In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Most of us know that. But few of us know that Columbus made three additional voyages to what he believed until the end of his life was an outpost of India, a gateway to China. These subsequent voyages were, as Laurence Bergreen writes, “each more adventurous and tragic than those preceding it.” Columbus’ final voyage, made between 1502 and 1504 when he was crippled by arthritis and other infirmities, is an astonishing tale of shipwreck and rebellion, and because of its hardships it was the journey, Bergreen says, that was Columbus’ favorite.
Bergreen has written highly praised books about other explorers—Over the Edge, about Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe, and Marco Polo. That background allows him to provide both historical and psychological context in his portrait of Columbus. For example, knowing that Columbus was shaped by his youth in Genoa, at the time a fascinating but rapacious city-state that practiced slavery, casts his appalling enslavement of the native populations of the Caribbean in a somewhat different light. And Bergreen helps us understand the revolutionary nature of Columbus’ accomplishments, despite the fact that Columbus himself never quite grasped where he really was.
The Columbus who emerges here is an ambitious, adventurous, often autocratic man who has a “penchant for self-dramatization.” Deeply mystical, he believed he was on a mission from God, and through his knowledge of navigation he sometimes tricked his crews and the native populations into believing that too. On his third voyage he seemed delusional. “An aura of chaos hovers over his entire life and adventures,” Bergreen writes. In fact, one of the biggest surprises in Columbus: The Four Voyages is the discovery that Columbus was just as vilified in his own day as he has become in some quarters today.
In the end it is possible to respect but hard to admire Columbus. But it is easy to admire Bergreen’s account of Columbus’ life and his four voyages to the New World.