3 books about Christopher Columbus

September 23, 2011

Christopher Columbus may be the most famous sailor ever, but, as with all great men, much of his life is shrouded in myth. These books will clear up his story.

1. Columbus: The Four Voyages , by Laurence Bergreen (Viking, $35). Everyone knows that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but did you know he made three more voyages to the New World? There might be a reason you didn’t. The first voyage was the only one that led to any good, to wit, the New World. After that discovery, Columbus never met expectations. Eventually, he lost royal backing and died destitute. After you’re done reading about the three voyages you’d never heard of, you might conclude that Columbus is the most overrated dunce in history. He was a poor, indecisive leader, prone to confusion, who never discerned that he had discovered a new continent, even though evidence abounded.

2. The Race to the New World: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and a Lost History of Discovery , by Douglas Hunter (Palgrave Macmillan, $27). After Columbus returned from the New World, an avaricious, corrupt Venetian bridge builder named John Cabot sniffed possibility. Maybe he could raise an armada himself and obtain what Columbus hadn’t: gold, spices, glory and wealth. He fled his Spanish creditors to England, where he convinced King Henry VII to sponsor an Atlantic expedition. Never mind that Cabot had no seafaring experience to speak of. Why England sponsored him at all is a fascinating story of political desperation and artful salesmanship amid a European struggle for wealth and power.

3. Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem, by Carol Delaney (Free Press, $26). It’s common knowledge that Columbus set sail to enrich the Spanish royal purse with Asian gold and spices. What is little known, Stanford University professor emerita Carol Delaney argues, is what that money was intended for: financing another crusade against the Muslim occupiers of the Holy Land. Intent on securing Jerusalem before the Second Coming of Christ, Columbus pushed on despite mutinous crews, deplorable sea conditions and unhappy sovereigns. Delaney frames a dramatic story with repercussions that could reach the heavens.

Timothy R. Smith

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