Two Books About Christopher Columbus
- November 1, 2011
A comparison of two historical writers and their takes on 15th-century Western exploration.
Writing to the Spanish rulers Ferdinand and Isabella from what he presumed to be the outer banks of the Asian mainland, Christopher Columbus communicated the following lines:
"I write this to you, from which you will learn how in thirty-three days I passed from the Canary Islands to the Indies, with the fleet which the most illustrious King and Queen, our Sovereigns, gave to me. There I found very many islands, filled with innumerable people, and I have taken possession of them all for their Highnesses, done by proclamation and with the royal standard unfurled."
The famed navigator’s monumental “discoveries” created powerful shockwaves that reverberated on both shores of the Atlantic, dramatically transforming both points of contact and beginning a process of cultural exchange that continues to this day.
In recent years, a cottage industry has grown up around the life, legacy and world of famed mariner Christopher Columbus. Serious scholars and popular authors alike continue to churn out an abundance of original works that investigate the explorer’s religious and economic motivations, recreate the turbulent social context that imparted to him a particular psychological outlook, and provide assessments of his enduring legacy. The recent success of Charles Mann’s 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created bears witness to the esteemed position and substantial hold Columbus continues to have over the popular imagination of Western modernity.
Like many other “world-historical” individuals such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Napoleon who all seem to exist outside of time and space, Columbus has long been a figure that, through our analysis and attempts either to appropriate or vilify, reveals more about our own cultural norms and values than the subject under consideration. These two works, out just in time for Columbus Day, seek both to explain and convey the weighty significance of the nautical celebrity.
Having previously followed Magellan around the globe in Over the Edge of the Globe, notable author Laurence Bergreen has returned to the Age of Exploration and constructed a both lucid and solidly written narrative of Columbus’ four voyages to the New World. Over the course of his tale, Bergreen presents readers with a picture of a courageous man driven by both an ambition for material gain and a divine mission as “Christ-bearer” to convert the natives, recapture Jerusalem and bring on the apocalypse.
Bergreen begins his narrative of the contentious birth of the New World with an interesting question, “Does it matter anymore?” Whether or not Columbus was an opportunist, enriching himself at the expense of native populations and justifying his behavior as part of a divine mission, falls short of the author’s purpose. For Bergreen, the true magnitude of Columbus’ impact can be best understood when we consider that “before him, the Old World and the New remained separate and distinct continents, ecosystems, and societies; ever since, their fates have been bound together for better or worse.”
To his credit, Bergreen refuses to grind any axes and instead presents us with a Columbus who is remarkably human and who, through his own words, emerges as the “tormented, heroic figure” he thought himself to be. Bergreen’s account leans alternately upon Columbus’ own journal and the accounts of his opponents, including Bartolomé de Las Casas, whose Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies served both as a unique analysis of the events of 1492 and a cautionary tale of the destructive effects of the Conquistadors’ conquest of paradise.
Douglas Hunter (Half Moon: Henry Hudson and the Voyage that Redrew the Map of the New World) takes a different route by focusing not on the detrimental outcome of the New World, but instead on the cooperation and rivalry between Columbus and a most unlikely Venetian rival, John Cabot. Forced out of his homeland by an immense debt, Cabot travelled around Renaissance Europe seeking support for his Atlantic expeditions that he eventually gained from the Tudor King Henry VII. Hunter argues that by closely examining the careers of both navigators we begin to see the Western exploration “with a fresh and comprehensive vision.”
By far the most intriguing aspect of Hunter’s conjectural tale is his attempt to utilize the archival efforts of an international team known as the Cabot Project to reconstruct the “lost” work of economic historian Alwyn Amy Ruddock, who requested that all her work on Cabot be destroyed upon her death in 2006. However, Hunter’s efforts to fill the gaps in the history of early exploration require a great leap of faith (or, as he calls it, imagination) and leave serious scholars questioning the validity of his arguments.
While both works are enjoyable reads for fans of the Age of Exploration, only Bergreen’s work, with its lucid writing, rich illustrations and comprehensive nature, stands out from what truly has become a crowded field.
Columbus lived under the spell of many illusions. To the end of his life, he would remain convinced that he had indeed reached the shores of Asia, at the footsteps of the Great Kahn. But who among us doesn’t live under the spell of illusions or some degree of denial, or with dreams, hopes and impossible expectations? Maybe this is why such an enigmatic character as the Admiral of the Ocean Sea remains such an appealing character to us today.
Brian Odom is a graduate of the University of Alabama with master’s degrees in history and library science. He teaches history at Jefferson State Community College, outside of Birmingham, Ala., and is a reference librarian at Pelham Public Library.