A Flotilla of Quincentenary Books Columbus's Voyages Are Explored by Writers Who Attempt to Explode Myths and Consider the Impact of His Arrival on Peoples in the New World

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THE 300th and 400th anniversaries of Christopher Columbus's landfall in the Americas celebrated the man and his "discovery." If this year's quincentenary books are any indication, 1992 celebrations will be more sober.

A strong revisionist current runs through many of these books. Columbus did not "discover millions of Native Americans knew where they were and what they were about. Rather, he "encountered," and that encounter was at great cost to indigenous peoples, argues Zvi Dor-Ner in Columbus and the Age of Discovery (William Morrow, 370 pp., $40). The publishers of this companion book to a PBS television series describe it as the "definitive book" to emerge from the Columbus quincentenary. It may well be. The range of maps and the quality of scientific explanation alone reward close reading.

While special interest is accorded native peoples who disappeared forever as a result of their meeting with Columbus's ships - the Tainos, Arawaks, Caribs - this book steers clear of moral judgments. Its goal, the author explains, is simply to provide "many voices" in the "encounter" of cultures.

John Dyson's Columbus: For Gold, God, and Glory (Simon & Schuster, 228 pp., $35) offers another in a long series of Columbus conspiracy theories. Dyson and consultant Luis Coin document what they say are nautical discrepancies in Columbus's account of his first voyage: "absurd" bird sightings (pelicans and ducks in mid-ocean), contrary currents where they should not be. Columbus, they conclude, seemed to know where he was going, likely had a secret map, and manipulated his journal to disguise that fact. His goal was not to find a new route to the Orient, but to hunt for gold.

This secret-map theory is a variation of the better known "Nordic myth" that Columbus learned about Leif Ericsson's Vinland while on a trip to Iceland as a young man.

The docudrama style of the Dyson account does not lend credibility to the new, and admittedly circumstantial, evidence he provides. "The rain tasted of salt as he {Columbus} stumbled out into the disheveled wilderness to heave on frozen ropes, the icy wind knifing through his fleecy sheepskin jerkin and woolen cap."

One problem all biographers have grappled with is Columbus's claim to have been the first to sight land. At 10 p.m. on Oct. 11, Columbus reports seeing "a little wax candle bobbing up and down" in the distance.

Dyson's account of the claim posits duplicity on all sides. "While standing on the poop he {Columbus} saw a light 'so uncertain a thing that he did not wish to declare it was land ... like a little wax candle lifting and falling.' His servant, who must have known on which side his bread was buttered, confirmed the sighting, but the royal comptroller did not. Nor did any of the sailors who were looking out so keenly. The only possible conclusion is that the captain-general's claim was a contemptible fabrication."

The Dor-Ner version avoids taking a position. "His vision of the tiny light had apparently been a real one, though from Santa Mars distance it is hard to imagine how he could have seen light on land."

Contrast the shrill tone of the first and the evasive tone of the second with Samuel Eliot Morison's account in his 1942 classic, "Admiral of the Ocean Sea" (reviewed on Page 9): "I agree heartily with Admiral Murdock, 'the light was due to the imagination of Columbus, wrought up to a high pitch by the numerous signs of land encountered that day. The best we can say in extenuation is to point out that glory rather than greed prompted this act of injustice to a seaman; Columbus could not bear to think that anyone but himself sighted land first. That form of male vanity is by no means absent from the seafaring tribe today."

Morison's account still provides the most exhaustive analysis of Columbus's journals and clues to Columbus's character. While other captains often erased records of navigating errors, Columbus let his mistakes stand and he was careful to log any accidents. …