Edward K. Lankford

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A complicated portrait of a complex man

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Reviewed: 11-13-17

“As an explorer, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea is widely seen as an opportunist who made his great discovery without ever acknowledging it for what it was, and proceeded to enslave the populace he found, encourage genocide, and pollute relations between peoples who were previously unknown to each other. He was even assumed to have carried syphilis back to Europe with him to torment Europe for centuries thereafter. He excused his behavior, and his legacy, by saying that he merely acted as God’s instrument, even as he beseeched his Sovereigns, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, to enrich him and his family. Historians have long argued that Columbus merely rediscovered the Americas, that the Vikings, the Celts, and American Indians arrived in the 'New World' long before his cautious landfall. But Columbus’s voyages to the New World differed from all the earlier events in the scope of its human drama and ecological impact. Before him, the Old World and the New remained separate and distinct continents, ecosystems, and societies; ever since, their fates have been bound together, for better or worse.”

Columbus: The Four Voyages by Laurence Bergreen begins exactly where you want it to begin: with the sighting of land. Bergreen saves Columbus's struggle to find funding for his dream until chapter two, which lets the reader get into the first meetings between Europeans and the Indians. Throughout the book, Bergreen weaves three significant primary sources that give us three unique perspectives: Columbus's own logs and letters during the voyages; his son Ferdinand's recollections in defense of the family legacy; and, the incisive and devastating history of Fr. Bartolomé de las Casas, who accompanied Columbus but later grew horrified at the Indians' treatment by Europeans.

The first voyage is the one that is so full of promise, and this part is a real joy. The Indians and the Europeans don't know what to make of each other, and, for the most part, interactions are peaceful, if confused, and on the whole respectful. But Columbus betrays conflicting opinions of the Indians in his logs, writing in the same breath that Indians are incredible, noble people with whom Spain can partner and to whom they can preach the Gospel, and that they would make good servants and slaves.

The second voyage is heartbreaking, starting off on the right foot but soon descending into violence and subjugation. The Indians are subjected to such harsh demands for gold that they have no time to feed themselves, and tens of thousands commit suicide rather than submit themselves to European rule. The other voyages are no better as Columbus has to contend with rebelling Spaniards (the 3rd) and getting marooned on Jamaica for a year (the 4th).

Bergreen paints a fair portrait of Columbus, saving readers from any vitriolic rhetoric so that they may evaluate Columbus for themselves. And the picture painted is one of a complicated human being: a brilliant navigator at sea, but a harsh ruler on land; a courageous explorer of the unknown, but unwilling to see beyond his assumptions; a man of great faith in God, but unable to see that the Indians are his neighbors, much less worth loving.

If you'd like to get beyond the annual October debates about whether Columbus is either hero or Hitler, Bergreen's narrative history of the four voyages will give you much to ponder.