As the title of his 2011 book indicates, Laurence Bergreen has a tight focus to his storytelling in Columbus: The Four Voyages.
He provides very little about the first 41 years of the Genoese explorer’s life, those decades that formed him and primed him to make his monumental first voyage in 1492 to the place he wasn’t wanting to go.
Columbus set out for the Indies and landed instead in the New World although he seems not to have understood that — or wanted to believe that — for much of the 14 years that remained in his life.
This journey resulted in the first contact of the civilizations of the continents that came to be called the Americas and the civilizations of the rest of the world — Europe, initially, but also, ultimately, Africa and Asia.
It could be argued that this was the most consequential moment in world history in its sweeping impact on human beings in the world at the time and later and on the development of every world culture afterward. Nothing, it seems to me, ever had or will have such a far-reaching impact unless, of course, there is an even more significant first contact — between the people of Earth and an intelligent species from somewhere else.
The other three voyages
In contrast, the other three voyages by Columbus were simply more of the same — but without the surprise of such extraordinary, unexpected revelations.
Nonetheless, Bergreen devotes a relatively equal amount to each journey: 115 pages for the first with a few flashbacks to Columbus’s earlier life, about 100 for the second and about 70 each for the third and fourth.
His aim isn’t to tell the life of Columbus or the impact of his stumbling upon the people and continental landmasses unknown previously. It is to tell about these four voyages.
The result, I found, is a book that, for the general reader, is often confusing, monotonous, dreary and negligible. Also, the book’s maps are so peppered with inaccuracies as to seem to have been made for someone else’s book.
Writing for whom?
Initially, I had the sense that the book was written with sailors, particularly those familiar with the Caribbean, in mind. Bergreen provides great detail about the winds and weather as reported by Columbus and about this stop and that stop and the next stop in the islands. This nautical tracking is there from the start and continued to the end.
I tried to follow the twists and turns of the path of Columbus and his ships. The maps, however, weren’t very helpful, and, as a landlubber, I grew weary.
In addition to sailors, though, it seems that Bergreen was also writing for those fans of history who have a special enthusiasm for the minutiae of these journeys. I am familiar with the subset of Civil War fans who want to know everything there is to know about, say, all the battles in the Shenandoah Valley, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a similar Columbus group in the reading public.
Still, it’s one thing to write for fans and sailors, and another to write for general readers.
At many turns, I had the thought that Bergreen, in his prose and story, was trying to mirror the confusing, monotonous, dreary and often negligible events that Columbus was living through — to write in a confusing, monotonous, dreary and negligible way to give the reader a sense of what it felt like to be the explorer.
That’s possible, but it’s not a good strategy for hooking general readers and for sparking them to recommend the book to others.
This messy mass
Bergreen wrote the book he wrote. I would have preferred a book that didn’t attempt to record every turn of the ship, every storm, every battle with Indians, one that would have provided an authorial point of view and analysis.
Much of Columbus: The Four Voyages is told in a this-happened-then-this-then-this way. I would have preferred Bergreen to have fashioned the different parts of his story in a way that made clearer to the reader what was going on and what Columbus was thinking and doing.
Too often, Bergreen relates in extreme detail some event and mentions in passing that, for instance, “Columbus attempted to give orders while struggling to preserve his sanity.”
What does that mean?
Bergreen splatters his pages with references to Columbus’s ego, illnesses, ambition, inferiority feelings, religious beliefs, mental state, anger, bitterness and many more emotions and drives. But he never attempts to analyze them. He never attempts to help the reader understand this man at the center of the book. Instead, Bergreen seems to expect that the reader will take in all this mass — this messy mass — of data in the form of accounts, documents and recollections and do the heavy lifting.
“Extraordinary act of despair”
As a general reader, I was yearning for help from the author — the expert on his subject — to understand who Columbus was, what he felt and what he did.
I yearned for context and for perspective — and for a sense that some things in his story were much more significant than others.
For instance, Bergreen endlessly describes this meeting and that meeting and the next meeting between Columbus and his Europeans with various Indian villages and tribes. There is a sameness to the greed he exhibits and the openness, initially, and, later, anger of the indigenous people.
Amid this sameness, I was shocked and revolted by two paragraphs at the bottom of page 204. Bergreen is telling about a brutal tribute system that Columbus established which required the Indians to supply the Spaniards with food, gold and other tribute, even during a famine.
The author relates that, during that famine, more than 50,000 Indian men died. And then he tells the reader:
The reality was even more terrible than famine; it was self-inflicted. The Indians destroyed their stores of bread so that neither they nor the invaders would be able to eat it. They plunged off cliffs, the poisoned themselves with roots, and they starved themselves to death. Oppressed by the impossible requirements to deliver tributes of gold, the Indians were no longer able to tend their fields, or care for their sick, children, and elderly. They had given up and committed mass suicide to avoid being killed or captured by Christians, and to avoid sharing their land with them, their fields, groves, beaches, forests, and women: the future of their people. It was an extraordinary act of despair and self-destruction, so overwhelming that the Spanish could not comprehend it.
All of them, fifty thousand Indians, dead by their own hand.
“Bending their knees”
And it happened again.
This time among a group of Indians who were being taken in a ship’s hold by Columbus to become slaves in Spain.
Some escaped and jumped into the water where they could swim to freedom. That led Columbus’s sailors to lock the hold securely.
The Indians below deck lost all hope of regaining their freedom. They might drown or suffocate, far from ancestral lands. In despair, they gathered ropes and, one by one, hanged themselves from the deck beams, “bending their knees because they had not enough headroom to hang them properly,” said Ferdinand [Columbus]. By the time they were discovered, it was too late to rescue them.
To my mind, the author of a book with these two horrible incidents is required to fit them into context. These are huge human events. How did Columbus react? How did they fit into his way of dealing with Indians? How did the Indians get to the point of mass suicide? What does that say about Columbus?
OK, as I said above, Bergreen wrote the book he wrote. He apparently didn’t want to address such questions in any substantial way, other than including them in the long, long list of things the Columbus did in his four trips to the New World.
I would have preferred something else.
Patrick T. Reardon