Christopher Columbus and The Columbian Legacy

By Kirkpatrick Sale

Knopf. 453 pp. $24.95

WE CAN expect a spate of books dealing with Columbus as the Quincentennial of the Discovery approaches -- now only two years away. Here is an early one -- scholarly, ambitious, meticulous and angry. Sale lives in New York, writes for The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Nation, The New Leader and other publications and also teaches history and political science. He's a straight-out, no-holds-barred, 1960s-type ecologist and from where he stands, the discovery of the New World comes off as an ecological disaster.

The Europe that Columbus left in August 1492, was, says Sale, primed for the end of the world, "not as a metaphor or theological trope, but as a somber, terrifying prediction based solidly on . . . biblical prophecy and felt experience of daily life." Violence was even worse than today's; famine was routine; the plague almost halved the population of Catalonia alone between 1365 and 1497.

The New World that Columbus reached two months later seemed to him "an intimation of Paradise." Here were tall, richly foliaged trees and fruits of every kind instead of the parched, thin-soiled fields of a Europe where forests had long been ravaged. Here were friendly, handsome, naked, trusting natives instead of the Inquisition's priests. Here was a warm, welcoming beauty, totally strange to medieval Europeans who instinctively viewed Nature as the great enemy of Man.

In a masterly passage on this European attitude, Sale reminds us that to 15th-century adults, as well as children, mountains were "places of dread," dark forests held such fantasies as "the Wild Man -- a huge, powerful, hairy figure, carrying a wooden club, with large genitals exposed, draped with strands of rank foliage . . . slave to natural desires and passions uncontrolled . . . All animals were fearsome."

In 1492, simple sailors from a world beset by these terrors looked upon the New World as Eden, and following their "civilized" European instincts, set about taming it. And now the author beats his drum -- the slow beat of a funeral march -- for the subjugation of Nature, the rape of the virginal environment and the eventual death or slavery of its inhabitants.

In expressing his outrage at what Europe did to America, Sale seems oddly astonished. That distresses me, mostly, perhaps, because it indicates my age. I was raised in total innocence of the word "ecology," and I zestfully subjugated Nature in various ways, for I lived mostly in the country and was taught by deed as well as by the literature of my youth that one must hack one's own corner out of God's world, and vigilantly maintain it. That was the American way.

Of course the early explorers and settlers exploited the land, hunted the animals and birds, searched out the minerals, despoiled the waters and forests, slew the natives -- and prospered. That's what we were all about. Now that we see the horrors that we have been committing, we can be thankful for the ecologists and certainly heed their warnings. But we can't do much about the past -- about the conquest of Paradise.

So the author's ecological handwringing blots his attempt to build a new and more accurate Columbus story. He determinedly sticks to nothing but the facts, all that he can mine from the musty, self-serving sources that remain: Columbus's Journal, doctored to please his sponsors, Ferdinand and Isabella, and three 16th-century historians who had to rely on hazy memories. Sale does wonderfully well with these cloudy views of an event so wrapped in folklore. He trots out every detail he can find of the Columbus voyages, and fashions a good story. But his persistent irritation at the wrong-headedness of the times colors it.

It even taints his judgment. Early in his book Sale establishes his revisionism by taking his first shot at Samuel Eliot Morison for "fantasy put forward as fact" in Admiral of the Ocean Sea. I must admit to feeling the twitch of rising hackles at that heresy. Morison's was a sailor's book about the voyages -- which he resailed himself (with a friend of mine on his crew). He most skillfully intertwined known fact and obvious fantasy (often switching into the present tense to signal the latter) gained from his own experience. The result won the Pulitzer Prize.

Edwards Park is a columnist and a contributing editor of Smithsonian magazine.