Author: Christopher Columbus
Destination: (India) the Caribbean
Length: about 8 months
Type: by ship
The likable dreamer
Please note: This is not CC’s original logbook. It is merely an edited transcript of the original log (which got lost), handed down by Bartolomé de Las Casas in the early 16th century. Some editions preserve de Las Casas’ style of writing, while others attempt to restore the original first-person perspective of CC’s account.
This might very well be one of the most interesting books I have ever read.
The story: In August 1492, CC sets sail in Spain, aiming at the Canary Islands and far West from there. He has three ships and a great dream to his name: to engrave his name in history by becoming the discoverer of a Western passage to India! On October 12th he lands on a strange shore, which he identifies as a set of islands off the Asian coast. He meets with the people living there, communicates with them and eventually sails back to Spain, leaving an outpost behind and taking a small group of “natives” with him.
is Christopher Columbus a hard-headed “colonialist”?
I guess there are a lot of reasons to not like CC: first and foremost, his legacy did bring millionfold pain and destruction to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Besides that, he seems to have been constantly on the hunt for valuable minerals wherever he landed, and even in his later years he could never be convinced that the landmass he had discovered was in fact not Asia, but a whole new continent later known as North and South America.
All of the above might be true, but this book is a surprisingly good read nonetheless: the 320 pages I have been reading never felt old or boring at all. CC has a great eye for details to add life to the text, and his diary entries are nicely diverse, ranging from short, laconic two-liners to long paragraphs spilling over with exuberance and excitement.
love for land and people
He loves the scenery: “I saw a number of huts and a wide valley dotted with settlements and traversed by a river. Never have I seen anything more beautiful.”
And he shows a sort of sympathy for the population: “Nothing is more easily recognizable than someone making a gift that comes from the heart.”
It is possible that these weren’t CC’s true feelings – he could have written those words as a sort of advertisement for the king of Spain, or they might even have been the result of a textual modification by de Las Casas.
Whatever the case, the picture of CC that I got from the text was that of a passionate dreamer, and a very likable one too: joy in triumph, fear in the face of danger, obsession and self-doubt – it is all here, within these chronicles from the dawn of the Age of Discovery.
not a conquistador
Obviously, CC is a child of his time, too: he finds it necessary to proselytize, wants to find huge amounts of gold for his king, and is always looking for new territories to add to the Spanish dominion. But he is certainly not a conquistador.
Here are his first words about the first people he meets on the first island he lands on: “In recognition of the fact that they were people who could better be converted to our Holy Faith by love than by the sword, I was looking to make friends with them…” If only the Colonial powers had lived up to these words.
Great man, great book.
9 out of 10, no doubt.