The Mysterious History of Columbus
The quincentenary celebrations commemorating the first voyage of Christopher Columbus to America have generated renewed interest in the man and his story. Who was this man who discovered America? Exactly what was he looking for? What role did others play in the discovery? What is Columbus’ place in history? Wilford seeks answers to questions such as these as he wades through evidence in search of the historical Columbus.
To unravel this mystery, Wilford relies on a variety of historical documents, including many reputedly written by Columbus himself. He quotes from the admiral’s diaries, from his letters, especially those written to the Spanish monarchs, and from his Libro de las profecías (1502, book of prophecies). Wilford also examines the evidence offered by four contemporaries of Columbus. Peter Martyr d’Anghiera was a learned Italian cleric living in Spain whose letters became the first history of the New World. Bartolomé de las Casas, an early colonist to the New World, was not only the first priest ordained in the Americas but also an early champion of the oppressed Native Americans. His Historia de las Indias (1527-1561, pb. 1875-1876; History of the Indies, 1971) preserves large portions of Columbus’ lost journals. Ferdinand Columbus, the explorer’s son, sought to protect and justify his father in a polemical biography. Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo was a New World settler whose Historia general y natural de las Indias Occidentales (1535, general and natural history of the West Indies) early gained a reputation as anti-Columbian.
Wilford, science correspondent for The New York Times and author of The Mapmakers (1981), analyzes the extent of navigational knowledge in Europe in the late fifteenth century. He discusses theories concerning the size and configuration of the world as well as the status of cartography. In particular, he considers the extent to which a map drawn by a Florentine geographer, Paolo del Pozzo Toscanelli, may have encouraged Columbus to sail west to the Indies.
Wilford’s scientific interests are also evident in his respect for Iberian seamanship and sailing vessels. While little more is known about Columbus’ own ships than their names, much can be said, in general, about the type of ship that Columbus used. Wilford describes how these vessels, known as caravels, combined features of both the trading ships of northern Europe and Mediterranean fishing ships and were well suited for Columbus’ transatlantic voyage.
Wilford is also interested in the question of determining where Columbus first sighted land in the New World. Some nine Bahamian islands have been identified with the island Columbus named “San Salvador.” Wilford surveys a variety of systematic attempts that have been made to resolve this question. An examination of ocean currents in the Atlantic together with plottings and computer simulations of Columbus’ ocean crossing support the claim of two islands, San Salvador and Samana Cay. A comparison of Columbus’ written descriptions of the island with present geographical features suggests a third island, Watlings. A third method, tracing Columbus’ voyage backward from Cuba to his original landfall, favors yet another island, Grand Turk. In the end, Wilford himself decides that the evidence is inconclusive and that it may never be known exactly where Columbus first landed.
The unresolvable question of the landfall is symptomatic of much that relates to Columbus and his voyage. The Mysterious History of Columbus often reads more like a detective novel than a biography and offers the reader a series of unanswerable questions about the great mariner. Indeed, Wilford’s book is not so much about Columbus the man as it is about Columbus the legend and deals as much with the process of creating Columbus’ history as with the history itself.
Several generations of Americans have been reared on the legend of the determined Genoese sailor who rejected popular belief in a flat world and persuaded the king and queen of Spain that he could reach the magnificent Indies by sailing west across the Atlantic. According to this tradition, Queen Isabella sold her jewels to pay for the trip and “in fourteen hundred and ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” His three ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, were manned mostly by pardoned felons, because more seasoned sailors refused to participate in an expedition doomed to sail off the edge of the world. Columbus was right, at least in part: The world was round, not flat. His ships did not sail into oblivion, but they did not reach the Indies, either. Instead, they discovered a new world and changed the course of history.
So goes the popular tradition, which, Wilford shows,...
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