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Moment Of Dawn

March 2023
2min read

And so, of course, did Christopher Columbus. This greatest and most fascinating of all explorers went looking for a short cut to the East and found instead the infinite West; and although he never quite realized what he had done—the enormous dimensions of his achievement were in fact too big for any of his contemporaries to grasp—he was very well aware that he had sailed out of one era and into another, and that nothing again would ever be quite the same. He compelled men to remake all of their maps, a process which would last for four centuries and more, and the business changed the mapmakers as much as it changed the maps. Mankind behaves differently when the world grows larger. It finds new capacities and develops the urge to use them.

Naturally, it is impossible for anyone today to know precisely what was in Columbus’ mind when he made that first voyage. Yet it is not altogether a mystery, for the man did keep a journal, and although this has not survived, we do have an abstract made by the Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas, who appears to have consulted the original and to have copied certain parts of it. Las Casas introduced some material of his own, for which he was later criticized, but by and large his manuscript is accepted as being fairly faithful to the spirit of Columbus’ own work; and an excellent edition of The Journal of Christopher Columbus , translated by Cecil Jane, with a foreword by L. A. Vigneras and an appendix by R. A. Skelton, has recently been published.

Out of these jottings we can at least see that as he sailed from island to island on the far side of the ocean, Columbus was forever bemused by a sense of wonder. The entries in his log become lyrical; over and over he assures the King and Queen of Spain (to whom he delivered his log book, on his return to Spain) that no one who was not actually present could understand how marvelous it all was.

“There are fish here,” Columbus writes, “so unlike ours that it is a marvel … and the colors are so fine that no man would not wonder at them or be anything but delighted to see them.” And again: “I walked among the trees, and they were the loveliest sight I have yet seen … and all the trees are as different from ours as night is from day, and so is the fruit and the grasses and the stones and everything else. … Your Highnesses may believe that this is the best and most fertile and temperate and level and good land that there is in the world.”

In places Las Casas summarizes what Columbus wrote instead of making a direct copy, and the same boundless enthusiasm comes through: “The admiral says that he had never seen anything so beautiful. All the neighborhood of the river was full of trees, lovely and green, and different from ours, each one with flowers and fruit after its kind.” The people who lived on these islands seemed to Columbus to have come unstained from creation’s dawn: “They are … a people very free from wickedness, and unwarlike … they are very gentle and do not know what it is to be wicked, or to kill others, or to steal.” The conquistadors who followed Columbus would give these luckless folk a liberal education in some of these matters, but in the hour of discovery Columbus certainly understood that he had entered a new world, even though he believed it to be part of Japan or China.

The very word “wonder” appears over and over, even where Las Casas is departing from the text of the original. Columbus, says Las Casas at one point, tells his sovereigns that “they must not wonder that he praises all so much, because he assures them that he believes he has not said the hundredth part. … Finally he says that if he who has seen it feels so great wonder, how much more wonderful will it be to one who hears of it, and that no one will be able to believe it if he has not seen it.”

The Journal of Christopher Columbus , translated by Cecil Jane, with a foreword by L. A. Vigneras and an appendix by R. A. Skelton. Clarkson N. Potter, Inc. 227 pp. $7.50.

It is no mere figure of speech to say that the age of wonder developed when the great discoveries were made. The wonder brought desire, and the two together generated an incalculable energy; Western man acquired a profound certainty in his own destiny, and went on to become (for a time at least) master of all the world. It began then. Where did it end?

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