Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, Vol. 1 by Washington Irving

This opening volume of Irving's biography takes us from Columbus' birth to a climactic point during his second voyage to the New World, when, as the result of what can inadequately be described as overwork, Columbus collapsed and his crew "spread their sails to the east wind and bore him back, in a state of complete insensibility, to the harbor of Isabella" (a Caribbean port).

There are two volumes to go. That will make the reading sound like a chore, but it isn't; Washington Irving's prose is very pleasant, having a unique tone -- circa 1830 -- that stands refreshingly somewhere between the august rolling periods of the eighteenth century and the fussiness of the nineteenth. What the reader should know, however, is that Irving either really, really liked the subject, or else he had terrific sources of information, not one of which he wanted to neglect. This latter seems to have been the case. Irving's descriptions of his researches in his preface are absolutely worthy of any professional historian today. And why do we assume anyway that our professional standards must of course outrank those of previous eras?

Or perhaps people -- to continue the warning -- in previous eras simply had little else to do with leisure except read, and so they were willing to sit down to a painstakingly recollected three volume history of the life of anybody or anything. Columbus? Certainly, bring it on. What I hint at here, with all due respect to Irving and previous readers, is that by golly as you read along you are going to visit with the hero every coast he saw, and study every cubic foot of shoal water, and measure every day's weather and greet every native chief (cacique) he did. Do not look for summation, except concerning the kinds of topics we moderns slaver over: what about that illegitimate son?

Columbus' achievement is so gigantic that as we rock along with Irving's pleasant prose, we find it startling to understand that the first voyage only took seven months all told. He and the three famous ships left Palos -- there are suburbs in Chicago named Palos, who knew? -- in August of 1492. Columbus returned in the Nina, first briefly to Portugal and then back to Palos, in March 1493. To the residents of the little town, the sudden appearance of that ship in the river one quiet March morning must have seemed like an apparition from another universe. In a sense, it was. The Admiral was back -- but how, and from where? Why only one vessel, and who was left alive? Church bells pealed all day, and "all business was suspended" amid the "hurry and tumult."

The Pinta, commanded by Columbus' mysterious right hand man, Pinzon, returned that same evening. And there lies a tale to set any Hollywood director's imagination racing, surely. There was something wrong about Pinzon, and the Pinta. The Pinta disappeared from Columbus' side twice during those seven months, the second time on the journey home. (The Santa Maria ran aground and was wrecked in the New World.) Where did it go, and why? Pinzon's explanations, the first time, seem to have followed rather dubious terrible-storm-we-thought-you-were-dead-sir lines. The second time, as he sailed into Palos to hear the bells still clanging and to see the Nina already there, explanations were pointless. The first man back got the glory and, so to speak, the end-of-year bonus. Like Columbus, Pinzon had made a first landfall before turning his ship toward Palos, and from Bayonne had already dispatched a letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, announcing his arrival and his discoveries; now he slunk home and lived long enough to receive their answering missive "of a reproachful tenor," forbidding him to come to court. He died a few days later, of illness and chagrin. But "let no one indulge in hard censures over the grave of Pinzon!" Irving warns. "His merits and services are entitled to the highest praise; his errors should be regarded with indulgence."

Columbus' plan to reach the fabulous Orient by sailing west was very much like plans for space travel today. It wasn't that people in the fifteenth century believed it could not be done, certainly not that they believed the earth was flat and the ships would fall off, although perhaps some true bumpkins might have reasoned so. The terror was that no one knew what lay out there in that howling wilderness of water. Did the sun boil the sea in the southern latitudes? What monsters awaited? How far did Ocean extend? How could anyone come back? Even the best educated men were hampered by one colossal mistake, handed down to them from Ptolemy. They believed that the circumference of the earth was a good 7000 miles less than it was. Columbus acted as if he had a presentiment of this, for he kept two logs on the journey west. For his private log he recorded distances accurately. For the log the crew could look at, he wrote down figures hundreds of leagues short of what they had actually traveled. Even so, as the ships pounded west before beautiful winds day after day and week after week, no one could know, as today no astronaut can know -- where are we, and when does all this space end?

It ended of course, after seven weeks of sailing, in the islands of the Caribbean, which to the end of his life Columbus believed was the fringe of Asia or at least the outer edge of "Cipangu," Japan. His guiding text was Marco Polo. In exploring islands today called by familiar names like Cuba (with its fine bay, Guantanamo), Jamaica, and "Hayti," Columbus met new peoples with whom he had somehow to communicate two prime desires, one, to know if there was gold nearby, and two, to know where and how to reach the Great Khan. The natives, no fools despite having every reason to believe these fantastic white men had indeed descended from heaven, continually pointed the newcomers onward in both quests. Cipangu, whatever it meant amid garbled misunderstandings and signs and gestures, was always south and west -- always away from here.

The desire for gold, incidentally, seems not to have been entirely a function of Western greed. The native Indians did wear small gold ornaments, which they were happy to trade for anything that came from the heavenly men's hands, hawk's bells especially. It was the presence of gold, and pearls and gems, that would have reassured the Spaniards that they had reached their goal: the glorious wealth of Asia. This was also why they were forever literally sniffing the island winds for the smell of spices.

In later volumes, Irving tells us, we will retrace the story of the tragedy that Columbus' landfall eventually brought the native tribes. Trouble began quickly with the second voyage, which the Admiral undertook in September 1493, only a year and a month after setting out on his first. On the second trip, a larger cohort of men had greater scope for human mischief. The Spaniards had greater contact this time with the fierce Caribs, free-ranging warriors and cannibals who held most of the humbler islanders in thrall. And there were problems with women. Columbus seems to have held things together, on both voyages, by the strength of his personality and sheer crippling hard work; the Santa Maria only ran aground on the first voyage because he personally dared to allow himself a little bit of sleep on a calm night. With that the whole crew nodded off, including the man at the wheel. And now, with more men to control, Columbus found that these Spanish grandees considered themselves above such nonsense as, for example, work. For their part they began to realize that he was after all an Italian, a foreigner. What right had he to lord it over them? And if they stood before a burnt-out Spanish settlement, sure that a cacique whom the Admiral trusted was in fact a murdering heathen scoundrel, well -- what did he plan to do about it?

And all the while Columbus kept on searching, searching, always tacking south and west, south and west, looking for evidence that these jungle shores were in fact the suburbs of teeming Cathay. He returned from his fourth voyage, I believe, actually under arrest and in chains. Irving's first volume does not take us that far. But early in this book he says:

Let those who are disposed to faint under difficulties, in the prosecution of any great and worthy undertaking, remember that eighteen years elapsed after the time that Columbus conceived his enterprise, before he was enabled to carry it into effect; that the greater part of that time was passed in almost hopeless solicitation, amidst poverty, neglect, and taunting ridicule; that the prime of his life had wasted away in the struggle, and that when his perseverance was finally crowned with success, he was in his fifty-sixth year. His example should encourage the enterprising never to despair.

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