Columbus: the Four Voyages
By Lawrence Bergreen
Published by Penguin Audio
Read by Tim Jerome
This book left me slightly confused. Oh, not about Columbus and his discovery/conquest of America… well, mostly the Caribbean basin. I already knew the gist of the four voyages and his eventual fate, although I will readily admit that Lawrence Bergreen did tell me things about Columbus, his activities and those others associated with them that I was not actually aware of. What left me confused was in trying to figure out just how this particular book was portraying Columbus.
Let’s face it folks, as John S. Troutman of Lit Brick comics might have said, “Columbus was a real jerk.” He came to the New World and saw the natives as a fine new crop of slaves and converts to Christianity. This he figured would be easy since they had no religion of their own. In fact on his first voyage he came to all sorts of odd conclusions considering he was unable to establish a common language with the natives. In fact, I doubt he really tried. A few of his crewmen apparently picked up a few words in the native tongue(s), although they too were not particularly good at translation at that stage. However, the prevailing attitude of the Genoan explorer and his predominantly Spanish crew was startlingly catlike, ‘What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is mine…” and if we are to believe his own journal the natives frequently rushed to greet him and give him gold and other treasures which Columbus felt was his due.
Well the first voyage went fairly well if you discount one of his captains absconding for a while with one of the ships and the fact that the Santa Maria ran aground on a reef and was subsequently destroyed, but he did manage to get home even though he was rapidly running out of ships and was instantly proclaimed a hero. Had that been his only voyage it is possible that he could have lived off that fame for years, but Columbus saw himself as the ruler of the New World (in the name of Ferdinand and Isabella, of course) and he had to go back with his brothers (and eventually with his son).
He made a lot of enemies along the way, both back in the royal court in Spain and among his own crew so the remaining voyages and colonization was filled with mutinies to which Columbus’ strategy usually seemed to be capitulation, betrayals and some phenomenally bad luck. While going through this book I could not help but wonder how much of his troubles Columbus brought on himself, but I have to admit that the attitude of the Spanish explorers was that the New World belonged to them as did the people who lived there.
I could go on and on, especially on Columbus’ blind faith in Marco Polo’s accounts of his travels, but I think this is a book you should read for yourself. My confusion though was that it seemed the author kept going back and forth between portraying Columbus as a greedy and self-deluded jerk and in acting as an apologist for the man. I suppose Columbus could not have been all bad and much of his and his crews crimes were due to the fact that they were still had an essentially Medieval mindset about religion, royalty and the status of those below your station. Certainly Columbus has been vilified by a host of authors which Bergreen admits several times but his own journals and those of his son tell a different story. So in the end it seems that the author is trying to be fair despite having diametrically opposed opinions of Columbus and all he did.
All told, this was an interesting book and worth the time. It goes into more detail than any grade school history text, and the author is careful to be fair to Columbus. Whether that fairness is deserved is up to the reader.
Well I have to admit that I really enjoyed listening to Tim Jerome read this book. He did so clearly and with a great voice. He kept me interested from cover to cover and when the subject is a historical biography, what more can one ask?
So while I might admit to having been confused at times by the author’s presentation and just how he meant to portray Christopher Columbus, the book itself is well-written and easy to follow and equally well-read. If the subject interests you, I think you might enjoy this one.