Book Review – Columbus: The Four Voyages

Columbus: The Four Voyages
Laurence Bergreen
Viking Penguin Press
Copyright 2011 by the author

What with theongoing hubbub over Columbus popping up again in the news this summer as his statues were defaced and knocked down and there were calls to rename the things we’ve named in his honor, I thought it would be a good time to read another biography of him, and perhaps cut through both the hagiography and the demonization to get to know him a bit better. And perhaps be able to counter the arguments used for and against him. In any case, it ought to be a fascinating read for a history buff like me.

Bergreen is a historian and biographer whose previous works followed Magellan (Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, 2003) and Marco Polo (Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu, 2007). This work is (presumably) in the same mode; more of a chronicle of Columbus’ voyages rather than a complete biography. He uses Columbus’ own journals, logs, and letters, along with the many personal journals and letters of those who accompanied him on his voyages, to assemble as good an account of those trips as you are likely to get.

Along the way, he shows that pretty much everything you knew about Columbus is, well, complicated.

Columbus was a fool for never realizing he’d found a new continent.”

It actually took a while after he returned from his final voyage for people to come to the realization that there was a New World out there. No one was dissing him at the time. This is in large part to the fact that people really didn’t know that much about the Orient to begin with. We can easily, while noshing on our Chinese takeout, ask Alexa “How far is it from Madrid to Beijing?” and get a correct reply right away. In the late 1400s, what Europe knew about the Far East was minimal. “You get past the Turks, and there’s desert and mountains, then you get to the Kingdom of Cathay. It’s ruled by a Great Khan. India is supposed to be in there somewhere, and to the east of Cathay, there’s a bunch of islands called Cipangu. There are supposed to be more islands where spices come from in the area. Whether you travel by land or sea, it will take you a couple of months to get there.” That was it.

This world map, by Henricus Martellus, dates to around 1490 and was one of the best and most complete at the time. Not very accurate or helpful, is it.

One of the big debates in geography at the time was not whether the Earth was round or flat (come on, everyone knew it was round), but how far to the East China, er, “Cathay” extended. Columbus’ own estimate (the one he used in his “grant proposal”) wound up putting the Caribbean Islands right at the place he expected to find the islands of Cipangu. So OF COURSE he got it wrong. Bergreen comments throughout the book that Columbus fell victim to his self-delusion. He went looking for Cathay, and when he couldn’t find it, something in his mind snapped, and he refused to accept anything to the contrary. I’m no psychologist (neither is Bergreen, for that matter), so I cannot comment on Columbus’ mental state. But this delusion never affected his ability to function.

Columbus was an incompetent administrator.”

Managing a fleet and managing an outpost require entirely different skill sets. The Army and Navy both have “captains”, but they are NOT interchangeable. He could schmooze the nobles in Spain with the best of them, but on land, he simply lacked the tact to deal with his subordinates. And when you’re a crewman, living in a paradise where the natives are willing to give you food and sexual favors, why should you listen to your boss?1 To his credit, Columbus was an expert at “dead reckoning” – knowing where you are without the aid of instruments or charts. This is especially useful when you are going where there aren’t any charts in the first place. And it must be noted that on all of his trans-Atlantic crossings, Columbus didn’t lose a single crew member. Not a one. Which is darned remarkable considering the state of shipboard life at the time.

Columbus was greedy and angered the Spanish Crown so much that he was arrested and imprisoned.”

Greedy, OK. He came down with a pretty serious case of Gold Fever when he saw the natives wearing assorted gold trinkets. There’s also the matter of his “contract” which game him a serious “cut” of all his discoveries2. Everyone expected him to reach China – er, Cathay. There weren’t supposed to be undiscovered lands out there. But when information started getting back to Spain, the crown realized they had to renegotiate before Chris wound up personally ruling more land than they did. Columbus was insisting that the crown keep its word.

The bit about his arrest and imprisonment? His poor showing as an administrator has been mentioned. While he was tooling around the Caribbean on his second voyage, exploring Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, Cuba, Jamaica, and all the little islands in between, disgruntled subordinates were rebelling and making their way back to Spain where they took control of the narrative, and portrayed Columbus in the worst light they could. The crown appointed a Special Prosecutor to look in to the allegations, and he went over to the New World and took it upon himself to believe the worst. On his third voyage, Chris was clapped in chains, and sent back to Spain. Where, pretty much as soon as they found out, Ferdinand and Isabella ordered his release and agreed that the Special Prosecutor overstepped his authority, and that the majority of allegations were bogus. To this day, it’s still not easy to sort out the anti-Catholic and anti-Spain propaganda – the “Black Legend” – that colors all of our recollections of the exploration of the New World.

Columbus enslaved and brutalized the natives.”

Columbus was no stranger to the slave trade. “Domestic servants” were common in his home town of Genoa, and Portugal had already started the African slave trade3. Heck, even the people Columbus met owned a few slaves here and there4.

There’s only one incident in all four of his voyages where outright brutality happened. In an effort to get All The Gold, the natives of Hispaniola were ordered to mine the hills and produce a “hawk’s bell” of gold per person per year. Unfortunately, by the time Columbus showed up, the deposits had been cleaned out. Rather than submit to forced labor to get stuff that wasn’t there, the natives committed what can only be described as mass suicide. Some fifty thousand people killed themselves – hanging, jumping off cliffs, or just starving to death. There’s no way to sugar coat that. Making Columbus personally responsible for all those deaths? I don’t know…..

Columbus was a daring navigator with an intuitive sense of the sea and the weather that saved his ass (and those of his crews) more than once. On his four voyages, he explored what we now call the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Venezuela, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama. His whole career was an amazing and exciting journey to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new peoples and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no one had gone before.

That’s something worth celebrating and honoring.

Was he perfect? No. No one is. So let’s compromise. Keep the statues – they can easily be ignored. Ditch the holiday instead.

1. Capt. William Bligh would have similar problems centuries later.

2. That’s the simple way of putting it.

3. With the help of local leaders, who saw the Portuguese as a new market for their war captives.

4. Which might have been a better option in some cases; there are multiple credible accounts of the Carib tribes practicing cannibalism as a matter of course.

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