Bergreen’s portrayal of Columbus tour de force

Study of four voyages a must to understand impact of discoveries


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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/09/2011 (4152 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


The Four Voyages

By Laurence Bergreen

Viking, 417 pages, $40.50


Once you have read this superb account of Columbus’s four voyages, you will never be content with the cliché about the Italian-born explorer’s sailing the ocean blue in 1492.

Author of many prize-winning popular history books on topics as diverse as Marco Polo and Al Capone, Laurence Bergreen is a New York-based scholar whose portrayal of the life and times of Christopher Columbus is a tour de force.

What kind of a man does Bergreen, in his exhaustive research, find? Rather than being an idiot savant, as Columbus has sometimes been described, Bergreen argues he was “a devoted maritime student” conversant with several languages.

As Bergreen’s story reveals, Columbus was a complex man, ambitious, shrewd and relentless, even when he was wrong, such as in his interpretation of evidence concerning the distance between Europe and Cipangu (Japan).

Bergreen focuses on the voyages — all four of them — and the extraordinary travel among the islands of the Caribbean. Yet they are only a part of the story he weaves. Along with confronting Capt. Columbus face-to-face (his was an interesting if not pretty one), you meet many of the people he encountered in his travels and machinations.

You also have a multi-layered analysis of 15th-century Genoa, its population of some 75,000 making it one of the biggest cities in Europe at the time. In terms of international relations and commerce, its merchants competed with those of Portugal, Spain and France.

There emerges “a hostage to fortune in the high-stakes game of European expansion.” The high stakes include personal riches, international fame and power in a contest of exploration that included ambitious men during the heyday of European expansion.

Joined in the contest were quite a few people whom Machiavelli could admire. Bergreen shows that some of the nastiest were among Columbus’s own partners, who sailed with him because they believed his stories of the gold to be had across the seas.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS A view of a portrait of Christopher Columbus by Italian Renaissance painter Sebastiano Del Piombo.

One can imagine Columbus constantly looking over his shoulder. Except for members of his family, including his two brothers and teenage son, Ferdinand, even his partners were a scheming and rather ruthless lot.

The friar and chronicler Bartolome de Las Casas was one of Columbus’s most generous witnesses. Yet even he recorded some harsh impressions — although it seems he was disadvantaged in that besides being a personal witness part of the time, he was working with a poor copy of Columbus’s diary.

Bergreen describes in exquisite detail the conditions under which the sailors of 1500 were prepared to travel — and in boats hardly bigger than canoes (sometimes they bound two boats together to prevent capsizing).

How does Bergreen acquire and present his information? In his notes on sources, he explains how Columbus and others of his staff kept detailed logs of their travel and other activities. So scholars writing about Columbus have rich records to plumb. They also have a mountain of secondary sources, as Columbus must be one of the most written about figures in the history of the past 500 years.

Bergreen makes a convincing case that the impact of the Columbian discoveries can only be understood through a study of all four voyages. The first, in 1492, was important, but mainly because it led the way for the ones that came after, and collectively they created a context in the New World that altered the course of history.


Ron Kirbyson is a Winnipeg writer who frequently travels to the Caribbean.

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