The Mysterious History of Columbus

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In the five hundred years since Columbus made his first voyage to America, many myths and legends have distorted actual events and have disguised the historical Columbus. In THE MYSTERIOUS HISTORY OF COLUMBUS, John Noble Wilford, science correspondent for THE NEW YORK TIMES and author of THE MAPMAKERS (1981), searches sixteenth century documents of the real Columbus. Wilford lays out the evidence concerning Columbus’s nationality, his physical appearance, the origin of his plan, the kind of ship he sailed, the men who sailed with him, the cause of his death and the site of his burial. Yet basic pieces of the puzzle, such as precise identification of the Bahamian island on which Columbus first landed, are missing, and much of Columbus’ story can no longer be told with certainty.

Wilford not only offers a biography of Columbus but also examines the transmutations of Columbus’ story over its long history. Criticized by contemporaries for ineptness as governor and for cruelty to the natives, Columbus lost to Amerigo Vespucci the honor of naming the new continents. Only with American independence did Columbus begin to earn a more heroic reputation as the great discoverer of the New World. Wilford shows how the American celebration of Columbus has turned sour in the late twentieth century as the admiral takes on the guilt of European crimes committed on American soil and yields the honor of discovery to the Native Americans he mistakenly called Indians.

Wilford’s biography of Columbus reveals a man of many faces. Columbus is both an idealist hero and a crass opportunist. So, too, Columbus’ story is a many-faceted blend of history and legend.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVIII, September 1, 1991, p. 3.

The Christian Science Monitor. October 11, 1991, p. 9.

Kirkus Reviews. LIX, August 1, 1991, p. 1002.

Library Journal. CXVI, August, 1991, p. 122.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 13, 1991, p. 4.

NEA Today. X, November, 1991, p. 27.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, October 6, 1991, p. 27.

The New Yorker. LXVII, November 11, 1991, p. 119.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, August 2, 1991, p. 60.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, October 13, 1991, p. 9.