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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Columbus: The Four Voyages’

- - Friday, November 11, 2011

COLUMBUS: THE FOUR VOYAGES
By Laurence Bergreen
Viking, $35, 423 pages

To recall Samuel Eliot Morison's generation-old writings about Christopher Columbus and the Age of Exploration is to summon up memories of arid and aristocratic history written with his signature hauteur. Laurence Bergreen's new book, refreshingly, is fluid in its style and comprehensive in its research. Richly illustrated and enhanced with maps that are as legible as they are relevant, "Columbus: The Four Voyages" is complex in its themes, intriguing in its substance and sparkling with surprises.

The "Admiral of the Ocean Sea," in this new view, sailed west in search of gold and glory and more. Sure, he set out to find a short route to China, but he had a larger purpose, too. Mr. Bergreen says Columbus was an evangelist, intent on building an empire in this world and saving souls for the next. We moderns misread the great explorers when we ignore the depth or power of their religion.

As Columbus' son wrote, "In matters of religion he was so strict that for fasting and saying all the canonical offices he might have been taken for a member of a religious order." He meant to save souls, just as Isabella and Ferdinand commissioned him to enlarge Christendom.

Witness their decree: "We send Cristobal Colon with three caravels through the Ocean Sea to the Indies on some business that concerns the service of God and the expansion of the Catholic faith and our benefit and utility." Spain's "benefit and utility" involved empire and commerce, but, of course, nothing turned out quite as planned. Putting it succinctly, "Instead of establishing a new trade route, he had discovered a new world."

Elsewhere Mr. Bergreen writes, "His was the discovery that permanently planted the reality of the New World in the imagination and political schemes of the Old.... Columbus' voyages were just the beginning, setting in motion consequences - political, cultural and scientific - that persist to this day."

Columbus was "obsessed with his God-given task of finding Asia [and] undertook four voyages within the span of a decade, each very different, each designed to demonstrate that he could sail to China within a matter of weeks and convert those he found there to Christianity."

On his first, most famous voyage, he found little of intrinsic value but at best loosed "an unstoppable impulse for exploration." Yet, in describing to his royal patrons where he had been, he put a favorable spin on it. "He omitted references to the menace posed by [hostile] Caribs, the difficulties of replicating his feat of navigation, the vagaries of weather, and, of course, the stupendous misunderstanding of the location of his discoveries."

In his glowing report, Columbus confided: "I write to inform you how in thirty-three days I crossed from the Canary Islands to the Indies, with the fleet our most illustrious Sovereigns gave to me. And there I found many islands filled with people without number, and of them all have I taken possession for Their Highnesses, by proclamation and with the royal standard displayed, and nobody objected." (Not that anyone would; the naked Taino people had no idea what was afoot when men in tights and iron breastplates came ashore to stick a flag in the sand.)

As for Columbus' mindset, "He was bemused rather than displeased to hear that the Indians considered his fleet to have descended from the heavens, especially since the misunderstanding gave him occasion to establish his credentials ... . Columbus believed that whatever he encountered was intended by God, even though the Tainos were not exactly what he had in mind."

Having underestimated the size of Earth, Columbus mistook where he was going and didn't know where he was when he got there. Yet he "fully understood and appreciated that the earth was round, or nearly so, and certainly not flat," Mr. Bergreen maintains.

One clever proof he offers is Columbus' note en route back to Spain that "the nights were very much longer from the narrowing of the sphere" - a clever deduction of Columbus' geographical savvy on the author's part. He also specifies that Columbus' great navigational feat was not finding the New World; any European who sailed west far enough must "discover" whatever he would inevitably bump into. Rather, Columbus' great feat of navigation was finding his way home again the first time. Then, the subsequent three voyages confirmed his dedication to his causes and his genius as a sailor.

Indeed, he was a superb mariner who, like other exceptional sailors - Polynesians and Bahamians among them - read the very surface of the sea to find his way. He was a seat-of-the-pants navigator whose skills far surpassed the rudimentary tools of his time. Mr. Bergreen shows Columbus to have been exceedingly competent as well as ambitious, tireless, brave and conniving - a man of parts and an exceptional man of his time.

Philip Kopper is publisher of Posterity Press Inc.