April 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 3
Deeply embedded in the history of America there is a strange quality of expectancy. We have somehow inherited a sense of wonder, a feeling that our strange progress toward the future is a fantastic and incomprehensible adventure that moves constantly past the bounds of imagination. We are permanently oriented, so to speak, in the direction of the improbable, and the fact that we do not always know what to do when the improbable turns out to be real makes very little difference. From the moment of our beginning we have been looking for something on the far side of the horizon—from which it follows that we are never convinced that any horizon is ever final.
This is in large part our heritage from the open sea. America could not exist until somebody went questing for it. It had to be discovered, and the discovery required an undying curiosity and a prodigious act of faith. Someone, in other words, had to get in a ship and go out beyond the limits of knowledge. When he had gone as far as he could go, other men had to do likewise; and for the better part of five centuries the American story has been bright with the names of great voyages.
The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus, by his son Ferdinand , translated and annotated by Benjamin Keen. The Rutgers University Press. 316 pp. $7.50.
Greatest of all, of course, was the first one, the earthchanging voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492. The story is almost too familiar to us. It is one of the first stories drummed into us in school. The great Admiral and his three little ships, Santa Maria, Pinta , and Nina , move out from Palos like shapes in a pageant, romantic but vaguely unreal. We learn how Queen Isabella pawned certain jewels to make the voyage possible, how the sailors feared the unknown and came close to mutiny, how the Admiral saw a light on the dark sky line just when hope seemed lost, and how at last this man who had found an authentic new world believed that he had simply reached the East Indiesconceiving, as do most of us, that the world holds fewer surprises than is really the case. We get, in short, the familiar legend, and we let it go at that; which is a pity, for here is one of the most significant stories in all American history, the story that sets the key for everything that has happened since.
It is a good story to return to, and an excellent approach is to be found in the biography which Columbus’ son Ferdinand wrote in the 1530’s, some years after the Admiral’s death. Translated and annotated by Benjamin Keen, The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus is now available to the general reader.
Why did Columbus go on that immense voyage in the first place? Ferdinand explains succinctly: “Turning to the reasons which persuaded the Admiral to undertake the discovery of the Indies, I say there were three, namely, natural reasons, the authority of writers, and the testimony of sailors.” The natural reasons were simple enough; Columbus knew that the earth was a globe and believed that a good sailor could circumnavigate it. The “authority of writers” was a shakier foundation; he relied on things set down by Aristotle, Seneca, Strabo, Marco Polo, and others, and not all of these knew what they were talking about. One suspects that it was the testimony of sailors that really got him. Atlantic seaports were full of fables and tall tales about men who had ventured to the west, a hodgepodge of yarns about lost islands, floating bits of carved wood, inexplicable landfalls made by stormtossed mariners, including a fine yarn told by a oneeyed sailor who believed that on a voyage to Ireland he had touched the coast of Tatary. There were hints, in plenty, that something besides the great gulf lay west of the Atlantic sky line, and Columbus wanted to find out.
Well, Columbus got his way, and at last he and his three ships went cruising; and when they made their landfall the sense of wonder re-entered the world, so that human life took on a permanent new dimension.…
At daybreak they saw an island about fifteen leagues in length, very level, full of green trees and abounding in springs, with a large lake in the middle, and inhabited by a multitude of people who hastened to the shore, astounded and marveling at the sight of the ships … and the Admiral, perceiving they were a gentle, peaceful and very simple people, gave them little red caps and glass beads which they hung about their necks, together with other trifles that diey cherished as if they were precious stones of great price.
The natives, Ferdinand explains, knew perfectly well that these trinkets had no great intrinsic value. They prized them simply because these strange newcomers had given them to them, “for they were convinced our men had come from Heaven, and therefore they wished to have some relic of them.”
They would be disillusioned a little later, for the Spaniards—like all other Europeans who came after them—ruled their new possessions with a heavy hand, giving the native residents nothing much better than a choice between slavery, dispossession, or outright extermination. Columbus seems to have lacked a social conscience; as a man of his time, he believed that the Indians must be made to serve their conquerors for their own good. Not until Las Casas would a strong voice be raised in defense of the rights of America’s original inhabitants.
But if the natives were to be disillusioned, so too was Columbus himself. As voyage succeeded voyage, it began to be clear to the Spanish authorities that they had given the Admiral altogether too much, and he was whittled down. Between the first great stroke of discovery and the long, wearisome fight to maintain his own authority and prerogatives against mutinous subordinates and schemers at court, Columbus fell on difficult times. Yet the faith that was the obverse side of the coin, with him—the faith that went hand in hand with his God-given curiosity and eagerness—never deserted him. Seven years after the discovery, deserted by fortune, Columbus wrote thus in his journal:
The day after Christmas Day, 1499, all having left me, I was attacked by the Indians and the bad Christians, and was placed in such extremity that fleeing death I took to sea in a small caravel. Then Our Lord aided me, saying, “Man of little faith, do not fear, I am with thee.” And he dispersed my enemies, and showed me how I might fulfill my vows. Unhappy sinner that I am, to have placed all my hopes in the things of this world!
Actually, Columbus had placed his hopes not so much in the things of this world as in the belief that this world contained ever so much more than any of his contemporaries suspected. These hopes were abundantly sustained. The belief that went with them has colored the American consciousness ever since.