Document 3 - Discovering Columbus By John Noble Wilford...

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Discovering Columbus By John Noble Wilford Published: August 11, 1991 FEW STORIES IN HISTORY are more familiar than the one of Christopher Columbus sailing west for the Indies and finding instead the New World. Indelibly imprinted in our memory is the verse from childhood: "In fourteen hundred and ninety-two/Columbus sailed the ocean blue." The names of his ships, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, roll fluently from our lips. We know how Columbus, a seaman of humble and obscure origins, pursued a dream that became his obsession. How he found not the riches of Cathay but a sprinkling of small islands inhabited by gentle people. How he called these people Indians, thinking that surely the mainland of Asia lay just over the horizon. Yet the history of Columbus is frustratingly incomplete. When and how in the mists of his rootless life did he conceive of his audacious plan? He supposedly wanted to sail west across the Ocean Sea to reach Cipangu, the name then for Japan, and the region known generally as the Indies. But was he really seeking the Indies? How are we to navigate the poorly charted waters of ambiguous and conflicting documentation everywhere Columbus went and in everything he did? We are not certain how he was finally able to win royal backing for the enterprise. We know little about his ships and the men who sailed them. We don't know exactly where he made his first landfall. We don't know for sure what he looked like or where he lies buried. We do know he was an inept governor of the Spanish settlements in the Caribbean and had a bloodied hand in the brutalization of the native people and in the start of a slave trade. But we are left wondering if he is to be admired and praised, condemned -- or perhaps pitied as a tragic figure. Walt Whitman imagined Columbus on his deathbed, in the throes of self-doubt, seeming to anticipate the vicissitudes that lay ahead in his passage through history: What do I know of life? what of myself? I know not even my own work past or present; Dim ever-shifting guesses of it spread before me, Of newer better worlds, their mighty parturition, Mocking, perplexing me. The man who wrote to his patron, Luis de Santangel, on the voyage back to Europe in 1493, proclaiming discovery and assuring that he would not be forgotten, probably had no such thoughts. He could not foresee posterity's "ever-shifting guesses" concerning his deeds and himself any more than he could assimilate in his inflexible mind what he had done and seen. But it was his fate to be the accidental agent of a transcendental discovery and, as a result, to be tossed into the tempestuous sea of history, drifting half-forgotten at first, then swept by swift currents to a towering crest of honor and legend, only to be caught in recent years
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in a riptide of conflicting views of his life and of his responsibility for almost everything that has happened since. COLUMBUS'S REPUTATION in history has followed a curious course. His
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Document 3 - Discovering Columbus By John Noble Wilford...

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