Columbus, Broken Emperor of the Ocean
Updated: Oct 11
Book Review: Columbus: Four Voyages by Laurence Bergreen
The Whig history once taught to schoolchildren was so wrong that it was, in one sense, actually correct. Christopher Columbus really did reject the then-prevailing view of the Earth’s shape. Against the consensus of his time, Columbus insisted that the world was not a sphere.
“Ptolemy and the other philosophers, who have written upon the globe, thought that it was spherical, believing that this hemisphere was round,” Columbus wrote, “but this western half of the world, I maintain, is like the half of a very round pear.”
Laurence Bergreen’s biography of Columbus shows that popular legend does not always aggrandize history: sometimes, it flattens it. On certain points of the Admiral’s life, we remember a more evil man than Columbus really was; on others, a milder one. In either case, our memory is consistently less incredible than what actually occurred.
Some Americans know that it was Columbus who first introduced tomatoes to Italy, potatoes to Ireland, and chocolate to Belgium. We’re less likely to know that, as “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” Columbus was awarded the legal right the rule the lands he discovered as a hereditary emperor. Our teachers also did not mention that Columbus frequently wore the simple gray habit of a Franciscan monk. We have forgotten both the Admiral’s piety and his grandiose ambition.
When I was in elementary school in the 1990s, the standard progressive narrative had not yet decided on one clear view of Columbus. On the one hand, I was falsely taught that he had discovered that the world is not flat. At the same time, it was impressed upon me that Columbus was a clueless buffoon who had set out to find East Asia and somehow ended up on the wrong continent entirely.
The now-obvious explanation for this confusion did not occur to me as an 8-year-old: Columbus was, at bottom, not wrong. He really did know the way to Japan—he failed only because the Americas happened to be in his way. His belief that he had reached a chain of islands off the coast of East Asia was therefore, in a certain sense, correct. Although Bergreen is largely critical of Columbus, he impresses upon the reader that the Admiral was the most brilliant navigator of his time.
As an aspiring explorer, Columbus insisted that he could traverse the Ocean even though doing so marked him out as a crank. He was vindicated because he met Isabella—a sincerely Christian monarch who shared Columbus’ essential worldview and vision. It will be hard for any Christian who reads Bergreen’s book—even one who concludes that Columbus was evil—not to see traces of divine design in his career.
For his part, Bergreen does a commendable job of criticizing Columbus without browbeating the reader with one overarching moral assessment—good or bad—of the Admiral. The author’s only real failing is inevitable: as a secular historian, Bergreen cannot understand Columbus’ religious devotion. Instead, he sometimes paints Columbus’ Christian mission as a mere extension of his pro-Spanish jingoism. Actually, as Bergreen’s own narrative shows, these two forces were distinct, and sometimes dueled, with Columbus occasionally sacrificing one at the altar of the other.
Where Bergreen’s neutrality shines the brightest is in charting Columbus’ moral decline. Columbus was probably both more horrible and more innocent than we imagine. He comes across as a man from outside of his own time: a sort of medieval knight, with the lyricism of Eleanor of Aquitaine, relocated suddenly to the age of the Borgias. This contradiction took the form of a naiveté that lead Columbus’ moral compass to collide with reality and break.
On his first voyage, the Admiral sometimes protected Taino natives from his own crew. Columbus had a dignified appearance—although he was only 41, he had white hair—and many inhabitants of Hispaniola at first loved and revered him. His interactions with the Taino were almost surreal in their warmth and wonder, and his earliest discoveries were made in a state of awed stupor. I almost immediately pegged Columbus as an INFP personality type; Bergreen’s vivid narrative gave me the overwhelming impression that the explorer was wandering through an innocent Narnian dreamscape.
Columbus’ new Taino friends did sometimes warn of cannibalistic "Caribs," but these figures always remained in the shadows. Bergreen cleverly allows the reader to infer, mistakenly, that the cannibals are merely mythical.
On Columbus’ second voyage, everything has changed. In a film version of Bergreen’s book, as Columbus landed on Hispaniola, the filter and soundtrack would switch from bright to eerie.
A fortification the Admiral had established—La Navidad—was now a ghost town, and the men he’d left to occupy it had vanished. Taino leaders shiftily assured Columbus that his men were safe inland. As the Admiral journeyed into the wilderness in search of his men, he discovered huts decorated with human heads, as well as castrated Indian boys being fattened and eaten by rival tribes. Columbus’ growing fears were confirmed when he found the corpses of his men rotting in the open air.
Although Bergreen does not discuss the possibility, it seems likely that Columbus was traumatized by the discoveries of his second voyage. From then on, though his sense of religious mission continued to burn, Columbus’s mysticism seems to have lost its early element of childlike warmth.
The Admiral began to enslave the natives. Initially, both he and Isabella seem conflicted about the enterprise, aware that it violated their Christian convictions and would anger the church. “The subject has been postponed for the present,” the Crown wrote haltingly: “let the Admiral write what he thinks about it.” Columbus tells himself that he will limit the slave trade to the warlike Caribs, but this does not last. On his third voyage, Columbus has reached a moral nadir when he is approached by peaceful traders from the Guaiquieri nation of northern Venezuela: the group’s first contact with Europeans. Columbus eyes the traders’ golden jewelry and callously orders them to be enslaved.
In spite of Bergreen’s secularism, his book reveals as much complexity in Spanish Christianity as in Columbus himself. Columbus’ moral decline undercuts the usual progressive narrative about linear moral progress. Spanish Christians did not begin by thinking that God had blessed slavery and later discover that it was evil. Instead, they nervously eased their way into sin with their eyes wide open—first dipping their toe into the dark water and then diving in, like Old Testament Israel.
Dominican hostility to slavery was therefore not just religious, but traditional: a reassertion of an old standard which had been consciously allowed to decline. Columbus might have said, with Paul, that “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” His sins were not the excesses of his ambition: they were fruits of his weakness.
A three-dimensional human being, the Admiral held these forces in tension. Above Columbus’ monumental failings, the most striking dimension of his personality is his sense of the providence of God. Even a secular person could hardly fault Columbus here, for his life was marked by a series of apparent miracles.
In the Gulf of Paria, north of Venezuela, Columbus and his men were ambushed by an ominous tidal wave. The rolling tsunami lifted Columbus’ ship into the sky like a giant, then flung it back down towards the earth. The vast wave had displaced the water, and Columbus and his men could clearly see the ocean floor as their ship dropped from the heavens. But as Columbus braced for death, the wave gently laid the boat to rest in the gulf. “Even today,” Columbus said months later, “I have fear in my body.” Bergreen writes that Columbus “saw himself as a fortunate survivor, part of a large landscape linking divinity and humanity.”
The fury of the Ocean was always intertwined with the Admiral’s religious journey. Arriving in the Caribbean on his fourth voyage, Columbus discovered several of his rivals about to depart for Castile. He warned them of a coming “great storm” and cautioned the men not to set sail. They ignored him. As Columbus and his men took shelter, a massive hurricane obliterated Columbus’ enemies, including his hated nemesis Francisco de Bobadilla.
Columbus’ remaining detractors came to believe that he was a sorcerer who “commanded the planets, the weather, and nature itself.” If Columbus’ life seems to contain echoes of Old Testament kings and prophets, the parallels were not lost on Columbus. The Admiral “believed he was traversing a biblical universe of primordial awe.”
The explorer’s most striking experience happened—like Peter’s and John Newton’s—in the midst of a thunderstorm. After the Admiral collapsed on his buffeted ship in terror in exhaustion, a voice spoke to him in a vivid dream. The “merciful” voice rebuked Columbus for his fear:
“O fool, O man to believe in and serve your God, the God of all: what more did He do for Moses or David, his servants?” the voice asked. Columbus wrote of his own reaction: “I could make no reply to words so certain, and I could do nothing but weep for my errors. He who was speaking to me, whoever He was, ended thus: ‘Fear not: have faith.’”
The concept of the Ocean represents faith in more ways than one. Ancient Greeks saw the Mediterranean Sea as the center of a world map that was essentially land-based, with unknown waters beyond the Pillars of Hercules, but continents extending indefinitely to the north, east, and south. According to an old myth, however, Europe, Asia, and Africa were themselves surrounded by a single body of water: the Ocean.
Not all Greeks accepted the legend of the Ocean. Some educated and forward-thinking Greeks, like Herodotus, dismissed the Ocean as a "fairy tale" for the superstitious rabble. Herodotus' arguments against the Ocean were threefold: first, that people only believe in the Ocean because of secondhand reports and inference, which cannot be verified; second, that Herodotus himself had not seen the Ocean; and third, that the Ocean was an outmoded concept invented by ancient poets. I will leave it to the reader to consider whether these same arguments are ever made against any other concept.
Of course, in being made Admiral of “the Ocean Sea,” Columbus was given dominion over the river encircling the world. Yet the title also links him to another story—that of the Ocean itself—that stands Whig history on its head. Cicero said that "to be ignorant of the past is to be forever a child." We might add that to be a child is to believe in Whig history.