A College History of the United States

A College History of the United States

A College History of the United States

A College History of the United States

Excerpt

Son of a Genoese weaver, Columbus was an extraordinary weaver of dreams. In the culture of his Mediterranean, many people imagined riches and perfection beyond the sunset. For the only sea route leading outward--going everywhere and nowhere--was west through the Strait of Gibraltar and beyond the Canary Islands. America, where that sea route finally led, was an idea in the mind of Europe, and the writings of Columbus reveal the vividness and extravagance of the idea. It represented wealth, freedom, and happiness, the noble savage and the beckoning mystery of the wild frontier--elements that would later go into the American dream. The new Western Hemisphere was also primitive and frightening--full of cannibals by Columbus's testimony. On this fresh, uncharted land Europe could stamp its own shifting character and conflicting desires.

Columbus was a great mariner but an atrocious geographer. Both qualities helped him to sell his enterprise to the monarchs of Spain. He sharply underestimated the circumference of the globe, placing Asia about 2,400 miles from the Canaries of the eastern Atlantic: the actual distance is more than 10,000 miles, most of it vast oceans. Besieging King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, he finally got his ships, his crews, his promises of riches, and his striking title "Admiral of the Ocean Sea." And so he set out on what would be an earth-changing voyage, a story endlessly told, rich with symbols of a world's transformation.

He weighed anchor on August 2, 1492, the very day upon which the last Jews who refused to convert to Catholicism had to leave Spain--most of them bound for the more tolerant countries of Islam. "After having turned out all the Jews from all your kingdoms," Columbus records in his first diary entry, "your . . .

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