Columbus Sails Analysis
by Cyril Walter Hodges

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Columbus Sails Analysis

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Although Hodges’ format is fictionalized, rather than conventional, biography, what emerges from his text is a soundly convincing portrait of a strong-principled, dedicated man. Hodges’ Columbus is a leader who commands respect of people of all ranks through sheer force of his clear conviction, unpopular though it was, that a route to India could be found by sailing west. Hodges offers Columbus not as a flawless hero but as a phenomenon of history to be observed and understood rather than to be judged or worshipped.

All three of his narrators are barely more than teenagers. Brother Antonio de la Vega, Miguel Pericas, and the Native American Coatta (Brother Ignacio) are close to the action of their respective sections, but none of them is an intimate of Columbus. Thus, Columbus’ firmness of character is revealed slowly, from the outside, as a young person comes to know a leader or an adult.

Vega’s account dramatizes Columbus’ persistence in seeking backing for his project despite philosophical and economic opposition. When Columbus arrived at La Rabida, he had already been turned down by the Spanish court at Salamanca, but he was prepared to ask again. Young Vega registers the impact of Columbus’ beliefs on important members of the local community. Prior Perez, whose interest in science predisposed him to listen and whose position as the former confessor to Queen Isabella influenced the reversal of the Spanish monarch’s refusal of Columbus’ demands, saw to it that Columbus met members of the shipping industry. He introduced Columbus to Pinzon, who as sailor himself was impressed with the meticulousness of Columbus’ mapmaking and the thoroughness of his plans. Vega also reports the Crown’s second refusal and the departure of Columbus, disappointed but determined to find support in France. Dramatized anecdotes and scenes add bit by bit to the portrait of a persistent individual.

Because Pericas is a lowborn, poorly educated sailor, his point of view during the period of voyage and landfall indicates the common swab’s discomfort and misery on a long voyage into territory tainted by sailors’ superstitions and real ignorance. Contrary to common myths about Columbus’ times, not everyone believed that the world was flat. Hodges manages to convey a range of beliefs about the roundness or flatness of the globe, among common folk and intellectuals alike. Hodges also inserts hints that Norse and Irish sailors had already visited lands to the west, as well as hints from the inhabitants of the Canary Islands that land lay beyond the flat western horizon.

Pericas’ point of view is also useful for presenting Columbus’ leadership style: The admiral was a monumental presence who opposed his dignity to the disgruntled, mutiny-prone crew without having to make speeches or resort to violence. His mere posture as he stepped forward to meet the West Indians in the New World struckstruck awe and respect in their breasts. Pericas speculates that it may have been something about the light hitting his armor that impressed them, but the implication remains that Columbus’ unfaltering dignity and unfailing belief in his mission imbued him with superhuman impact on Native Americans, underlings, and colleagues.

Columbus’ conflict with Pinzon over the latter’s relentless pursuit of gold, as opposed to his own desire to return immediately with news of a route to India, is presented obliquely. The sharp lines of difference between the two leaders in their treatment of natives is well-developed and deep before it manifests itself to Pericas and the rest of the crew. Hodges does not sentimentalize: Pinzon, Don Diego de Arãna, and Roderigo Escobedo are driven by greed and ambition, and Columbus is motivated not so much by contrasting altruism as by his awareness of the scale of his discovery. Columbus stands to gain by returning from this voyage with abstract knowledge; the others stand to gain only from what they can touch—the gold that would make them rich.

The final section completes the portrait of Columbus’ stoic persistence in the face of storms, privation, betrayal, and an equivocal reception for his crew when he lands, seeking shelter after days of storm, on the shores of Portugal. Hodges remains impartial as he sketches the results of the opening of the New World.