NOT LONG AGO, my literary agent, knowing of my special interest in Christopher Columbus, approached an editor of Reader's Digest Condensed Books with the suggestion that I write a popular biography of the great discoverer.
Over lunch, the editor and I agreed that Columbus is one of those icons of history, stuck forever in the blandness of a single date, whose humanity has been lost in an orgy of overadulation larded with blind ethnic pride. Even heroes can be human, I told her, and she agreed to have me do an outline.
Cristoforo Columbo was a man of incredible guile and gall. He changed his name to Colom, presumably to appear more Portuguese, and married a woman solely for her court connections to get to the ear of the king of Portugal. The king rejected his idea, which was to find a short route to the Indies over the Ocean Sea. Colom then ran off to Spain, and changed his name again to Cristobal Colon. He carried with him a secret map that he had stolen, using it as the basis to make points with Ferdinand and Isabella. His route to the royal couple was through a chain of converted Jews in positions of power to whom it is believed he revealed a racial kinship as a method of ingratiation.
To King Ferdinand he promised gold, citing Marco Polo's fanciful observations that in Cipango (Japan) even the roofs were tiled with gold. He played on Queen Isabella's unquenchable thirst for heathens to convert, the stock of which was declining at home with the victory over the Moors and the impending exile of the Jews.
He refused to marry his mistress who had given him his second son because she wasn't high-born enough. The deal he made in writing with the crown called for him to get 10 percent of the action, and an additional 8 percent if he invested his own money, which he appeared to have borrowed from the crown treasurer. He was also to be granted three titles: admiral of the Ocean Sea in perpetuity, viceroy over the discovered lands, and a knighthood. In addition, the deal called for him to appoint two out of the three people who were to administer justice in these new lands, a virtual dictatorship.
He was a rotten administrator and had to be forcibly removed from the settlement he had founded on Hispanola on his second trip to the new world. On the original journey of discovery, he lied to his men about the distance covered to keep them docile and gave himself the prize of 10,000 maravedis for life, which the crown had provided for the first man who sighted land. He asserted that he had seen a light a few hours before the actual sighting by another man on another ship. He was also accused later of extreme nepotism because he apparently trusted only his blood relations.
Despite the queen's caveat that he not deal in slaves, he became America's first slave trader. To prove that he had found, if not the mainland of the Indies, at least Japan, he made his men swear in writing that Cuba was Japan and so tried them that he had to put down a number of mutinies and rebellions among the crew.
Flawed, to say the least, this poor Genoese lad, son of a wool carder and part-time publican, kept the flame of his magnificent obsession white hot throughout his life. He persuaded people of enormous power to back his journey and blasted through obstacles of ignorance, vanity and stubbornness to finance a plan to go where no man of his own time had ever gone: across a mysterious Ocean Sea, more mysterious than space is today. His display of miraculous dead reckoning navigation still stands, nearly 500 years later, as a dazzling feat. The fact that he never got where he said he was going is beside the point.
Columbus was vain, petty, acquisitive, magnanimous, imaginative, courageous, and unswerving in his confidence in himself. Sincere and insincere, subtle and simple, he was a man of masks imbued with heavy helpings of guile and passion. In short, he was human and unforgettable.
I put all this in my outline. A few weeks later, I got back a letter indicating that my outline pointed out "personality characteristics that a Reader's Digest audience would find difficult to admire." So much for heroes and the Reader's Digest's version of history.
I wrote a play instead.