The Four Voyages, 1492-1504
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.
"I sailed to the West southwest, and we took more water aboard than at any other time on the voyage," wrote Christopher Columbus in his logbook on Thursday, October 11, 1492, on the verge of the defining moment of discovery. It occurred not a moment too soon, because the fearful and unruly crews of his three ships were about to mutiny. Overcome with doubt himself, he had tried to remind the rebels of their sworn duty, "telling them that, for better or worse, they must complete the enterprise on which the Catholic Sovereigns"Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, who jointly ruled Spain"had sent them." He could not risk offending his royal patrons, whom he lobbied for ten years to obtain this commission, and so he insisted, "I started out to find the Indies and will continue until I have accomplished that mission, with the help of Our Lord." And they had better follow his lead or risk a cruel punishment.
Suddenly it seemed as if his prayers had been answered: "I saw several things that were indications of land." For one thing, "A large flock of sea birds flew overhead." And for another, a slender reed floated past his flagship, Santa María, and it was green, indicating it had grown nearby. Pinta's crew noticed the same thing, as well as a "manmade" plank, carved by an unknown hand, perhaps with an "iron tool." Those aboard Niña spotted a stick, equally indicative that they were approaching land. He encouraged the crew to give thanks rather than mutiny at this critical moment, doubled the number of lookouts, and promised a generous reward to the first sailor to spot terra firma.
And then, for hours, nothing.
Around ten o'clock that night, Columbus anxiously patrolled the highest deck, the stern castle. In the gloom, he thought he saw something resembling "a little wax candle bobbing up and down." Perhaps it was a torch belonging to fishermen abroad at night, or perhaps it belonged to someone on land, "going from house to house." Perhaps it was nothing more than a phantom sighting, common at sea, even for expert eyes. He summoned a couple of officers; one agreed with his assessment, the other scoffed. No one else saw anything, and Columbus did not trust his own instincts. As he knew from experience, life at sea often presented stark choices. If he succeeded in his quest to discover the basis of a Spanish empire thousands of miles from home, he would be on his way to fulfilling his pledge to his royal sponsors and attaining heroic status and unimaginable wealth. After all the doubts and trials he had endured, his accomplishment would be vindication of the headiest sort. But if he failed, he would face mutiny by his obstreperous crew, permanent disgrace, and the prospect of death in a lonely patch of ocean far from home.
Throughout the first voyage, Columbus kept a detailed record of his thoughts and actions, in which he sought to justify himself to his Sovereigns, to his Lord, and to himself. He believed that history would be listening. In his record, he began by explaining the premise of the voyage in terms of Reconquista, the reclaiming of the Iberian Peninsula from Muslims who had occupied it for centuries. For Columbus, the success of this military campaign made his voyage possible, and, given his mystical bent, inevitable. Addressing the "most Christian and very Exalted, Excellent and mighty Princes, King and Queen of the Spains and of the Islands of the Sea, our Lord and Lady, in the present year 1492"his Sovereigns, Ferdinand and Isabella, in other wordshe reminisced about their war against the Moors (Muslims), especially their memorable retaking of the "the very great City of Granada"the former Moorish stronghold. Columbus was there, or so he claimed. He "saw the Royal Standards of Your Highnesses" appear on the "towers of Alhambra," the former seat of Moorish rule. He even saw "the Moorish King come forth to the gates of the city and kiss the Royal Hands of Your Highnesses." Even then, Columbus reminded them, he was thinking of his grand design to establish trade with the fabled "Grand Khan" in the east, the "King of Kings." And it so happened, according to his epic recitation of events, that the Sovereigns, avowed enemies of "all idolatries and heresies," resolved to send himChristopher Columbusto India in order to convert those in distant lands to "our Holy Faith"the only faith. Recasting events slightly to flatter Ferdinand and Isabella, he claimed that they "ordained that I should not go by land"why, as a mariner, would he?but "by the route of the Occident," in other words, by water.
In reciting this very recent history, Columbus made sure to incorporate the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, accomplished by a royal decree dated March 31, 1492, which he welcomed as the final impetus for his voyage. "After all the Jews had been exiled from your realms and dominions in the same month of January Your Highnesses commanded me that with a sufficient fleet I should go to India, and for this granted me many graces." And what graces they were. They "ennobled me so that henceforth I might call myself 'Don' and be 'Grand Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Viceroy and Perpetual Governor' of all the islands and mainland that I should discover and win." Not only that, "My eldest son should succeed me, and thus from rank to rank for ever." His preening revealed that hereditary titles and wealth had inspired him to go as much as anything else.
Thereafter, his tone became more practical and objective.
"I departed from the city of Granada on the 12th day of the month of May of the same year 1492, on a Saturday, and came to the town of Palos, which is a seaport, where I fitted for the sea three vessels"Niña, Pinta, and his flagship, Santa María"well suited for such an enterprise, and I departed well furnished with very many provisions and many seamen on the third day of the month of August on a Friday, at half an hour before sunrise, and took the route for the Canary Islands of Your Highnesses… that I might thence take my course and sail until I should reach the Indies, and give the letters of Your Highnesses to those princes, and thus comply with what you had commanded."
That was the plan, in all its grandeur and simplicity.
His journal was to form an important part of the enterprise, and he explained his purpose: "I thought to write down upon this voyage in great detail from day to day all that I should do and see, and encounter." Like all such journals, it had its share of unconscious distortions, intentional omissions, which occurred whenever he deemed it necessary to conceal his route from rivals, or when the reality of his exploration strayed from his expectations. For all its lacunae, it remains the best guide to both his deeds and deceptions. With it, he planned to "make a new chart of navigation, upon which I shall place the whole sea and lands of the Ocean Sea in their proper positions under their bearings, and, further, to compose a book, and set down everything as in a real picture." He knew that keeping this record, in addition to all his other duties, would tax his energy to the hilt. "Above all it is very important that I forget sleep," he reminded himself, "and labor much at navigation, because it is necessary, and which will be a great task."
As he embarked on this task, something happened on that October night, something unexpected, appearing sooner than anticipated: the light, if it was a light, from a distant shore, telling him that he had arrived.
The moon rose shortly before midnight, and the little fleet sailed on, making about nine knots. About two o'clock in the morning, a cannon's roar shattered the calm, startling one and all. It came from Pinta, the fastest of the three ships, and thus in the lead. Columbus instantly knew what it meant: land. "I learned that the first man to sight land was Rodrigo de Triana." It lay just six miles to the west.
As Columbus passed a sleepless night, the fleet coasted close enough to the shore for his disgruntled men to spy "naked people" rather than the sophisticated and handsomely garbed Chinese that he had expected to meet. Based on his naive reading of Marco Polo's Travels, the navigator believed he had arrived at the eastern shore of China just as he had promised Ferdinand and Isabella he would.
He would spend the rest of his lifeand three subsequent voyagesattempting to make good on that pledge. Many in Europe were inclined to dismiss Polo's account, by turns fantastic and commercial, as a beguiling fantasy, while others, Columbus especially, regarded it as the pragmatic travel guide that Polo intended. His attempt to find a maritime equivalent to Marco Polo's journey to Asia bridged the gap between the medieval world of magic and might, and the stark universe of predator and prey of the Renaissance. Although Marco Polo had completed his journey two hundred years earlier, Columbus nevertheless expected to find the Mongol empire intact, and Kublai Khan, or another Grand Khan like him, alive and well and ready to do business. But Kublai was long gone, and his empire in ruins.
Protected by his delusion, Columbus conveniently concluded that he had reached an island or peninsula on the outskirts of China, a leap made possible only by omitting the Americas and the Pacific Ocean from his skewed geography. And as for the promised reward, which should have gone to the humble seaman, Rodrigo de Triana, who had first sighted land, Columbus decided that his own vision of the glowing candle took precedence, and so he kept the proceeds for himself.
List of Maps
Prologue: October 1492
PART ONE: DISCOVERY
PART TWO: CONQUEST
PART THREE: DECADENCE
PART FOUR: RECOVERY11. El Alto Viaje
12. Castaways in Paradise
13. February 29, 1504
Epilogue: Columbus Day
"Laurence Bergreen's Columbus was brillliant, audacious, volatile, paranoid and ruthless. 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 charcater in a Shakespearan tradegy."
— The New York Times
"Laurence Bergreen's ambitious new biography, Columbus: The Four Voyages [is] a spellbinding epic that's simultaneiously a profoundly private portrait of the most complex, compelling, controversial creature ever to board a boat. This scrupulously researched, unbiased account of four death-defying journeys to The New World reveals the Admiral's paradoxical personality."
— USA Today
"A compelling new book [that] details the explorer's trips to the New World, including three you haven't heard about."
"Once you have read this superb acount of Columbus' four voyages, you will never be content with the cliche about the Italian-born explorer's sailing the ocean blue in 1492. Author of many prize-winning popular history books on topics as diverse as Marco Polo and Al Capone. Laurence Bergreen is a New York-based scholar whose portrayal of the life and times of Christopher Columbus is a tour de force."
— Winnipeg Free Press
"Laurence Bergreen's new book, refreshingly, is fluid in style in its style and comprehensive in its research. Richly illustrated and enhanced with maps that are as legible as they are relevant. Columbus: The Four Voyages is complex in its themes, intriguing in its substance and sparkling with suprises."
— The Washington Times
"In this scrupulously fair and often thrilling account of his four vorages to the "New World," Bergreen reveals Columbus as brilliant, brave, adventurous, and deeply flawed . . . A superb reexamination of the character and career of a still controversial historical agent." — Booklist
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: