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on 17 September 2010
The year 1492 is best known for Columbus' discovery of America (though he thought he had got to China); also for the conquest of Granada by the "Catholic Monarchs", which put an end to the Moorish civilisation in Spain (which had been rather tolerant), replacing it with a very intolerant one (NB the Inquisition and the eviction of the Jews). Even if you think you already know about these events, Fernandez-Armesto is well worth reading.
His discussion of the earlier Spanish colonisation of the Canary Islands, though it comes in a separate chapter, provides an interesting preamble to the subsequent overthrow of the Inca and Aztec civilisations.
At least equally important, and much less well-known, were events in the Far East and around the Indian Ocean, which the book discusses at some length. Around this time, China withdrew from imperial ambitions, while Japan "crumbled into ineffectiveness", leaving that very important area open to subsequent European trading and colonisation.
There is also a chapter about events in Africa in and around 1492, which shaped the religious map of the continent, Islam dominating across the Sahara, in the Sahel and along the Indian Ocean coast, with Christianity preponderant elsewhere.
The author's breadth of knowledge is impressive - he has a Spanish father, an English mother and lives in the USA, which may contribute to this. Though I found myself skipping some parts - such as the dynastic vagaries of Imperial China - I found his book both readable and instructive.
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on 24 December 2010
I was gripped by 1492: The Year Our World Began , by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. This is the second book I have read by the renowed historian - the last was the incredible Civilisations.

1492 argues that the process of forging the new modern world begun in 1492! Fernandez-Armesto traces key elements of the modern world back to events of that year. He takes the reader on a journey around the globe, drawing the together the threads that began to bind the planet. The tour begins in Granada, where the last Islamic kingdom in Europe collapsed, then moves to Timbuku, where a new Muslim empire triumphed. With Portuguese explorers, we visit the court of the first Christian king in the Congo. He then traces the frozen frontiers of the dynamic, bloody Russia of Ivan the Great, and explores the mystical poets in Asia. The book is perhaps not on the level of "Civilisations", but it is well worth the read. It will appeal mostly to those who love world, maritime or explorations history. At 346 pages, you will want to allow plenty of reading time.

Memorable Quote : "History has no course. It thrashes and staggers, swivels and twists, but never ends one way for long". [pg 311]
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 12 March 2012
This is an engrossing history, which takes a quite unusual path in following the events around the world at approximately the same time - of course 1492. As Fernandez- Armesto makes clear this was a time of significant events which helped to form the world we have become. The conquest of Granada by Spain, which essentially brought an end to Islam as a ruling power in Europe, the sailing of Columbus on his first voyage which led to European involvement in the Americas, the expulsion of Jewish people from Spain which led to increased conversions to Christianity, and the benefits those conversions brought to Christian commerce and learning, and the effects of the withdrawal of China from exploration and foreign influence which left the door open for others to exploit are all explained here along with events in Africa, the Canary islands, and in the rapidly forming and expanding Russia under Ivan the Great.

This is a wide sweep of history which helps set events in the context what was happening across the world. At times it can be a little heavy going as it can build on history which may be little known by the general reader ( well at least by me) , but it is an enjoyable and very informative read.

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on 19 November 2014
It’s good to see a professional historian tackling something I had been thinking about for a while (in 2007 I reviewed the final volume of the Cambridge Medieval History under the title “1492: the End of the World”). And I came to the same conclusion as Fernandez-Armesto (who contributed a chapter to the Cambridge volume): yes, the events in Europe towards the end of the fifteenth century genuinely do represent a switching point in world history. In Europe the changes were swift and dramatic: politically, culturally, economically and technologically Europe in 1600 was a different world from Europe in 1400. Catastrophic repercussions for the Aztecs, the Inca, North American Indians and West Africans followed in short order. However it is reasonable to argue that the world didn’t change for the Muslim world, India and China until the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution. And yet even here it is clear to me that the Industrial Revolution was a natural consequence of changes set in motion three centuries earlier.

A lot of the material was reasonably familiar to me, but there were a few areas that I knew nothing about and which I found particularly interesting. Firstly that the earliest European trading with West Africa was exchanging salt for gold. Secondly was the fact that the Spanish had met with considerable resistance from the natives in conquering the Canaries, but that the lessons learned helped them against the Aztecs and Inca, plus the islands were a particularly good setting off point for the Caribbean thanks to the prevailing winds at that latitude. And finally that the Indian Ocean is much more convenient for long ocean journeys than the Atlantic thanks to the prevailing winds changing direction between the monsoon season and the rest of the year. There was therefore a thriving marine trade going on already when the Europeans arrived. And because before the Industrial Revolution the Europeans didn’t have much they could sell in the Indian Ocean they provided a source of cheap shipping in the region and significantly boosted the regional economy.
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on 19 September 2011
An engrossing, highly readable survey of the state of the world in 1492, when Columbus's (or his overlooked lookout's) discovery of the Americas dramatically changed the global status quo. Fernandez-Armesto, a Professorial Fellow of Queen Mary, University of London, writes with clarity and intellectual rigor (not always an easily managed combination), examining the international situation with the enthusiasm of an ideal explorer.

At 321 pages, this book is deceptively lightweight, and minimally footnoted, but the author manages to pack an impressive amount of content between its covers.
Over the course of ten chapters, subjects covered include, among others, the fortunes of Islam in Africa, the reign of Ivan III and his massive expansion of Russia, and the complex tensions between Confucian mandarins and the Buddhist-sympathizing Ming dynasty.

Some of Fernandez-Armesto's most striking observations are only briefly treated in the text, but provide much room for further thought: for example, his speculation that a decline in the fortunes of the great empire of Mali, during the fifteenth century, may have directly influenced the concurrent decline in the status of black people, evinced in contemporary map illustrations, thus strengthening the justifications for the slave trade (itself already well underway) and constituting a dramatic turning-point in the history of race relations.

Occasionally, the author's attempts to provide contemporary pop-culture parallels for historic reference points can feel slightly jarring, but this is rarely an issue and in any case is also a reflection of the book's appealing chattiness and immense enthusiasm for and engagement with its subject.
Notwithstanding its light touch, however, this study provides a cogent and intensive analysis of why other parts of the world, for one reason or another, did not take over the Americas -- thus giving the lie to the inevitability of the "rise of the West" -- and what this take-over, five hundred odd years ago, means for the world today.
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on 11 February 2013
The writer takes on the almost impossible - a survey of the world at a point in time in 300 pages - and unsurprisingly it becomes bitty and gossipy. Italy in 27 pages, 30 pages or so for the Far East and Russia.

A lot could have been done in 300 plus pages by showing what the world's civilisations had in common and where they differed. For example almost all were totally dependent on the land within just a few miles for their food, fuel, clothing and most other raw materials. But each community responded to this in different ways.

If you do not already know a good deal about the history of the time you will be like someone who meets a stranger and is only allowed to see his big toe. But if you do know a good deal the anecdotes fairly interesting.
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on 4 June 2010
So, according to the author, 1492 is the year that the world changed. Given Columbus' first voyage to the New World, it's easy to see how this can be the case. And yet it appears that in the rest of the world, too, there was much change: this book is refreshingly non-Europe-centric. The great kingdoms in Africa that might have halted the spread of Islam or Christianity faded, and the continent was soon divided between the two faiths. China's great fleets that established its cultural dominance all over Asia ground to a halt, granting the field to fresh interlopers to take over trade and power over the region. The merchant marines of the Indian Ocean were never able to supply the demand of their states, and so began to welcome the advent of European traders, despite the newcomers' savagery and greed. Great powers in the Americas remained inward-looking and self-sustaining, and found no reason to venture into the ocean to establish their dominions. And so the scene was set for the gradual takeover of the world by the denizens of the relatively poorest tip of Eurasia.

All this didn't, of course, happen in the year 1492. In fact, as Fernandez-Armesto points out, that year itself is loosely defined - what was 1492 in one part of Europe wasn't necessarily the same year in another; and indeed, in the rest of the world, completely different calendars were used. And to be sure, it's difficult to restrict the narrative to the events of this "year", and so the author is forced to provide extensive backgrounds for each part of the world leading up to that crucial period. And that's what makes this book so interesting and readable. It's a very good summary of the state of the world at the time. Worth your time.
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on 6 June 2012
In terms of the sheer breath of knowledge, Felipe Fernanedez-Armesto has done an impressive job with 1492. Covering nearly every continent, Fernandez-Armesto attempts to show how the world was on the crux of change in and around 1492. Just immersing in the histories of all these different regions was reason enough to read this book. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the Indian Ocean Rim and was fascinated by the travels of Zheng He, whom I had never heard of before. However, not all his chapters are convincing. And many of the chapters are dense with information that is often not related to the thesis at all. I found the book difficult to read because of this and the chapter on China, Japan, and Korea was exceptionally tedious. His thesis is definitely provocative, although the year 1492 may be somewhat arbitrary. However, I think the book is worth a read for its fresh perspective on the modern era. And I think most people will learn quite a bit about those areas of the world that we seldom pay attention to.
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on 3 February 2015
Whilst I'm a prolific reader of history I found this book hard going so much so that it was one that I couldn't finish.The Vignettes presented whilst interesting in themselves seemed to me to be not greatly connected and written in a plodding style that failed to keep my interest.Nothing about the prose excited me and the descriptions given failed to ignite my imagination. Armesto is an author who is well regarded, respected and justly acknowledged but this work was just too bogged down for my taste.
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on 16 December 2013
The books by Armesto are not always the most readable as they sometimes lean too much towards academics and not joe public. However this book is exceptionally good. The historical insights are marvellous and this book will be interesting regardless of whether you are a degree student such as myself or just somebody interested in history. It is a very readable book and there is some very limited lite humour which helps to make the history less dry.
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