Columbus and the Age of Discovery Essay - Critical Essays

Columbus and the Age of Discovery

This beautifully illustrated volume was produced with the help of the historians and experts from many countries who collaborated on the PBS television series of the same title. Columbus portraits, the ships, the Indies and the Indians—244 are here in full color, ninety-six in black-and-white.

Dor-Ner tiptoes gingerly around the issue of “Political Correctness,” noting carefully the various interpretations of the significance of the Columbus anniversary. In order to acknowledge the appropriateness of seeing Columbus’ voyage as a disaster for Native Americans, Dor-Ner moves beyond the logical limits of the Aztec empire and the post-Civil War conflicts on the Great Plains. However, it is clear that his heart remains with Columbus the explorer, Columbus the adventurer.

The successful effort to place Columbus in the context of his times undermines all the usual stereotypes and demonstrates why Europeans and not Chinese, Arabs, or Native Americans began the great encounter. A major section describes Columbus’ early career, his preparation to become Admiral of the Ocean Seas. In the tradition of Samuel Eliot Morison, the author sailed the Ocean Blue, following in the distant wake of Columbus’ own small ships; wherever Columbus made an important decision, Dor-Ner carefully reviews the options. Finally, he describes the consequences of the Columbian Exchange: the horse, cattle, sheep, disease, and slavery for the Americas; corn, potatoes, sugar, disease, and human migration for the rest of the world.

The ultimate justification for the series and the book is that once Columbus made Europeans aware of the Indies, there was no stopping the interchange of plants, animals, and bacteria. Moreover, so swiftly was technology developing in Europe that if Columbus had not sailed, someone else would have. Nevertheless, it was Columbus who made the trans-Atlantic crossing, and it was his complex personality, his ambitions and dreams, and his description of the New World which set in motion the events which changed forever the Old Worlds of Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

The author concludes with a look at other explorers, the various encounter myths, and the places bearing the Great Navigator’s name.