Great Lives Series: Laurence Bergreen

  • February 1, 2012

A Q&A with the author of Columbus: The Four Voyages.

Columbus, said a New York Times reviewer of Laurence Bergreen’s biography, Columbus: The Four Voyages ($35, Viking, 2011) was a “terribly interesting man — brilliant, audacious, volatile, paranoid, narcissistic, ruthless and (in the end) deeply unhappy.” Part explorer, part entrepreneur, part wannabe-aristocrat, Columbus initiated the most important period in Western history as a result of an error.

Bergreen, a frequent lecturer at major universities and symposiums, also serves as a featured historian for the History Channel. Among his many other books are biographies of Magellan and Marco Polo.

He was asked about the famous — and some would say, notorious — Christopher Columbus.

Q: You do a marvelous job of depicting the New World through Columbus’s eyes. It’s so strange and fantastic that the experience seems borrowed from science fiction when space travelers visit another world. How did you create this atmosphere?

To create or suggest the atmosphere I relied on the lush, detailed impressions recorded by Columbus and other participants on the voyage when they were in the Caribbean, on site. The strangeness they felt at seeing the world around them communicates itself after five centuries; there’s an immediacy to their descriptions that has the raw quality of, say, a hand-held camera. We, as readers, process the data along with Columbus and his men, only we have the benefit of hindsight and science to interpret what they’re seeing.

At one point, Columbus becomes so emotional at the outpouring of this perplexing natural splendor that he feels a sadness and a sense of bewilderment because he does not know the names of the unusual natural phenomena surrounding him. It’s an extraordinary moment, because it affords us a glimpse of a naive, unprepared Columbus grappling with his surroundings, and it does seem reminiscent of the epiphanies recorded by our astronauts on the journeys into space. It’s both exhilarating and disorienting.

Before sailing to the New World, Columbus had voyaged to Iceland and Greece, so he was no stranger to unusual sights and experiences, but the flora and fauna of the Caribbean — to say nothing of the Indians — challenged him as never before.

Q: Columbus’s ships and crews arrive with all the accoutrements of civilization: from their cannons, to their clothing, to the depth of their education. And yet within a short period, they are more savage than the primitive peoples they encounter. I was reminded of Golding’s Lord of the Flies. What happened to the veneer of the explorers’ sophistication and religious beliefs?

That’s an interesting perspective, but I’m not sure that the men deteriorated after arriving in the New World. They reverted to their inherent nature. They were sailors, rude and crude and violent, and they came from a violent culture, especially by our standards. Keep in mind that this was the start of the Inquisition in Spain, 1492, a time of brutality in Spain.

It is true that Columbus had been advised by his sovereigns, Ferdinand and Isabella, to treat people he encountered in a kindly fashion, and he veered tragically from that, but by the standards of his day, especially among sea captains, he was not especially cruel. What is interesting is his inability to decide whether to treat the Tainos, the indigenous people whom he encountered, as allies or as potential slaves to be sent home along with gold and spices. Part of this duality derives from his youth in Genoa, where slaves were common. At times he and his men, especially the priests who came along with him, tried to impose their religious beliefs on the Tainos, with mixed results.

The real cruelty, or descent into Lord of the Flies behavior, it seems to me, was unintentional. For example, germs that Columbus and his men brought with them eventually led to the decimation of the local population. Fifty years after Columbus, only a handful of Tainos were left, and today they are all but extinct. But it was not Columbus’s goal to wipe them out with germ warfare. No one understood the concept of germs at that time. Why Indians fell sick and started to die was a mystery to the Europeans. Similarly, the presence of Columbus and his men after a time drove the Indians to despair, especially when the Indian women became pregnant by the Europeans. It seemed as the Indian destiny was being diverted, snuffed out, and in protest, tens of thousands of Indians committed suicide by jumping off cliffs or by other means.

There’s no reason to think that Columbus or any of his men ever intended to drive the Indians to suicide, or anything like it: this was a tragic, unforeseen consequence of their arrival in the New World. Columbus remained as religious as ever, if not more so, and felt he acted according to divine will.

Q: Interestingly, Columbus himself seems to have no illusions about the true nature of his men. He writes, “Our people by nature being disrespectful, no order or punishment could have stopped them from running about the country and into the Indians’ huts to steal what they found and commit outrages on their wives and children, whence would have arisen disputes and quarrels that would have made enemies of them.” Is this an admission of his failure to inspire his men with ideals?

I see it as an admission of lack of leadership skills and his frustration at being unable to control his men, to stop them from degrading Indian women. Keep in mind that he did not bring a trained force with him. His men were sailors, scalawags, who risked their lives to go to the New World in the hope of getting rich quickly. Although Columbus was himself disciplined, he was unable to impose discipline on his men. Oddly, he kept his ideals to himself; his crew went for baser reasons.

Q: How the natives slough-off Christianity, like an inoculation that doesn’t take, implies that they had no need of the Gospel. Do you agree?

I find it hard to speculate across the centuries on how the Gospel appeared to the Tainos. We can assume that how the Gospel seemed to the Indians had to do with the nature of the newcomers who brought it to them: how they appeared, and the lack of a shared language, and the inevitable miscommunication that occurred. How do you explain the concepts with this lack of language? And how would a bond be formed to allow the transmission of belief or faith? On the basis of what the Indians heard from their visitors, it would have been difficult to impossible to determine whether they needed the Gospel or not. Also, they had little opportunity to see a European or Christian lifestyle in operation. Their view of the matter must have been very unnatural and distorted. Of course, Christianity eventually came to the region to stay, after several attempts.

Q: As the Spaniards’ depredations continue, many of the islanders still hold the Spanish in awe. Why?

The Spanish had a technological sophistication that seemed quite magical to the Tainos. They had guns, huge boats, metal objects such as mirrors, and brightly-colored fabrics, all of which added to their stature. According to some accounts, the Indians also considered the arrival of Columbus’s fleet the fulfillment of a prophecy of their own, at least at first. So they considered the Spanish creatures who had descended from the sky.

Q: In the end, there’s an air of late medievalism, and the end of an age, about Columbus and his men. They are all about planting the cross, and continuing the purpose of the Crusades. And yet Columbus astonishes the natives by predicting a lunar eclipse because he consulted a book of cosmography. He’s respectful of science and its uses. Should we see Columbus as a transitional figure in history?

Yes, indeed. It is absolutely true that Columbus combined both the deeply-held faith and absolutism that we associate with the Medieval era with a wide range of learning and skills about nautical matters. He was respectful of science — actually avid for it — because it was useful to his ends. At the same time, his religious zeal led him to imagine that he could find the entrance to Heaven. That’s part of what makes him such a fascinating and enigmatic creature. He has often been portrayed as the first modern explorer, and later on as the first promoter of genocide.  Both of these characterizations highlight different sides of this complex individual. I prefer to think of him as a very gifted mystic, who became increasingly erratic in his last years. And yes, he did see himself as trying to continue the Crusades in some sense through his exploration.

Q: The purpose of exploration then versus now seems to influence the type of men and women who are drawn to it. Would Columbus and Cousteau recognize kindred spirits in each other, for instance?

It would be pleasant to say that one could envision Christopher Columbus and Jacques Cousteau exchanging salutes of fellowship across the centuries, but in fact they were very different. Columbus, to put it simply, went for greed (material gain) and for glory (a religious motivation). Cousteau was a man of science, and went to extend human knowledge to benefit humankind everywhere. He wasn’t trying to “conquer” or “claim” the ocean, for example, but to understand and to a certain extent master it. Columbus acquired a lot of this mastery along the way, but it was incidental to his larger —and darker — purposes.

To be sure, both Columbus and Cousteau were both profoundly courageous, and risked their necks time and again, but they each reflect the specific assumptions of the age to which they belong.

Q: You mention near the end of the book that streets, cities, and schools have been named for Columbus and statues of him can be found in many places. And yet, he was unconcerned that as many as 50,000 islanders committed suicide or starved rather than submit to his demands for tribute. Are we venerating a perpetrator of genocide?

Not intentionally, no.  None of these streets, institutions, monuments, or cities was meant to refer to or to perpetuate the evil aspects of Columbus’s voyages; they are all dedicated to honoring or glorifying a perhaps over-idealized image of Columbus as a discoverer, an explorer, and in some cases, a bringer of Christianity. I seriously doubt that the architects of these monuments were even aware of the dark side of Columbus. If they had been, they would have built monuments to someone else.  But the idea of Columbus has become wedded to the idea of the New World and to the idea of America that is the heroic if unrealistic image that the monuments seek to perpetuate.

Laurence Bergreen will present the life of Columbus as part of the Chappell Great Lives Lecture Series, Thursday, February 9, at 7:30 pm in Dodd Auditorium at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA.

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