Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration 1991January, 12, 1992
Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration
The Worlds of Christopher Columbus
In Search of Columbus: The Sources for the First Voyage
The ‘Libro de las profecias’ of Christopher Columbus
Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians
Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World
Columbus: The Great Adventure: His Life, His Times, and His Voyages
My desk has long been groaning under piles of Columbus books, many more than can be dealt with here. One refrain in them is also a lament. William and Carla Phillips, in The Worlds of Christopher Columbus, after studying 250 United States history textbooks, argue that “the United States seems to have lost, rather than gained, knowledge of Columbus since 1892.” Jeffrey Burton Russell says, in Inventing the Flat Earth, that people cling to myths about Columbus rather than face “the conceptual shock of realizing that our closest held convictions are precarious.” David Henige says that some are unwilling to question the prefabricated hero because “a serene but unexamined belief in the actuality of the recorded past is necessary to an acceptable present.” There is a positive need not to know about Columbus—including a need not to know how little there is to know.
On this latter point, David Henige’s In Search of Columbus is a virtuoso performance, showing how hard if not impossible it is to extract the original of Columbus’s log from the later paraphrase, with partial transcriptions, made by Bartolomé de las Casas. Las Casas was using a lost (and therefore unassessable) copy made from Columbus’s original; he began working on it about forty years after Columbus wrote the log; he never finished the book for print (it was found, in a private library, 224 years after his death). His extracts may have been made for use in the History of the Indies which he worked on for over three decades. The many later additions, corrections, and deletions in the text seem to reflect use of that sort, as las Casas found new material or changed his mind about what he had copied or how he had paraphrased it; he apparently drew on other sources to “correct” Columbus; and his own preoccupations (especially with the mistreatment of Americans) affected what he chose to transcribe, or the way he paraphrased the four fifths of the log not offered as transcription. Henige says it is a misnomer to call the resulting work Columbus’s diary or log or record book. It is a work of las Casas, called by its author The Book of the First Navigation, not the Diaries or Log, as some “translations” put it. Trying to find the original text of Columbus in the work of las Casas can be as hard, at times, as reconstructing the historical Jesus from a single copy of a single gospel.
That comparison is not amiss if we remember that such exiguous materials have been used, in the past, as if Columbus “was raised in Nazareth rather than Genoa” (as Henige puts it). When Columbus claimed to see a light before his crewman spotted land on the first voyage, this was made a mystical revelation of “the new world.” More recently, las Casas has been read with fundamentalist literal-mindedness to make particular points—by Samuel Eliot Morison, for instance, to establish Columbus’s navigating skills, or …