While the main events of history paint the picture of our past in broad strokes, it is often the lesser known stories that fill in the details and enrich our understanding of events. The Last Voyage of Columbus, a new book by Martin Dugard, is of the latter variety, and in it we find a figure who, while familiar, is more human and thus more interesting than the Christopher Columbus we know from history textbooks.
Columbus is, in many ways, one of the most complex and enigmatic figures in human history. While certainly a man of vision, he was also stubborn to the point of absurdity; he was a superb navigator and sailor who often had trouble with the sailors he led; he was handsome and charming, so much so that if Queen Isabella had been other than the devout Catholic she was, he could have been her lover. Dugard's portrait of Columbus has its origins in the discovery of an ancient shipwreck at the mouth of a river in Panama. While the evidence is inconclusive, it is possible that the wreckage is that of the La Vizcaina, one of four ships Columbus took on his fourth trip to the New World. This journey was more than Columbus' last voyage it was his last shot. While Columbus fancied himself the administrator of all the lands he discovered, in truth there was nothing he could do to stop the flood of humanity to the New World. His only chance at everlasting glory (he thought) was to find China, or at least discover a way to get there. In pursuit of that goal, Columbus endured becalmed seas, hostile natives, a horrific hurricane and eventually a devastating shipwreck before finally making his way home to die two years later.
As Dugard shows us in this remarkable book, while Columbus may have thought himself a failure, and while he remained virtually unremembered for a couple of centuries thereafter (Amerigo Vespucci was mistakenly credited with the discovery), the truth finally resurfaced. And amazingly, the wrecked ship in Panama tells us that Columbus may have come within 38 miles of seeing his goal, the Pacific Ocean.