Something always seemed fishy about Columbus. Why would an Italian seek Spanish sponsorship? Why celebrate a man who enslaved and beheaded the people whose homelands he claimed? If Leif Erickson landed in North America 500 years earlier, why does Columbus get the credit?
The answers lie in Laurence Bergreen's ambitious new biography, Columbus: The Four Voyages, a spellbinding epic that's simultaneously a profoundly private portrait of the most complex, compelling, controversial creature ever to board a boat. This scrupulously researched, unbiased account of four death-defying journeys to The New World reveals the Admiral's paradoxical personality. Equal parts megalomaniac and mystic, Columbus was both cunning and charismatic, paranoid and penitent, thin-skinned and tough.
Conflicting chronicles have generated myriad Columbus myths. Mining the vivid trove of primary sources, Bergreen deftly threads eyewitness accounts of Columbus and his crew throughout the narrative. If this remarkable book can be faulted, it's for the occasional repetitions that result from the varied versions.
Always a visionary sailor, Columbus was late to luck, at last securing his long-sought sponsorship in 1492, at age 41. His mission? Beat the Portuguese to pioneering a seaway to Asia. Instead of a new trade route, however, Columbus discovered a new world. The Caribbean island on which he first anchored is unknown, but the headstrong Admiral carried on forever confident that he'd found the gateway to Asia.
Within a single decade, Columbus ventured three additional trips, each more daring, gory and heartbreaking than the last. "Not a day passes," he wrote, "that we do not look danger in the face." There were cannibals, mutinies and an 88-day storm that destroyed sails, devastated rigging and sickened the entire crew.
The islanders — thinking them from India, Columbus called them "Indios" — transfixed him. When the Santa Maria wrecked on reefs, these natives, naked "as their mothers bore them," rushed to his rescue. "In all the world," Columbus wrote, "there is no better people." But as his psyche unraveled, Bergreen makes clear that Columbus treated them barbarically.
The Admiral of the Ocean Sea forswore compasses, maps, and stars in favor of "dead reckoning." A genius at reading movements of sea, sky and birds, Columbus was a peerless navigator. Though he lost men on land, he nearly never lost a sailor at sea. His fourth trip, documented by Columbus' 13-year-old son, sailed the Atlantic in 20 days, a record even now.
Before Columbus' voyages, there was no red sauce for Italy's pasta. Tomatoes were unknown in Europe, as were peanuts, chocolate, corn, turkeys and tobacco. And the New World hadn't witnessed wheat, sugar, alcohol or smallpox, nor did it know coffee, cattle, chickens or horses.
Columbus, a passionately pious seaman who never cursed, hewed to a higher power. It was a Friar friend who presented him to his patrons, Ferdinand and Isabella. But Columbus' craving to convert Indians to Catholicism paled next to his lust for gold and longing for acclaim.
During a tempest, sure that the end had come, our tragic hero cast to sea a barrel containing a parchment record of his virtuosic achievements. It has never been found.