The "Columbian year" is finally with us. In an impermanent world, Christopher Columbus is one of only a few humans who gets to have a 500th anniversary commemoration.
In company with Jesus, Mohammed and Confucius, his deeds have penetrated the globe. Explorers there have been, many of them, but Columbus is a standout. For better or worse, his adventures have changed the entire world.
But how much do we know about this New World explorer? The information is piecemeal, gathered from spotty documentary records. Columbus has a peculiar way of floating into focus momentarily and then disappearing. Such waverings have promoted a legendary sort of characterization.
Let's take a look at what he was up to 500 years ago this month, a good eight months before he sailed off into world history from the little port village of Palos, Spain.
According to one source (the impeccable historian Samuel Eliot Morison), on Jan. 2, 1492, the future "admiral of the ocean seas" was marching into the southern Spanish capital of Granada along with other members of the royal court. The city had been liberated just that day from the Moslems after 800 years of occupation. Four days later, Columbus' benefactor, Queen Isabella of Castile, would enter the liberated city.
When next we meet Columbus, he was preparing for his fateful sea trip. The way had been opened for him many years before. Four years earlier, in fact, Bartholomeu Dias had rounded the Cape of Good Hope in a voyage that would open up the Orient to waterborne trade. Many years before that, Marco Polo, Clavigo and others had explored land routes to the Orient. The Western European horizon had expanded enormously long before Columbus was born.
Still, the western ocean was a mystery. Columbus planned to sail the Atlantic in search of a short route to the East Indies. We all know where he ended up. It wasn't until Magellan's expedition circumnavigated the globe 30 years later that the Earth's breadth was fully grasped.
Columbus' squadron cleared for the sea on Aug. 2, 1492. There (( is faint evidence that it passed a ship packed with Sephardic Jews expelled from Castile by order of Queen Isabella. More than 120,000 people are believed to have been part of the exodus.
The records of Columbus' voyages are loaded with mysteries, vagaries and ambiguities. It's only certain that he landed somewhere in the Bahamas, probably San Salvador, sometime after a 2 a.m. sighting on Oct. 12, 1492. Upon setting foot on the ground he proclaimed the land for Spain.
Missing from the Columbus story are details that can be trusted and unimpeachable witnesses. The tiresome image of the master peering off the prow of the Santa Maria obscures the background. We are especially hampered by the fact that no one the Columbus ships knew how to (or bothered to) draw pictures of what they discovered. (The same went for subsequent voyages for the next century.) Another blackout was created by the lack of naturalists and metallurgists who could have told the explorer what to bring back or leave behind on his voyages.
There is ample evidence, however, that the natives Columbus met were friendly -- at first anyway. And from the ship's journal, we learn that what would become America looked pleasant, almost idyllic to Columbus.
He wrote: "The island is very big and very level; and the trees very green, and many bodies of water, and a very big lake in the middle, but no mountain and the whole of it so green that it is a pleasure to gaze upon."
For a fascinating look at the times of Columbus and other New World explorers, see Kirkpatrick Sale's "The Conquest of Paradise" (1990, Knopf), now in paperback under Plume imprint of Penguin Books.