Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Laurence Bergreen's "Columbus: The Four Voyages" (Cadillac)

I’ve been an enthusiastic reader of history for a handful of years now, with a particularly keen interest in exploration and discovery driving much of it.  For me, getting to Columbus and his voyages has been a good while coming, and to find that Laurence Bergreen authored a volume on exactly that topic was good news.  I’d enjoyed his history of Marco Polo’s adventures, and found the author to be a capable chronicler of both the ‘story’ and the ‘history.’

Columbus is a big figure, of course.  It’s hard to compartmentalize the voyages from all the hindsight we enjoy (or reasonably grumble about) in terms of their impact, both local and global.  It’s an important history, and Bergreen does a fine job of speaking to both the thinking at the time, and honouring the history to come.

In many ways, Columbus is a tragic figure, plagued in life by the political maneuverings of his day, and ultimately failing in his initial stated attempt to find passage to the China of Polo’s own account, an economic endeavor but also (for the explorer) a deeply religious one.  Of course, Columbus never made it to this destination, revealing instead a new world of uncertain promise, size and location.  Contrary to parochial belief, the average educated European assumed the world was a sphere already.  Ptolemy had determined this in antiquity.  What Ptolemy (and others) had wrong was the size of that sphere.  Discovery of a continent between Europe and Asia was therefore unexpected, and Columbus held on to the belief he had arrived in India.  The result, of course, slaps the moniker of ‘Indian’ on the indigenous peoples of the Americas to this day.  One thing Bergreen’s history helps to reveal is how Columbus, not a particularly able navigator in the technical sense of the day, underwent geographical gymnastics as he attempted to fit the reality of his discovery onto his own fixed worldview.  In fact, at one point, he believed adamantly that he had discovered the entrance to the earthly paradise of the bible (which was in fact, the coast of South America).

The routes of his four voyages.  I believe the order is red, yellow, green, white.

As with Captain Cook’s voyages, or those of Marco Polo and others, the main interest for me as a reader has been to imagine the experience of sailing (or trekking) off of the map.  What an adventure, and what an experience, to have seen and done this with a 13th Century paradigm lodged in the brain.  It’s simply impossible to empathize with the experience (thought the pleasure is in the trying) in an age when we see images of the earth from space, with no bare spaces left on the surface of the globe.  Bergreen helps narrow this gap, insofar as he can, with enough detail into the personalities and challenges of the time, alongside a passionate and meticulous review of how it all played out.  While this is a short read at several hundred pages, covering four voyages and the associated politics and cultural impact, it’s a fine balance in the end.  It’s a fair balance too, which is of greater necessity in treating a subject like Columbus, and the frankly despicable toll his discovery took even within his lifetime.  The Taino were essentially decimated by the time of his death, and the actions of him and others in his wake remind us of the pains of first contact and the collision of civilizations at odds with how they see fit to exist.  I’ll leave that part of the debate aside, for you to reconcile.

As I write this, I sit on a balcony in Florida (which is a global stones-throw from his first landing and much of his exploration), thinking about what these places must have been like at the time of contact.  For Columbus and his men, it was reduced to an economic resource, and pumping out gold was the primary concern.  This was myopia writ large, with the Italian (and his primarily Spanish and Portuguese compatriots) failing to grasp what he had done, and what more the place and people could offer to our collective heritage.  Again, it’s hard to empathize.

In the end, I choose to see Columbus as the tragic figure Bergreen shows him to be.  Celebrated certainly, but struggling to the end to secure his name, reputation (and yes, fortune).  At one point, he was returned to the old world in chains, as a criminal.  He apparently kept these chains (as well as the scars they abraded onto his wrists over the long sea voyage) as a reminder of his fluctuating fortunes.  Yes, the resulting history is a far greater tragedy in many ways.  Conquest and discovery has always been such a creature.  Columbus shouldn’t stand alone in this regard.  This book helped me marvel at how a few modest journeys changed the map, our minds, and our place in the world.  And that’s a just a great read.

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