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Columbus: His Enterprise

Columbus: His Enterprise: Exploding the Myth

Hans Koning
Bill Bigelow
Copyright Date: 1991
Published by: NYU Press,
Pages: 141
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  • Book Info
    Columbus: His Enterprise
    Book Description:

    "The book is an idea that has finally found its time."--Publisher's Weekly "I think your book on Christopher Columbus is important. I'm more grateful for that book than any other book I have read in a couple of years."--Kurt Vonnegut

    eISBN: 978-1-58367-383-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-4)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 5-6)
    (pp. 7-10)

    Columbus: His Enterprisewas written and published fifteen years ago. Miraculously, it has stayed in print ever since (with slowly increasing sales). I write “miraculously” because books in the United States that see the light of day without ads or other flourishes rarely live more than a few months. Miraculously also because during all those years I have not often found sympathy or even comprehension for its point of view, its discovery that Columbus was neither a wise but misunderstood explorer nor even a brave adventurer, but (quoting my own book) “a man greedy in large and in small ways,...

    (pp. 11-18)

    Christopher Columbus was what a friend of mine calls “a grade-school hero.” Every American child in second or third grade learns about the brave sailor, son of a Genoese weaver, who convinced the King and Queen of Spain to let him sail west. Fighting the elements and a crew who thought the earth was flat, he persisted, and with his three little ships discovered America.

    After school, only people who are sailing enthusiasts or who are fascinated by geography ever come to grips with this man again. The books written for these people are hardly more critical than those written...

    (pp. 19-32)

    Of course, no amount of historical fact can explain why Christopher Columbus and no one else was determined to undertake that remarkable voyage. Many theories have been suggested: Columbus was a Jew, looking for the lost tribes of Israel, Columbus sailed because he had been in Iceland learning about the voyages of the Vikings; and so forth. These ideas are either unproven or downright silly, and none of them brings us closer to the gist of the question: why him? In some way, the elements were mixed in him—so much courage, so much stubbornness, so much knowledge, so much...

    (pp. 33-42)

    It was unthinkable to undertake such an enterprise without government support—that is to say, without a king or prince behind it. The first monarch Columbus approached was, naturally, the King of Portugal, John II, a nephew of that same Henry the Navigator who had started it all. At just about that time, in the 1480s, King John himself sent some sea captains west. Their mission was not to go all the way to Asia, but to discover the (imaginary) island of Antilia in the middle of the Atlantic. King John may actually have been inspired in this by the...

    (pp. 43-68)

    The story of the preparations for the great voyage and of the three ships is simple enough and has been told a hundred times. Palos de la Frontera, though dragging its feet, paid the fine imposed for some act of disobedience we do not know, by providing two caravels. A third ship was chartered from its owner on the spot.

    That last one was the Santa Maria, on which Columbus would sail, while her owner remained on board too. It was the largest of the three, with a length of perhaps a hundred feet, and a carrying capacity of maybe...

    (pp. 69-79)

    There is no ship’s log in existence for the second voyage of Columbus to America, but there is much material, and foremost among it the report by Diego Chanca. Chanca was one of the Court physicians, and the King and Queen sent him on the expedition and paid his salary. He didn’t stay with Columbus but went back to Spain on the first ship returning.

    Geographically no other crossing, obviously, matched the first one. The mystery barrier had been broken. Henceforth, ships from many countries would sail west. Before the century had ended, Europeans would have set foot on American...

  9. 6 A NEW WORLD
    (pp. 80-91)

    Columbus’ brother Diego had been in charge of Isabela in his absence. The gold collecting had been entrusted by him to two men, conquistadores, captains, robber barons, bandits: the proper name depends on your point of view. They were Pedro Margarit and Alonso de Hojeda.

    Catholic Europe in those days was ready to call non-Christians “idolaters,” worshippers of idols; that label was a sentence to death or to slavery. Hojeda himself was precisely what should be called an idolater, for he had a medal with the Virgin Mary on it around his neck and so steadfastly believed it made him...

    (pp. 92-102)

    The attitude of the Catholic monarchs toward Columbus at this point was not the “incredible ingratitude” of the Columbus myth, but simply a disappointment with the achievements he himself had aimed for: he had not asked for acclaim as a discoverer, but had presented himself as an entrepreneur announcing unheard-of mountains of gold.

    He was kept cooling his heels in Cádiz and later in Seville for several months. He dressed as a friar and lived in the house of a priest, maybe to show his humility. Finally he was invited to the Court, then assembled at Valladolid (or, perhaps, Burgos)...

    (pp. 103-111)

    As the voyage of Hojeda and Vespucci showed, the Enterprise of the Indies was now being carried by its own momentum. Its originator, Columbus, and his brothers were received at Court, and Columbus succeeded in having his titles of admiral and viceroy confirmed once more. But it was understood that these were now honorific and did not carry any further authority. The “action” shifted to others. In fact, when Nicolás de Ovando was sent out as successor to Bobadilla, Columbus was not consulted and no one suggested he go along. Ovando sailed in the largest contingent yet, thirty-one ships with...

    (pp. 112-113)

    The Admiral had written to his monarchs, while still in Jamaica, that the one thing he now desired was to make a pilgrimage to Rome and other holy places. That was probably only one more broadside fired for effect, for back in Spain his only quest till his dying day was to get satisfaction for his various claims and grievances. It must be said that he was in poor health and had less than two years to live: dying, in the words of his son, “from gout and other ills, and from grief at seeing himself so fallen from his...

    (pp. 114-118)

    It lies within our comfortable liberal tradition that we don’t like events to be depicted in stark colors. We like shadings. We particularly don’t like things or people to be written up as all bad. Everything has its nuances, we claim. Only fanatics and extremists fail to see that.

    Mankind and womankind, sitting (still rather well-fed) in their (still rather well-heated) rooms, feel a considerable tenderness toward themselves.

    Upperdog, mostly white, mankind, that is. And throughout its bloody history, mankind has labelled as fanatics, agitators, and troublemakers all those who have felt less tender and rosy about the world.


    (pp. 119-122)
    (pp. 123-140)
    Bill Bigelow

    Most of my students have trouble with the idea that a book—especially atextbook—can lie. When I tell them that I want them to argue with, not just read, the printed word they’re not sure what I mean. That’s why I start my U.S. history class by stealing a student’s purse.

    As the year opens, my students may not know when the Civil War was fought, what James Madison or Frederick Douglass did, or where the Underground Railroad went, but they do know that a brave fellow named Christopher Columbus discovered America. Okay, the Vikings may have actually...

  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 141-141)