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