focusing on one man, Cabeza de Vaca. In his being and In his actions we see and can appreciate the magnitude, the magnificence, and the depravity of an era, borne along by sometimes wildly contradictory obsessions, from the most sacred to the most profane."

THE CREATURE IN THE MAP: A Journey to El Dorado
by Charles Nicholl ($15.95, paper, 398 pages, notes, bibliography, index, University of Chicago Press, ISBN: 0-226-58025-3) HARDCOVER

Thus this reconstruction of Raleigh’s El Dorado journey of 1595 is made out of materials collected in part from historical sources and in part from the author’s own experiences and encounters upriver.

Like The Reckoning, his brilliant account of the murder of Marlowe, Nicholl’s new book might be called an exercise in conjuring. THE CREATURE IN THE MAP is an effort not only to call into presence the lived experience of the voyage undertook in 1595 to the Orinoco Delta. It mixes personal contemporary travel narrative with the keen observation of a naturalist, ethnographer as well as a historian attempting to revive the perspective of the expedition of 1595. Sir Walter Raleigh come alive and his narrative is provided with unexpected depths in the imaginative work of historical reconsideration.

The book is in part an historical reconstruction, based as much as possible on original documents. Nicholl’s chief source is Raleigh’s own account of the expedition, The Discoverie of Guiana, written within a few weeks of his return to England and published early in 1596. and another less well known firsthand account by a young man who was part of the expedition, Francis Sparry or Sparrow. This document, written in a Madrid prison in about 1600, is given here for the first time in English translation, together with some related papers. Sparry adds fresh information on the journey, as do other sources—Spanish newsletters, Admiralty Court documents, etc.—not usually consulted.

Nicholl is also drawing throughout the book on his more personal experiences of South America, and in particular on notes and tapes brought back from a journey he made in late 1992, tracing the route of Raleigh’s expedition through present-day Venezuela. (The region he called Guiana is now mostly part of Venezuela; only the easternmost part lies in modern Guyana.) All this combines to create an important account of the expedition.

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