273. The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1492-1504)

I pushed through this one more out of stubbornness after jettisoning the previous three books. Comprising excerpts from Columbus’ logbooks and letters, but mostly from the biography written by his son Hernando, it covers all four voyages, from the momentous first trip and discovery of the Caribbean islands Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and Cuba, which Columbus remained convinced was part of the Asian mainland throughout his life, to the increasingly disastrous later trips : abductions and killings of natives, rebellions of Spanish settlers (read fortune hunters) leading to Columbus being sent back to Castile in chains, and unrelenting storms lasting for weeks.

The natives are not as unsophisticated as expected, as they always assure Columbus that the gold mines he is seeking are always described as to be found on the next island/village/kingdom.

Also interesting was Columbus’ growing certainty during his travels that the world is not spherical but pear-shaped, with a stalk that juts out like a woman’s nipple (his words, not mine) and the Earthly Paradise to be found at the summit.

The overriding impressions of reading this history is the beginning of the deaths, slavery and misery that the European colonisation will bring to the peoples of Central and South America, and the concurrent personal fall of Columbus as politics and greed destroy his reputation, wealth and position at court.

Source :  The Penguin Classic, The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus, edited and translated by J M Cohen.

Favourite quotes/scenes:

Often the natives would paddle out to Columbus’ ships out of curiosity or to trade. However, one group was very wary and the sailors had difficulty in getting them to approach. Shiny pots and mirrors were used to try and entice them closer, but not very successfully. But when Columbus had the bright idea to have “a tambourine brought up to the poop and played, and made some of the young men dance, imagining that the Indians would draw closer to see the festivities. On observing the music and dancing, however, they dropped their oars, and picked up their bows and strung them … and they began to shoot arrows at us.” page 210.

Digressions/diversions:   

My favourite story about Columbus comes not from his voyages but something I read many years ago. There was a museum in Havana that claimed not one but two skulls of Columbus, one when he was a man and one as a boy ??!! Guffaw.

Personal rating:  4/10

In the years 1450-1500:

  • French retake Normandy from English forces, 1450, and eventually Bordeaux, 1453, bringing the Hundred Years War to an end. Calais remains in English control.
  • Ottoman Turks besiege and conquer Constantinople, ending the Byzantine Empire and drawing the line under the Middle Ages, 1453.
  • Johannes Gutenberg invents the printing press with movable type, 1454.
  • The English Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians.
  • Leonardo da Vinci picks up some paint brushes, Florence 1472.
  • Building of the Sistine Chapel begun, 1473.
  • Spanish Inquisition established, 1478.
  • Edward V (aged 12) and his younger brother are murdered in the Tower of London, Richard III becomes King of England, 1483, until defeated by Henry Tudor, marking the end of the War of the Roses and the beginning of the Tudor reign 1485.
  • Portuguese explorers travel 320km up the Congo River to establish contact with King Mbanza, 1490.

from The Book of Key Facts, Paddington Press, 1978

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