The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books

Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World's Greatest Library

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About The Book

Named a Best Book of the Year by: * Financial Times * New Statesman * History Today * The Spectator *

“Like a Renaissance wonder cabinet, full of surprises and opening up into a lost world.” —Stephen Greenblatt

The impeccably researched and vividly rendered account of the forgotten quest by Christopher Columbus’s son to create the greatest library in the world—“a perfectly pitched poetic drama” (Financial Times) and an amazing tour through sixteenth-century Europe.

In this innovative work of history, Edward Wilson-Lee tells the extraordinary story of Hernando Colón, a singular visionary of the printing press-age who also happened to be Christopher Columbus’s illegitimate son.

At the peak of the Age of Exploration, Hernando traveled with Columbus on his final voyage to the New World, a journey that ended in disaster, bloody mutiny, and shipwreck. After Columbus’s death in 1506, the eighteen-year-old Hernando sought to continue—and surpass—his father’s campaign to explore the boundaries of the known world by building a library that would collect everything ever printed: a vast holding organized by summaries and catalogues, the first ever search engine for the exploding diversity of written matter as the printing press proliferated across Europe. Hernando restlessly and obsessively amassed his collection based on the groundbreaking conviction that a library of universal knowledge should include “all books, in all languages and on all subjects,” even material often dismissed as ephemeral trash: ballads, erotica, newsletters, popular images, romances, fables. The loss of part of his collection to another maritime disaster in 1522—documented in his poignant Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books—set off the final scramble to complete this sublime project, a race against time to realize a vision of near-impossible perfection.

Edward Wilson-Lee’s account of Hernando’s life is a testimony to the beautiful madness of booklovers, a plunge into sixteenth-century Europe’s information revolution, and a reflection of the passion and intrigues that lie beneath our own attempts to bring order to the world today.

Excerpt
The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books I The Return from Ocean
Hernando Colón’s earliest recorded memory is characteristically precise. It was an hour before sunrise on Wednesday, the twenty-fifth of September 1493. He was standing next to his older half brother, Diego, looking out at the harbor of Cadiz. Dancing on the water in front of him was a constellation of lamps, on and above the decks of seventeen ships about to weigh anchor, preparing to return to the islands in the west where their father had first made landfall less than a year before. Christopher Columbus was now the “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” and was of sufficient fame that chroniclers took down each detail of the scene in front of the five-year-old Hernando. The fleet was formed of a number of lighter craft from Cantabria in the north of Spain, vessels made with wooden joinery so as not to be weighed down with iron nails, as well as the slower but more durable caravels. On board the ships were thirteen hundred souls, including artisans of every sort and laborers to reap the miraculous and uninterrupted harvests of which Columbus had told, but also well-bred caballeros who went for adventure rather than work.1

A favorable wind had begun to freshen, and as the dawn grew behind the city, the dots of lamplight would slowly have been connected by the cabins and masts and riggings to which they were fixed. The scene and the mood were triumphant: tapestries hung from the sides of the ships and pennants fluttered from the braided cables, while the sterns were draped in the royal ensigns of the Reyes Católicos (Catholic Monarchs), Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, the great sovereigns whose marriage had united a fragmented Spain. The piercing fanfare of hautboys, bagpipes, trumpets, and clarions was so loud, according to one observer, that the Sirens and the spirits of the water were astonished, and the seabed resounded with the cannonades. At the harbor mouth a Venetian convoy, returning from a trade mission to Britain, augmented the noise with their own gunpowder salutes, preparing to follow Columbus part of the way in the hope of learning something of his course.

It is unclear whether, in later life, Hernando could reach back beyond this earliest recorded memory to the rather different circumstances in which, earlier that year, his father had returned from his first voyage across the Atlantic. Columbus had arrived back in Europe with only one of the three vessels with which he had left Spain on 3 August 1492: his flagship, Santa Maria, had run aground off Hispaniola on Christmas Eve, and on the return voyage he had lost sight of the Pinta during a storm near the Azores. Thirty-nine of Columbus’s original crew of ninety or so had been left on the other side of the ocean, in the newly founded settlement of La Navidad in Hispaniola, a town built from the shipwrecked lumber of the Santa Maria with the assistance of the local king or cacique, Guacanagarí, and named in honor of the Christmas Day on which it was founded. Columbus’s skeleton crew for the return voyage had been reduced to just three men when the rest were taken prisoner by unfriendly islanders in the Azores, though he did eventually secure their release. And when the great explorer finally did reach Europe in the only ship remaining to him, the Niña, he was running under bare poles after another heavy storm had split the sails. To make matters worse, he had arrived back not in Spain but in Portugal, dragging his ship past the Rock of Sintra to take shelter under the Castle of Almada in Lisbon estuary, where he was treated with suspicion before eventually receiving a summons to make his report to King João. Though later reports would focus on the crowds who covered the harbor in their skiffs, swarming to see the island natives whom Columbus had brought home as part of his plunder, Columbus’s royal audience was for all intents and purposes an imprisonment, and his release was in part prompted by João’s doubts regarding the discoverer’s claims. Hernando’s written records of these early events would record the hardship but leave out much of the confusion of this first return, of the forlorn man and his outlandish claims.2


A contemporary drawing (1509) of the harbor of Cadiz, site of Hernando’s earliest recorded memory.

Hernando’s early life was unusual—perhaps unprecedented—because from the youngest age his personal recollections of his father would have contended with widely circulated written accounts of Columbus’s exploits. Hernando may have been present at Córdoba in March when a letter was read aloud at the cathedral announcing his father’s discoveries, and he kept as central relics in his library several editions of the letter, printed first at Barcelona, through which the discoveries were announced to the world. Hernando’s later collecting was to place at the heart of his universal library precisely this kind of cheap print whose first rustlings could be heard in these reports on Columbus’s voyage. The letter that was to be the common reading matter of Europe was written by Columbus when he landed in Portugal, and the crowds of Jews embarking from Lisbon harbor for Fez in North Africa would have served as a reminder that his ocean crossing would be forced to compete for public attention. The tumultuous course of recent events had reached a peak of intensity in the early months of 1492, when with the taking of Granada Ferdinand and Isabella finally completed the Reconquista, the capture of the Spanish peninsula from the Muslims who had ruled it (almost whole or in parts) for seven hundred years, a crusade that was cast as the righteous restoration of Christian rule. In an attempt to transform the small symbolic victory at Granada into a turning point in the ancient clash between the Abrahamic faiths, the Reyes Católicos celebrated their military triumph by presenting the Jews in their dominions with an ultimatum: forced conversion or exile. This was only an escalation of a long-standing Spanish history of persecuting those of the Jewish faith, but it proved a decisive one. Despite the fact that the Jewish community had been established in Iberia even longer than the Muslims and had been central to the flourishing of culture and society in Arabic Spain, many of them could not stomach the price of keeping their homes, which included agreeing that their sacred Talmud was merely a forgery designed to stop the onward march of the Christian faith. Those who chose to stay also faced the prospect of having their property confiscated by the likes of Tomás de Torquemada, the leader of the Inquisition, set up in 1478, who would use this fortune to finance a golden age of Spanish art and exploration. A great multitude prepared to leave, and in their number went many of the greatest intellectuals of fifteenth-century Spain. Forced, as one chronicler records, to sell their houses for a donkey and their vineyards for a little bread, they made the most of the disaster by casting it as a new Exodus, in which the Lord of Hosts would lead them in triumph to the Promised Land. Observing this pathetic scene did not restrain the same chronicler from accusing them of secretly taking much of the kingdom’s gold with them. The rabbis attempted to alleviate any feeling of desperation by having the women and children sing to the sounds of timbrels as they walked away from their homes. Though the Jews were given temporary asylum in Portugal, their safe haven there lasted only as long as Columbus’s first voyage, and when their paths crossed in Lisbon, the Jews were on the move again, boarding ships bound for North Africa.3

Even in his travel-worn state Columbus was quick to find a way for his own expedition to play a part in this grand historic narrative. His voyage west had, after all, been given royal sanction from the camp at Santa Fe outside the walls of Granada, at which Ferdinand and Isabella were celebrating the recent capitulation of the city’s last Muslim king, Boabdil, and from which they would also later issue the edict expelling the Jews. The letter Columbus sent ahead to Barcelona from Portugal sang of the marvelous fertility of the islands he had found, in perpetual bloom, and the naked innocence of the native people, who were willing to part with the abundant gold of that region for a few trifles from the visitors they regarded as descended from heaven. If the Jews had a new Exodus, Columbus offered Christians a new Eden. The letter announced that even if the natives knew nothing of Castile or of Christ, they showed themselves miraculously ready to serve both. As a token of their part in an expanded Spanish empire, Columbus had renamed these islands as he took possession of them, so that they now reflected the hierarchy of Spanish power, from Christ the Savior on down through the Monarchs and royal children:

San Salvador

Santa Maria de la Concepción

Fernandina

Isabela

Juana

Hispaniola

In its final paragraph the letter makes clear what has been implicit in the preceding pages, namely that these islands Columbus had encountered should be added to the list of famous victories achieved by the Catholic Monarchs, one that—like the conquest of the Moorish kingdoms and the expulsion of the Jews—would expand both the dominion of the Church and fill the coffers of Spain. This letter, soon printed again in Latin at Rome and Basel, and accompanied by a picture showing a single man guiding a ship toward an endless and fertile archipelago, was one of the central relics of Hernando’s childhood, at once cheap and priceless, flimsy and timeless, manufactured and intimate, widely distributed and intensely personal.4

Overwriting the native place names with Spanish ones was only one of the word tricks by which this New World was transformed, tricks that included set speeches through which Columbus and others legally “took possession” of the islands, even though these speeches meant nothing to the indigenous peoples listening to them. The former names began to lose their authority and were often soon lost altogether, as Spanish power came to seem natural in a place with so many Spanish names. For all the momentous consequences of their actions, Columbus and his crew often seemed little conscious of the power of this act of naming. As Hernando was later to record, the last-named island, Hispaniola, was so called because they caught there the same fish available in Spain (gray mullet, bass, salmon, shad, dory, skate, corvinas, sardines, crayfish). The power of Columbus’s names to change the world was often at odds with the casual way in which he chose them: to commemorate a particular event or an impression of the landscape, or, as here, because it brought back a memory of somewhere he had been before. One of the most powerful experiences for Columbus the explorer, and for the European audience of his feats, was the feeling of having found the familiar in an unexpected place, and around these familiar things the European imagination of the New World began to form.


An image from De insulis nuper in mari Indico repertis (Basel, 1494), showing Columbus manning a ship among the newly renamed islands.

Yet the letter that reached print and would later be found on the shelves of his son’s library was not the first Columbus had written, and Hernando was later to record an original, lost letter penned during the storm off the Azores a few weeks before the return to Europe. Despairing of ever reaching Spain to make his report in person, Columbus in this letter lamented that he would leave his two sons without help in a strange land, far from his ancestors (who, as Spain would soon learn to forget, were Genoese). He had dipped a copy of this first letter in wax, sealing it inside a barrel and turning it overboard with a notice to the discoverer that they could exchange the contents for a reward of a thousand ducats at the Spanish court. It is the first of the documents key to Hernando’s life that probably sits at the bottom of the sea.

The letter Columbus wrote from Lisbon not only inaugurated his fame but also saved him from the fate of those who come second. Arriving back in the Spanish port of Palos on 15 March, he learned that in fact the Pinta had not sunk in the storm off the Azores, and that its captain, Martín Alonso Pinzón, had himself gone ahead to Barcelona to break the news of the discovery and conquest to Ferdinand and Isabella. Crucially, Columbus’s luck held out a few days longer, and Pinzón died before he could gain an audience with the Monarchs. The explorer arrived in Barcelona in mid-April, bringing with him eyewitness reports and gifts from the lands (in the words of one contemporary report) “where the sun sets in the month of March”: pineapples, cotton, parrots, cinnamon, canoes, peppers four times as hot as those eaten in Spain, a group of natives, and (most important) a small amount of gold. The intended effect of this list—the argument it makes without seeming to—is simple: In a land of such varied and unrelated wonders, who can doubt that anything could be true? In this, Columbus’s gifts were like the great medieval collection of Jean, duc de Berry, which among its three thousand items contained a unicorn’s horn, St. Joseph’s engagement ring, an embalmed elephant, an egg found inside another egg, and other such marvels. The force of this argument, of these incomprehensible novelties, seems to have been enough to gain widespread acceptance for Columbus’s claims that gold was marvelously abundant in those regions, even if he had only a meager sample at present. He knelt before Ferdinand and Isabella, who quickly raised him to his feet and recognized him as the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, going on to reconfirm the rewards that had been promised at Santa Fe in January 1492, which conferred upon him in the event of a successful voyage extraordinary rights over lands he claimed in the Monarchs’ names.5

In a remarkable display of Columbus’s new status, he then rode on horseback through Barcelona in triumph, flanking Ferdinand with his heir, the Infante Juan. If, as is likely, Columbus rode on Ferdinand’s left side, he would have seen the still-tender scar running from the king’s ear down to his shoulder, the result of an attempted assassination a few months earlier. The wide variety of groups suspected of being behind this attack—the French, the Catalans, the Navarrese, the Castilians—was a reminder of the fragile state of Ferdinand and Isabella’s Spanish union, which faced opposition from within the Iberian Peninsula and outside it. Isabella had wrested her kingdom not only from the Moors but before that from her half brother, Enrique IV, and those loyal to his line, then forming with Ferdinand an unlikely but effective partnership to rule over their fractured and restive kingdoms; but the threat of a return to civil war was always present. That the blame for the assassination attempt was eventually pinned on a madman, one Juan de Cañamares, who claimed the devil had incited him to kill the king, served, like Columbus’s victorious return, conveniently to distract attention from local difficulties and to recast peninsular affairs as a battle between divine forces of Good and Evil.

For now Hernando was probably sheltered by his youth from the fact that not everyone shared this triumphal account of his father’s return. There were contemporary mutterings that his stop in Portugal was part of Columbus’s plan to cut a deal with that great exploring nation for even more privileges over the islands he had visited. Peter Martyr d’Anghiera, an Italian man of letters who had come to Spain to fight the Moors and had stayed to join the illustrious court of Ferdinand and Isabella, wrote from Barcelona in May and only mentions in passing “a certain Christopher Columbus, from Liguria,” who had recently returned from the western Antipodes and had discovered marvelous things, before quickly moving on to discussing more pressing matters of European politics. It is understandable, perhaps, that Peter Martyr should recall Columbus was a fellow Italian, but Columbus’s origins, and those of his children, muddied somewhat the waters of this Spanish feat. Similarly, the chronicler Bernáldez, who would later come to know Columbus intimately, first speaks of the explorer as a man from the territory of Milan, a seller of printed books who traded in Andalusia and especially in the city of Seville, a man of great ingenuity yet not well educated, who knew the art of cosmography and mapmaking well. Hernando was later to defend his father vigorously against this charge of being involved in a mechanical, menial occupation such as selling books. The heroic account of the New World discoveries had to compete, from the earliest days, against the eroding effects of rumor, which attributed to the discoverer an origin that seemed unsuitable.6

In Hernando’s library the books from his father’s pen were listed under the entry “Cristophori Colón,” a firmly Spanish name rather than the Latinate Columbus by which the rest of Europe would claim him, or his Italian birth name, Colombo. As well as modifying his name, Columbus seems to have drawn a veil over his early life, leaving modern biographers to unearth his modest origins in a family of weavers, from whose traditional craft and native region of Genoa he departed in his late teens, and the evidence is clear now that Columbus did get his start in mercantile ventures, notably working in the fledgling sugar trade for the Centurione family of his native Genoa. It is also wholly possible that books were part of his stock-in-trade, a trade for which his son seemed to inherit an instinctive familiarity. But even after centuries of digging, evidence of his activities is fragmentary before his arrival in Lisbon in the late 1470s, when he was around thirty years old. His early years were a blank except when, occasionally and in later life, he needed them not to be.7

With Columbus’s arrival in Lisbon we begin to know something of his life, and documents from this period start to find their way into the library. Among these may have been the papers and maps Columbus inherited—in Hernando’s telling of it—from the father of his Portuguese wife, a match that not only gave him an heir in Hernando’s brother, Diego, but also a connection to a Portuguese maritime dynasty: the father of Doña Filipa Moniz Perestrelo had been among those who had claimed and settled the Madeira archipelago in the mid-fifteenth century. Also in the library, copied into one of the books Columbus left his son, was a letter from the Italian geographer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli that may have shaped Columbus’s thinking at this stage. The letter from Toscanelli to a Portuguese priest outlined his “narrow Atlantic” hypothesis, which estimated that the distance from Lisbon to Cathay was approximately a third of the globe—130 degrees, 26 espacios, or 6,500 miles. Though the later claim that the as-yet-undistinguished Columbus was directly in contact with Toscanelli is likely untrue, he was clearly influenced by the geographer’s theories, as well as the Italian’s mouthwatering description of “Zaiton” (modern Quanzhou), a great port in which a hundred ships’ worth of pepper was delivered every year, and only one of the numberless cities over which the Grand Khan ruled. For his description of Cathay, and the regions of “Antillia” and “Cipangu,” which Columbus believed would make convenient stopping points on the way, Toscanelli was largely indebted to the thirteenth-century travelers Marco Polo, William of Rubruck, and Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, right down to the use of the Mongol word Cathay (Khitai) for China—a name that had not been current in China itself for several hundred years.8

One of the great achievements of the Columbuses—begun by Christopher but brought to perfection by Hernando—was turning the series of events that followed into a narrative of personal destiny. Where historians today might focus on the grand historical forces that pushed European expansion into the Atlantic, and the coincidences that gave the voyage of 1492 its specific form, the Columbus legend saw it as a moment in which history focused its stare on the explorer and guided his hand at every turn. This was especially true when recounting the series of failed bids for patronage that came before Columbus’s eventual success. Hernando was to acknowledge that the Portuguese were wary of further investment in Atlantic exploration, which had so far proved costly and unprofitable (in Guinea, the Azores, Madeira, and Cape Verde), but in Hernando’s telling the Portuguese refusal to support Columbus, when he first turned to them for funding, was one of those moments in which God hardened the heart of one to whom He had not allotted victory. Similarly, Hernando acknowledged openly that Columbus had dispatched his brother Bartholomew to seek English backing for the voyage, even recording in his library a map that was presented to Henry VII and the verses that were written on it; but he saw further evidence of God’s manifest hand in that Bartholomew arrived too late with Henry’s offer of support, leaving Spain to reap the rewards. And while it was later to be claimed that many prominent Spaniards supported Columbus’s project long before his triumph, Hernando was to reserve the vindication to his father alone, depicting him as a solitary voice against the stubbornness of the learned and the powerful. The image of Columbus as a visionary who was mocked and derided but lived to have the last laugh was one molded in large part by his son.9

The verses on the map presented to Henry VII, which Hernando retrieved from the library and copied into his biography, give an abbreviated version of the tripartite argument the Columbus brothers presented to skeptics of his westward passage to Cathay and India:

You who wish to know the limits of the earth

can read them in this picture:

What was known to Strabo, Ptolemy, Pliny, and Isidore

though they did not always agree;

Yet also here are the lands unknown of old

but now found by Spanish ships and in every man’s thoughts.

(by Bartholomew Columbus, in London on 13 February 1488)

Hernando was later to codify this argument into three parts, namely the nature of things, the sayings of ancient and modern writers, and reports from sailors. This threefold case brought together the commonsense reasoning that it was possible to circle a round world with thoughts from classical and medieval writers on the likely circumference of the globe, and rumors of promising sightings during voyages in the eastern Atlantic. Columbus’s detailed examination of ancient geographers, mostly through medieval compendiums such as the Picture of the World by Pierre d’Ailly and the History of Eneas Silvius Piccolomini, are strikingly attested to by the dense notes he left in the margins of his copies, which were to be inherited by Hernando and to make his library a site of pilgrimage for those seeking to understand the explorer. Hernando was to portray his father as amassing a vast body of authorities on the circumference of the earth, and to ignore entirely the willfulness that made Columbus prefer the smallest of the estimates of circumference, following the Arabic cosmographer Alfragan (al-Faragani)—the one that would make his voyage most likely to succeed. To those opposing Columbus, Hernando allows only a series of points designed to seem immensely contemptible in retrospect. Among these were assertions that the Ocean was interminably broad or impossible to navigate, and that those sailing back from the west would be going “uphill”; also that the great Church father St. Augustine was on record as doubting the existence of undiscovered Antipodean lands, an opinion that satisfied them and that it might be heretical to question.10

The versions of the Columbus story that descended from Hernando—as most do—would pass over the growing body of support for Columbus at the Spanish court and focus instead on a dramatic climax in which the explorer forced the hand of an unwilling world. Neither of the learned gatherings to whom Columbus presented his arguments (in 1487 and 1491) reached a conclusion favorable to Columbus’s design, and Ferdinand and Isabella understandably remained reluctant, given the cost of the war against the Moors and the terms Columbus was demanding, to invest in a venture whose promise rested on the word of an unproven if undoubtedly charismatic stranger. Hernando would portray his father, scorning to beg his destiny from the blind, as abandoning the Spanish court to look for other means of advancing his plans. Only the eleventh-hour intercession of the queen’s confessor, Fray Juan Pérez, gained Columbus a favorable hearing, and the offer of the secretary of the exchequer, Luis de Santangel, to front the costs himself seems to have persuaded the Monarchs to come to terms with Columbus. Later accounts of these events were to heighten the dramatic tension, with stories of Columbus being called back even as he rode away from the city, and the queen offering to pawn her own jewels to pay for the expedition.

This narrative of events in 1491 and early 1492 was later honed to epic perfection by those seeking to paint a picture of Spanish destiny and by the vision of Columbus promoted by the explorer himself and by his faction. The legend obscures many of the mundane and practical contexts that might detract from this messianic version of events. Among these were the Monarchs’ need for new sources of gold now that the Moors of Spain would no longer be paying tribute drawn on the North African trade routes, the pressure for European expansion (especially from mercantile nations including the Venetians and Genoese) to look west as the Ottoman Turks began to absorb the eastern Mediterranean regions that had once supplied many of their goods, and the comparability of Columbus’s voyage to many fifteenth-century expeditions that had enlarged the European orbit south down the coast of Africa and west to islands in the Atlantic.

Another effect of the narrowing of the Columbus narrative to focus on the single Man of Destiny was to obscure his family life, obliterating the personal circumstances of his actions and instead making those around him conform to the patterns of his mythmaking. Columbus’s abrupt departure from Portugal after the failure of his bid for King João’s support was attributed to his unwavering focus on his destiny, but may also have been driven by the death of Doña Filipa, who had given him Hernando’s elder brother but whose premature passing abruptly cut Columbus’s ties to Portugal. It was her relatives who determined where he went in Spain by providing links when he arrived there, especially in Palos, which was to be the launching point for his first expedition. The legend also glosses over the change in Columbus’s name at this point, from the Italian Colombo to the Spanish Colón, by which he was known for the rest of his life, though Hernando was later to argue that all of these names were symbolically appropriate to Columbus: “Colombo,” “the dove,” who like Noah’s messenger reaches out into the flood and brings back evidence of land as a covenant between God and His nation; and Colón, which in Greek made Columbus a “member” of Christ, an arm doing his bidding, and foretold he would make of the natives coloni, “members of the Church”—though with no small irony this is also the root for to colonize. And the picture of the lonely visionary, pursuing his destiny in the face of blind opposition from the Spanish court, is somewhat complicated by his being, during his years of lobbying in Córdoba, in a liaison with the young orphan Beatriz Enríquez de Arana. Beatriz’s parents had been of lowly station—from the same class of weavers from which Columbus himself derived—but Columbus likely came to know her through the circle of doctors in Córdoba who surrounded her uncle and guardian, Rodrigo Enríquez de Arana. Though Hernando, who was born of this affair, was not disloyal to his Arana relatives, noting the significant role many of them later played in Columbus’s voyages, he did not pause in the narrative of his father’s life so much as to write his mother’s name, and his own birth on 15 August 1488 is passed over in silence, preserving the smooth course of the explorer’s story. Columbus did not mention, in the first draft of the letter he cast overboard in the storm, that both Diego and Hernando during the voyage were under the care and protection of Beatriz in Córdoba, and his triumphant return largely meant for Beatriz that these children were taken from her. Though she was still living in 1506 when Columbus died, the explorer hardly ever mentioned her again in his letters. The anguished way in which her name was spoken in his final testament reflects a pattern in the life of Columbus and his sons, who showed themselves at once to be of tender conscience and yet also coldly willing to cast aside those near them in pursuit of the destiny they believed to be theirs, a trait that saw Beatriz even being largely written out of her own son’s life.11

It is easy to see, however, how the events of the First Voyage drove an already determined man to such extraordinary levels of narcissism. Columbus had sailed west into the Ocean Sea, the body of water thought to surround the landmass of the earth, far beyond where any other person on record had gone, and according to his own account (and there is no other), he had resisted the nearly mutinous opposition of his crew almost single-handedly. He did this through a combination of threat and encouraging interpretations of the signs, which Hernando was later to record in detail:

a mast adrift, strange behavior of the compass needle, a prodigious flame falling from the sky, a heron, greenish weed, a flock of birds flying west, a pelican, small birds, a junco de rabo, a whale, gulls, songbirds, crabs, a freshness in the air, reef fish, ducks, a light in the distance

A less determined person would have seen this as a jumble of flotsam rather than signs of approaching land. Columbus also practiced downright deception, intentionally giving his sailors a significantly lower figure than his true estimation of the distance traveled, to limit the blank fear they felt at being farther and farther from the world they knew. In what he saw as a reward for his resilience, he found land precisely where he had predicted it to be, at 750 leagues west of the Canary Islands, exactly the distance to east Asia estimated by his calculation of the number of degrees and using al-Faragani’s figure of 562/3 miles to the degree. (No one was aware then that al-Faragani was using an Arabic mile significantly longer than the European one, so that his figure was not in the least confirmed by the voyage.) In the view of Columbus and most others, he was the first man to have sailed west to reach the other side of the known world, reaching the island of Cipangu (Japan), for which the local name was Cuba. For the first time in history someone had broken the bounds of Ocean, and had closed the circle of the globe within the compass of human knowledge. What was more, he had on arriving there met a people who—despite (or because of) his inability to speak to them—he was able to make conform to European notions of prelapsarian innocence, a people who did not know the shame of nakedness or the use of iron or the worth of gold, and who (by extension) must live in or near some version of Eden, as confirmed by the perpetual and uncultivated fertility of those lands. Given the deeply ingrained beliefs of the time the only possible conclusion was that Columbus had triggered an event not just of geographical and political expansion, but one in the providential history of the world: a beginning of the return of man to paradise and the end of secular history.

Yet if Columbus’s First Voyage could in some ways be neatly shoehorned into a narrative of Christian providence, it was harder to square with the existing worldview in other ways. If the voyage confirmed the claims of Ptolemy and Marco Polo, it also proved them unquestionably wrong in other respects, exploding the notion of a world neatly bounded by the uncrossable Ocean Sea, and made it hard to argue that St. Augustine was right to doubt. The observations on these voyages and those that followed were increasingly incompatible with the writings of Pliny, Aristotle, Plato, and others. If they had been wrong about this—the very shape of the world—what else might the ancient authorities have been wrong about? Nor did the native people conform entirely to expectations: for all their Edenic nature they seemed not to understand any of the ancient languages spoken by the converted Jewish interpreters Columbus had taken with him. What knowledges might these people have outside the ambit of classical thought? More troublingly, although Columbus spoke with great enthusiasm about the natural piety of the people he had met and their readiness to be evangelized and converted to Christianity, they clearly had no existing notion of the Gospel. What could be the plan of a God who had kept humans in the dark for a millennium and a half over the secrets that would promise them salvation and eternal life?

These questions, unavoidably provoked by Columbus’s discoveries, would take European thinkers decades to articulate and hundreds of years to answer to their own satisfaction. In the meantime, Columbus and his patrons focused on more immediate and pressing practical matters, successfully petitioning the recently installed Spanish pope, Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borja, the second Borgia pope), for bulls that conferred upon Spain the same legal rights (and spiritual duties) over their “discovered” territories as those given to Portugal over its new colonies in west Africa and the Atlantic islands. Furthermore, the Catholic Monarchs seem to have employed a painstakingly secret process to copy the exceptionally detailed logs of Columbus’s First Voyage, spreading the pages among a large number of scribes so no one of them could leak the information to other interested parties (particularly the Portuguese). This process took so long Columbus received back his copy of the log only three weeks before his departure for the Second Voyage on 25 September 1493, in a packet that also contained a letter from Isabella conceding that everything he had predicted regarding the location of the Indies had been proved true and urging him on to complete his map of these western lands so that any remaining territorial disputes with the Portuguese could be settled once and for all.12

When Hernando stood on the dock in Cadiz in his first-recorded memory, then, he was looking at a man who had made the world anew, a man setting off in triumph to secure the victorious conquests that seemed to be within his grasp. His father was going to rejoin his mother’s cousin, Diego de Arana, who had been left as one of those in charge of the first city in the Spanish New World—La Navidad—and they would in turn be joined by his uncle Bartholomew Columbus, who had heard the news of his brother’s triumphant return while in Paris, on the way back from England to deliver the rival offer from Henry VII. Hernando himself was, through his father’s ambitious maneuvering at this the dawn of his influence, set to join his brother Diego as part of the household of the heir apparent to the throne, the Infante Juan, placing Hernando right at the center of the kingdom God had chosen to transform the globe.
About The Author
Courtesy of the author

Edward Wilson-Lee is a Fellow in English at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he teaches medieval and Renaissance literature. His research focuses on books, libraries, and travel, which during this project has involved journeys to and through Spain, Italy, India, and the Caribbean. He is the author of Shakespeare in Swahililand and The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books.

Product Details
  • Publisher: Scribner (March 2019)
  • Length: 416 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982111397

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Raves and Reviews

“Superb…an intriguing glimpse into the Renaissance mind and its rage for order, as well as a beguiling preview of the modern library and, very possibly, what lies beyond.” The Wall Street Journal

“Read this transporting book. Take it to the beach, to the countryside wherever – and thank you Edward Wilson-Lee for writing it, and with such a sense of vital grace.”  —Simon Schama

“Edward Wilson-Lee’s fascinating and beautifully written account of how Hernando conceived and assembled his library is set within a highly original biography of the compiler. It’s a work of imagination restrained by respect for evidence, of brilliance suitably alloyed by erudition, and of scholarship enlivened by sensitivity and acuity.” —Felipe Fernández-Armesto, The Literary Review

“Superbly researched and remarkably well-written… Colon was obviously a man ahead of his time; his story is expansive, and in Wilson-Lee’s hands, absolutely compelling.” Fine Books & Collections

“Hernando Columbus deserves to be as famous as his father, Christopher. …Wilson-Lee’s greatest strength is the subtlety with which Hernando’s public life as a courtier and his private life as a collector are interwoven. Unless you like libraries a lot then the most important thing about Hernando is not the most interesting. But in these elegantly handled parallels, Wilson-Lee leads us almost by stealth to an understanding of his subject’s greatest achievement.” The Spectator

“A wonderful book, not least in the literal sense of an epic unfolding in a nonstop procession of marvels, ordeals and apparitions... The true measure of Wilson-Lee’s accomplishment, delivered in a simile-studded prose that is seldom less than elegant and often quite beautiful, is to make Hernando’s epic, measured in library shelves, not nautical miles, every bit as thrilling as his father’s story.” Financial Times

“Wilson-Lee’s book – the first modern biography of Hernando written in English – is far more than just a straight account of a life, albeit a rich one… moving… Wilson-Lee does a fine job of capturing the intellectual excitement of a moment in European history.” —The New Statesman

“An elegantly written, absorbing portrait of a visionary man and his age.” —Kirkus, starred review

“Astonishing for both its geographic and intellectual breadth… A potent reminder that a great library originates as a bold adventure.” —Booklist, starred review

“[Edward Wilson-Lee] has created a cabinet of wonders with this book… Wilson-Lee’s fascinating account brings back to wholeness ‘the largest private library of the day’ while revealing the son of a renowned man as, among other things, a master librarian.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“At once an adventure tale and a history of ideas that continue to resonate…Wilson-Lee’s  insightful and entertaining work refreshes the memory of Colón’s sweeping vision.” —BookPage, starred review

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