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Oklahoma Voices: Columbus, the Four Voyages 1492-1504 (Oct 08, 2012)

Beyond his 1492 voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, Christopher Columbus made three more voyages until 1504, hoping to find a trade route to China, and convert the inhabitants he found to Christianity.

In his new book Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1492-1504, New York Times bestselling author Laurence Bergreen recreates each journey through the perspectives of the participants.

“There are so many delusions about, or mistakes about Columbus, that it’s worth reminding people about the fact that he never set foot in North America,” said Bergreen.  “He never knew it existed, never glimpsed the coast of the Florida Keys from the deck of one of his ships.  He then headed South instead of going to explore it.  These are fascinating ‘might-have-beens.’  What if Columbus had actually gone to Florida?  Things might have been quite different.”

When Columbus arrived in the Bahamian archipelago on October 12, 1492 he encountered the indigenous Taíno peoples.  He called them “Indians” because he thought he had reached India, which was another name for China, or Asia.

“At first when he saw them, he was really impressed by their gracefulness, their intelligence, their beauty,” Bergreen said.  “They were welcoming until Columbus eventually wore out his welcome.”

Even though Columbus never set foot on the Continental United States, the Italian explorer became an important part of the U.S. historical narrative.  However, that wasn’t the case until more than 400 years after the voyages.

“In 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt seized on Columbus as a symbol of American unity,” Bergreen said.  “In an effort to win the Italian American vote and backing for the New Deal, he declared the date of Columbus’s first landfall in the New World a federal holiday.”


On the vividness of Columbus’s writings:

“In his log, he writes, at times in his third voyage particularly, when he was off the coast of Venezuela, of sailing uphill, up a hill of water, if you will, in the middle of the ocean.  I was really astounded by that.  He thought at the top of this hill, he would find the entrance to Heaven.  And yet, he didn’t go there, he turned back from it.  So he was driven by all sorts of impulses and some of them understandable, they were the urge to explore.  There was greed.  He was trying to get rich, both for his own account, and for his sponsors, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain.  Then there were these mystical impulses, literally the voice of God, which he wrote about, that drove him on, that offered him comfort and occasionally misguided him.  So this kind of inspiration was mixed in with these other, more practical elements.”

On Columbus’s initial encounter and evolving relationship with the Taíno:

“He felt he was among, if not friends, at least a kind of a receptive audience.  But then, as time went on, the Taíno, the Indians, thought that Columbus would leave, and he wore out his welcome.  They wanted him to go, and Columbus didn’t, and this caused a great crisis for the Taíno when it became apparent that he wasn’t leaving.  Then Columbus’s men, being men of that era, and this is the 15th/16th century, were extremely brutal, and basically took a lot of these women as sexual partners, and started having children with them.  The women appeared to be very casual about that, but they were actually deeply wounded by that, because these children didn’t have a place in either camp, and we can gather the Indians felt their future was being taken away from them as a result of this forcible mixing.  And the consequences were tragic.  Many Indians, tens of thousands, wound up committing suicide.  Columbus wrote about that, he was bewildered.  They were jumping off cliffs, eating and digesting poisonous vegetation in order to commit suicide because they were in despair at being overwhelmed by this force.”

On Christopher Columbus’s “smarter, older brother” Bartholomew:

“He was considered to be as good a sailor, if not better, than Columbus was.  His nickname was ‘The Leader’, which should tell you something.  That’s pretty revealing.  When Columbus was losing his head and off on these disturbing hallucinations, and flights of fancy, Bartholomew was the one with his feet on the ground, quite literally, and facing down problems, and dealing with them in a realistic way, so Christopher Columbus owed a great deal, and occasionally his actual life, to his brother Bartholomew, and yet Bartholomew is almost lost to history.  We don’t know that much about him, because he didn’t have that quirky visionary quality.  He executed ideas.  Columbus, for better or worse, was the visionary, the idea person, if you will, and a self-publicist who wrote about his exploits, so we know a lot more about him, and he’s commemorated.”

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