The Emperor's Giraffe And Other Stories Of Cultures In Contact

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9780813335858: The Emperor's Giraffe And Other Stories Of Cultures In Contact

An outbreak of a disease known as the black vomit” prevents the English from strengthening their hold in The New World” in the eighteenth century, with huge repercussions; the untimely death of an emperor prevents Chinese and Portuguese explorers from meeting along the coast of West Africa in the fifteenth century; the most significant factor in the Spanish exploration of North America turns out not to be Spain's mighty armies or her unrivaled fleet, but the lowly mosquito. In human history, little things can make a big difference, as Samuel Wilson demonstrates in The Emperor's Giraffe and Other Stories of Cultures in Contact .Focusing on individuals caught by chance in pivotal times and places, Wilson explores the ways in which seemingly small decisions made during the initial contact period” between two cultures have had a huge impact on the course of history. Many of the stories illustrate that, despite thousands of years of isolation, the states and empires of the Old World were remarkably similar in structure and organization to those of the Americas. And the course of events in these past societies was at least partially determined by decisions made by people very much like ourselves armed with imperfect knowledge and fueled by personal agendas.More than anything else, The Emperor's Giraffe shows that the consequences of these contact periods” are still very much with us, in some rather surprising ways. Who could have predicted that the British colonization of the West Indies would come to a symbolic end with a 1950 England West Indies cricket match? Who would have guessed that centuries-old European folk tales would make their way to America and be brought back to Europe hundred of years later in the guise of Disney characters? Little known events with large consequences and remarkable characters fill these interesting, informative, and sometimes surprising essays.

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About the Author:

Samuel Wilson is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. He is editor of The Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean, and coeditor of Ethnohistory and Archaeology: Approaches to Postcontact Change in the Americas.

From Kirkus Reviews:

An anthropologists collection of essays formed at the tectonic plates of colliding cultures. Most of the pieces here, expanded from their first appearance in Natural History magazine, involve Europeans and the New World cultures they encountered. Wilson (Anthropology/Univ. of Texas, Austin) conveys the excitement of his field work in such passages as his description of excavating a 2,000-year-old Midwest storage pit and fitting his hand into the handprint of the original digger. The essays are largely engaging, and the book underscores just how rich the half-millennium since Columbus has been in inter-cultural contact. Wilson opens with four articles on Columbus himself, asserting against the common belief that the explorer died neglected and penniless that in fact Columbus died rich and married off his son to an aristocratic family. Another bit of myth-busting involves the benign Pilgrim settlers of Plymouth Colony and their interpreter, Squanto. It seems, writes Wilson, that Squanto used his European contacts to extort wealth from the fearful natives, and the warm and fuzzy Thanksgiving Day feast to celebrate racial harmony may be a historical turkey. European exploration and colonization remains a central theme; one essay debates the Viking-Eskimo discovery of North America. The title piece concerns a Ming dynasty explorer who in 1414 led a fleet of ``62 massive trading galleons, any of which could have held Columbus' three small ships on its decks.''Yes, there was a giraffe (from modern-day Kenya) that made its way to the Chinese court by way of Bengal. Other essays of note explore the cultural mix of refugees in the Caribbean islands and the reactions of Native Americans who appreciate the ancient artifacts that archeologists recover but disdain their grave robbing. A fine anthropological read and another spade of dirt tossed on the coffin of Eurocentrism. -- Copyright 1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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