Columbus: The Four Voyages

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From the author of the Magellan biography, Over the Edge of the World, a mesmerizing new account of the great explorer.

Christopher Columbus's 1492 voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in search of a trading route to China, and his unexpected landfall in the Americas, is a watershed event in world history. Yet Columbus made three more voyages within the span of only a decade, each designed to demonstrate that he could sail to China within a matter of weeks and convert those he found...

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From the author of the Magellan biography, Over the Edge of the World, a mesmerizing new account of the great explorer.

Christopher Columbus's 1492 voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in search of a trading route to China, and his unexpected landfall in the Americas, is a watershed event in world history. Yet Columbus made three more voyages within the span of only a decade, each designed to demonstrate that he could sail to China within a matter of weeks and convert those he found there to Christianity. These later voyages were even more adventurous, violent, and ambiguous, but they revealed Columbus's uncanny sense of the sea, his mingled brilliance and delusion, and his superb navigational skills. In all these exploits he almost never lost a sailor. By their conclusion, however, Columbus was broken in body and spirit. If the first voyage illustrates the rewards of exploration, the latter voyages illustrate the tragic costs- political, moral, and economic.

In rich detail Laurence Bergreen re-creates each of these adventures as well as the historical background of Columbus's celebrated, controversial career. Written from the participants' vivid perspectives, this breathtakingly dramatic account will be embraced by readers of Bergreen's previous biographies of Marco Polo and Magellan and by fans of Nathaniel Philbrick, Simon Winchester, and Tony Horwitz.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Even today's history allergic children remember that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred ninety two, but few of us know much, if anything about his other three voyages. It is not that they were not eventful. As bestselling author Laurence Bergreen (Over the Edge of the World) demonstrates repeatedly in his riveting new narrative, all of the Genoan's New World explorations were abounding with adventures, controversies, and danger. Even on his last voyage, this sea-tested sailor was, in his own words, completely disarmed: "For nine days I was as one lost, without hope of life. Eyes had never seen the sea so angry, so high, so covered with foamed. The wind not only prevented our progress, but offered no opportunity to run behind any headland for shelter; hence we were forced to keep out in this bloody ocean, seething like a pot on a hot fire.... The men were so worn out that they longed for death to end their suffering." A natural for readers of Nathaniel Philbrick and Tony Horwitz.

Ian W. Toll
What emerges in this biography, a worthy addition to the literature on Columbus, is a surprising and revealing portrait of a man who might have been the title character in a Shakespearean tragedy.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
Columbus’s first voyage to the New World was one of the formative events of human history. But who was Christopher Columbus? Renowned historian and biographer Bergreen (Marco Polo) seeks to illuminate the complex motivations and historical circumstances that shaped the explorer’s life, and the inquisitive, stubborn, and supremely self-assured nature that led him to sail to the end of the world and beyond. Focusing on the lesser-known events of Columbus’s three later voyages and his disastrous, near-genocidal rule in Hispaniola, Bergreen’s captivating narrative reveals a man obsessed to the point of delusion with acquiring gold and sending it back to Spain, perpetually unsure whether he should convert, enslave, or annihilate the natives he encountered, and dismissive of the continent he discovered, forever hoping to escape America and find a quick passage to the riches of China and India just beyond the next wave. His last voyage ended in a shipwreck, and Columbus died in 1503 disgraced, exhausted, and demoralized, although the toll of his voyages was surely felt more keenly by the oppressed Caribs and Taínos than by the admiral himself. While sensationalist and lacking in scholarly rigor, Bergreen’s biography makes good use of the firsthand accounts of Columbus’s contemporaries, rendering a dramatic story that will appeal to general readership. 7 maps. (Sept.)
Library Journal
The story of Columbus's first voyage to the New World is an oft-told tale that ends triumphantly for Columbus and with utter devastation for the natives he encountered. Bergreen (Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu) tells the exciting story of all four voyages, a narrative with castaways, mutineers, shipwrecks, and warfare, that shows Columbus to be vain and naive. Columbus believed that titles gave him legitimacy and authority, only to discover that what power he had quickly evaporated with each successive voyage. Even Isabella I, who had been Columbus's primary patron in the Spanish court, on her deathbed rejected his efforts to secure funding for a fifth voyage. VERDICT This is a well-written, even gripping book, but it has limited research value since it lacks a detailed scholarly apparatus. However, lay readers will find it entertaining and enlightening. Those interested in a work that contextualizes Columbus's voyages should instead consider Hugh Thomas's Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan. [See Prepub Alert, 3/28/11.]—John Burch, Campbellsville Univ. Lib., KY
The Barnes & Noble Review

When Laurence Bergreen decided to write a book on Christopher Columbus's four voyages, the comment he most often heard from his friends was, "You mean he made four voyages? What happened on the others? Where did he go? Do the other voyages matter?" Bergreen would reply, he remembers, "that I thought the other voyages mattered greatly, that they were at least as important as the first, which, in context, set the stage for the later ones, each more adventurous and tragic than those preceding it."

The result of his labors is Columbus: The Four Voyages, an account simultaneously of the navigational feats of each voyage, what Columbus and his men encountered in the New World, and the long- term effects these European conquerors would have on it. For Columbus's voyages were both exploratory and imperial. The lands he "discovered" (for of course that term has come under attack as an example of European solipsism) he also claimed for himself and the Spanish Crown, though he had little idea where they actually were: to the end of his life he persisted in believing that Cuba, Hispaniola (now comprising Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and the other islands he had come upon in the "Indies" were somewhere off the coast of China, potential stops on a trade route to the realm of the Great Khan whom Marco Polo had written about more than two centuries earlier.

The most famous voyage, and the one least tainted by the navigator's rapacity, was the first: after touching land (the celebrated "first contact"), probably on the Bahamian island now called San Salvador, he and his three ships continued along the coasts of Cuba and Hispaniola before their return to Spain. This was the valiant "Niña, Pinta, and Santa María" expedition celebrated in elementary school classrooms all over our nation. In these early days the driven explorer, for all his gold lust and his growing religious messianism, could still appreciate the region's otherworldly beauty. The fish there, he noted in his diary, were "so unlike ours that it is marvelous; they have some like dories, of the brightest colors in the world, blue, yellow, red, and of all colors, and others painted in a thousand ways; and the colors are so bright, that there is no man would not marvel and would not take great delight in seeing them; also there are whales." The flora appeared to him just as remarkable. "During this time I walked among some trees which were the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen, viewing as much verdure in so great development as in the month of May in Andalusia, and all the trees were as different from ours as day from night." This was pre-contact America, an ecosystem that had developed independently from that of Eurasia since the breakup of Pangaea some 125 million years earlier. The so-called Columbian Exchange, initiated in 1492, would change that forever, "bursting the evolutionary bubbles of previously independent continents" and transforming the global environment forever.

The people of the islands—the peaceable Tainos and the more aggressive Caribs—he had already dubbed "Indians, " and from the beginning the explorer saw them more as sources of labor and potential Christian converts than as members of a culture worthy of consideration in its own right. "Conditioned by medieval assumptions, " Bergreen writes, "his intellect and imagination labored to interpret these astonishing sights according to categories that he understood." Though a gifted navigator and an avid reader of chronicles and histories, Columbus was not a brilliant thinker, and as he aged and the hardships of his voyages took their mental and physical toll on him he became ever more convinced that he was acting as God's instrument in a mystical Reconquista, a western extension of Ferdinand and Isabella's triumphant expulsion of Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula.

The degeneration of his mission from a religiously inspired crusade to save souls and win Catholic converts to a naked grab for slaves and gold can be traced through the course of the four voyages. On the second, 1493–96, the newly named "Viceroy and Admiral of the Ocean Sea and the Indies" and the sailors who manned his seventeen-ship fleet explored in greater depth the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and the smaller islands to the east. Queen Isabella had given express instructions for the Indians to "be carefully taught the principles of our Holy Faith, " but she stressed that the conquerors should "treat the Indians very well and lovingly and abstain from doing them any injury." Columbus's feelings about the indigenous people he encountered, however, were complex and ambivalent: "[W]ithin the span of a few days he was capable of regarding the Indians as political allies, trading partners, converts, slaves, or deadly enemies. In the pages of his journal they appeared as wise or primitive, indolent or resourceful, according to his judgments and whims." On the island of Hispaniola, he imposed a crippling tribute system that quickly depleted the island's gold supplies, destroyed its economy and enslaved its population. The result was the horrific mass suicide of some fifty thousand Indians. "They plunged off cliffs, the poisoned themselves with roots, and they starved themselves to death." And this was only the beginning. Between 1494 and 1496 it is estimated that at least a third of the island's population died; half a century later only 500 Indians remained, pathetic relics of the hundreds of thousands that had lived on the island when Columbus first arrived.

Still, the Admiral was authorized by his sovereigns to make a third voyage. This time he touched the South American mainland for the first time, landing in what is now Venezuela, at the mouth of the Orinoco River. But he was unwilling to accept the evidence that he had arrived at a previously unknown continent; he was more perplexed than ever. As Bergreen observes, "He was equipped to confirm cherished myths, not explode them." Neither was he equipped to administer colonies, as Bartolomé de las Casas's writings reveal only too clearly: in Hispaniola, the chronicler was to complain, Columbus's unscrupulous band of Spaniards "traveled from village to village and from place to place, eating at their discretion, taking the Indian men that they wanted for their service and the Indian women who looked good to them." Columbus, Las Casas wrote, "would have done great things and produced inestimable benefit in this land if he had realized that these people did not owe anything to him or to any other person in the world just because they had been discovered."

Tales of Columbus's brutal misrule got back to Spain, and the monarchs sent over a "special investigator, " Francisco Bobadilla, who immediately usurped both the Admiral's gold and his authority and sent him back to Europe in chains, disgraced. By sobbing, groveling, and extravagant penitence the explorer managed to get back into the monarchs' good graces and even exacted from them the promise of a fourth voyage, generally called the High Voyage (1502–4), on which his thirteen-year old son, Ferdinand, accompanied him; Ferdinand's Historie Concerning the Life and Deeds of the Admiral Don Christopher Columbus, written as an effort to vindicate his father for posterity, was an important source for Bergreen, who points out that it "can also be read as an indictment of the Spanish colonial enterprise in all its cruelty and absurdity." The expedition explored the coast of Central America, where for the first time Columbus and his men encountered a highly civilized native people, the Maya. Subjected to a mutiny of the crew, shipwrecked on Jamaica for a year, Columbus finally returned to Spain a prematurely aged man at 53, delusional, paranoiac, and crippled by rheumatoid arthritis. He died two years later. "His morality remained absolutely fixed, " says Bergreen. "It could be said that over the course of his four voyages, he had discovered everything, but learned nothing."

Bergreen's detailed descriptions of the four voyages are well executed and compelling, but the story of human contact between Spaniards and Indians is depressingly familiar. With its origins in genocide, greed, and messianism, is it any wonder American history has been so troubled? And cannot some of our problems still be traced to this history? Reading Bergreen's narrative, it is impossible not to compare our modern single-minded pursuit of oil, regardless of consequences, with the Spaniards' equally single-minded and destructive pursuit of gold. Even when they eventually found the quantities they sought, in the mines of Peru, it did them no good in the long run, for dependence on the boatloads of gold from the New World led to inflation and eventually crippled the Spanish economy. Columbus's vanity and delusions—he believed himself to be "an instrument of divine revelation"—even find an echo in our own brutal imposition of "democracy" at gunpoint, and our arrogant conviction that we are, in Ronald Reagan's words, "the last best hope of man on earth." Bergreen concludes his book with a short chapter on Columbus's historical legacy; I wish it had been longer, and more speculative. For that legacy is still playing itself out.

Brooke Allen is the author of Twentieth- Century Attitudes; Artistic License; and Moral Minority. She is a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The New Criterion, The New Leader, The Hudson Review, and The Nation, among others. She was named a finalist for the 2007 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. Reviewer: Brooke Allen

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780594465737
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 9/20/2011
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Laurence Bergreen is the author of several award-winning biographies, including those of Louis Armstrong, Al Capone, Irving Berlin, and James Agee. He has written for many national publications including Esquire and Newsweek, taught at the New School for Social Research, and served as Assistant to the President of the Museum of Television and Radio in New York. Bergreen has also served as a nonfiction judge for the National Book Awards and as a judge for the PEN/Albrand Nonfiction Award. Voyage to Mars is soon to be an NBC-TV television movie that will premier in spring 2002, and a weekly series that will debut in fall 2002. Bergreen lives in New York City.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 12 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 22, 2011

    Highly recommended despite the author's bias!

    Another example of judging past historical figures based on the morality of the present. The author captured the excitement of planning and sailing and the new world discoveries. But the author executed judgment on Columbus's motives and decisions, judging him from the comforts of the twenty first living room. Columbus found natives who ate their fellow man...who cut off their genitals to fatten them up for eating..who impregnated women only to eat their offspring..where is the outrage from the history revisionists?

    If you can get past the amateurish psychoanalysis this author so often attempts on will find in Columbus a man of great intelligence, a leader, an adventurer, and a human being, with all the sinful characteristics we all posssess. Columbus not only deserves the tribute one day a year we have here in the USA, but his full adventurous life, and his discoveries and accomplishments scream out to be taught to our youth.

    After reading this book it is clear no modern human could hold a candle to what this man went through physically, mentally and spiritually during his 4 voyages. I have a brand new, deep, profound, respect for this man and all he accomplished. Columbus a sinner, yes, but aren't we all!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 30, 2014

    I really liked this book, and I am happy that I read it. I gave

    I really liked this book, and I am happy that I read it. I gave it 4 stars because of the author's judgmental writing. I see many other readers did not like that aspect either. But the information is good, and I certainly did not know as much about Columbus beforehand!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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