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Response to Review of The Eagle and the Dragon: Globalization and European Dreams of Conquest in China and America in the Sixteenth Century

The Eagle and the Dragon is the third volume of a trilogy which was introduced by Les quatre parties du monde and What time is it there?(1) The book aims to contribute to the ever-burgeoning debates on why, when and how to practice global history. How to open new spaces to excessively compartmentalised fields? How and why to ‘connect’ histories, to refer to Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s well-known formula? How to avoid or, at least, limit Eurocentrism when one is writing from Europe?

The Eagle is also an attempt to illustrate how a global history of the European Renaissance could be written in the wake of Jerry Brotton and Liza Jardine’s pioneering works: how to relocate the history of Europe, as a local history, in broader horizons? That means that it is not another history of the conquest of Mexico, not even a comparative history between Mexico and China, but just a case study offering reflections and insights on the debates I just mentioned.

It is true that in Western Europe this new trend, of scholarship crossing disciplinary frontiers, far from dominates the field of history. Asserting that old frameworks of national, colonial, imperial and more generally of conventional academic history could be obstacles to a global approach may generate criticism and sharp responses. However, it is a pity that the reviewer limits himself to a bunch of misreadings, distortions and decontextualizations that reveal more a superficial reading than a willingness (or capacity?) to join these important and current debates.

I shall give a few examples of what seems more a caricature than a critical and constructive review. When I wrote that Cortes had to face the same challenges as the Portuguese Pires, I am expressly referring to those I enumerated just a line before: ‘the obstacle of numbers, distance and unpredictability, the fact of confronting populations about which nothing was known’ (p. 169). All these four challenges were present in Mexico as well as in China. Nothing else. When I introduce two Italian Renaissance concepts – fortuna and virtù – I am not trying to explain the opposing destinies of the two expeditions. It is a way of addressing the question of modernity (or better modernities), drawing a parallel between the Prince of Machiavelli and Hernan Cortes, and therefore linking the Mexican episode to a European and Italian context and confronting the conquistador with contemporary models: ‘his journey, which he presents as having passed off almost without a hitch, would have made him a remarkable disciple of Machiavelli had he not constructed himself, all of his own, thousands of kilometres from Europe’.

The reviewer accuses me of repeating the ‘familiar refrain of the invincible technical superiority of the Europeans’, referring to a page (p. 128) on which, quite the contrary, I describe and insist upon their technical limits and failures. According to the reviewer, ‘Gruzinski does not notice that in many cultures, including those of Mesoamerica in the 16th century, what we might call the stranger-effect is positive: the stranger arrives, endowed with the appeal of the exotic, the objectivity of the outsider […]’. Chapter 13, based on a famous chapter by Claude Lévi-Strauss, is especially dedicated to dealing with the peculiar place given to the stranger in the American worlds. Other criticisms of the same kind – I am portraying ‘indigenous people as outwitted, clueless, inflexible, inferior, superstitious, inhibited, and bereft of initiative’ – do not even deserve an answer. It is enough to refer the reader to the thousands of pages I have dedicated in the last few decades to the natives of Mexico and the Americas.

Notes

  1. Serge Gruzinski, Les quatre parties du monde (Paris, 2004); What Time is It There? (London, 2010).Back to (1)