Discovering Columbus - Again

Article excerpt

THE reader wanting to invest time and money in one good biography of Christopher Columbus to mark the 500th anniversary of his arrival in the New World will find Samuel Eliot Morison's 1941 book, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus, now reissued by Little, Brown & Company (680 pp., $29.95 cloth, $24.95 paper), hard to beat.

To this big, satisfying doorstopper of a book John Noble Wilford's The Mysterious History of Columbus: An Exploration of the Man, the Myth, the Legacy (Alfred A. Knopf, 318 pp., $24) makes an interesting counterpoint, if not quite a counterweight, Wilford's being much the slenderer volume. He presents not so much a biography per se - to the extent he does, he draws heavily on Morison - but rather an overview of the story of the story of Columbus. He considers the great discoverer's place in history and in the United States, a nation whose shores Columbus never quite reached but whose collective imagination he has captured.

Morison was not only a historian but a sailor, and his life of Columbus focuses on the fundamentals: the Genoese discoverer as a sailor and navigator.

Morison cites the model of Francis Parkman, "the greatest North American historian, {who} was not content to study the documentary history of Canada in his Boston library. He followed the routes of the French explorers, camped in the primeval forest, and lived among primitive Indians." As a result, he says, Parkman's history is "no mere flat land made of words out of other words on paper, but a fresh creation in three dimensions, a story in which the reader is conscious of space and light, of the earth underfoot, the sky overhead, and God in His Heaven."

Morison's version of the Parkman approach involved going to sea himself, in vessels approximating those of Columbus's fleet, and following his courses - to the extent they can be reconstructed from the records.

That extent is limited; Morison, unlike most biographers, presents no general chart of the Four Voyages, as he rather grandly capitalizes them. But there are no authentic materials for tracing the ocean crossings, except for those of the First and the outward passage of the Third. Likewise, he presents no "authentic portrait" of Columbus - none exists - and concedes that any pictures one sees of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria are all "about 50 percent fancy."

And yet one is somehow surprised at how little debunking there is in the biography. In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus really did sail the ocean blue. He didn't have to convince the kings and courtiers whose support he sought that the world was round; they knew it, and so did the simple sailors who could see ships "hulling down" as they drifted over the horizon.

Where Columbus was wrong and the naysayers of the courts were right was on the circumference of the earth: He seriously underestimated it; yes, there is a theoretical westward passage to Asia from Europe, but Columbus didn't allow enough distance for it. …