New discoveries unfold about Columbus


October 10, 1992|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

Monday marks the 500th anniversary of the alleged discovery of America. The year has been seared into the minds of school kids for generations: Something about 1492 and sailing the ocean blue.

Always a step ahead, most publishers released their Christopher Columbus commemoratives a year ago. Several of the books were dull rehashes of the legend most of us learned in school: the heroic voyage of a brave sailor from Genoa, Italy, intent on proving the world was round -- and perhaps discovering new lands for his benevolent benefactors, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain.

Actually, he was in search of a lucrative trade route to China, Japan and the islands to the south -- all part of what was known as the Indies. He thought he could sail across the Atlantic to Asia, never dreaming he would bump into a sizable continent along the way.

A few of the newer books about Columbus portray a greedy man who did nothing when his crew members raped and enslaved the "Indians" they found living in Central America. In "The Discoverers of America," (Charles Scribner's Sons, $17.95, ages 12 and up), author Harold Faber reports the bad along with the good.

He also puts the events in context: "In the peculiar Spanish logic, if the Indians fought back against the invaders of their lands, it was legal, and even moral, to conquer and enslave them, because they were not Christians."

Columbus takes up only four chapters in Mr. Faber's 290-page book. He begins at the beginning, with the discovery of fossils showing that humans lived on the North American continent more than 10,000 years ago. Mr. Faber outlines the theory that people migrated from Asia to America across a land bridge

that used to exist where the Bering Strait now separates Siberia and Alaska.

The book also gives due credit to Leif Ericson, the Norseman who discovered Newfoundland in the year 1000. And Mr. Faber devotes subsequent chapters to the many explorers who followed Columbus' lead: John Cabot, Pedro Alvares Cabral, Amerigo Vespucci, Balboa, Juan Ponce de Leon, Ferdinand Magellan, Jacques Cartier and others.

Mr. Faber, who teamed up with his wife, Doris Faber, on "We the People: The Story of the United States Constitution Since 1787," writes in a fast-paced style. He uses plenty of anecdotes and color, and he doesn't mind interpreting events for the reader. The textbook experts might not like it, but he gets kids interested enough to go out and do their own research. What more can you ask?

* A book for younger readers that follows the same progression from prehistoric migration to later European explorers is "The Discovery of the Americas," by Betsy and Giulio Maestro (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, $5.95 paperback, ages 6-10).

* Also recommended is a lovely, big book that focuses not on the details of Columbus' voyages, but on the magic of his story: "Follow the Dream," by Peter Sis (Alfred A.Knopf, $15, ages 5-10).

* Finally, the most intriguing book to check out on Columbus Day: "The Other 1492: Jewish Settlement in the New World," by (( Norman H. Finkelstein (Beech Tree paperback, $4.95, ages 10 and up).

On April 17, 1492, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand gave Columbus their blessing to set out on his expedition. Just a few weeks earlier, the king and queen had issued a decree that received a lot more attention at the time.

On March 31, 1492, all Jews were ordered to leave Spanish soil within four months, taking nothing of value with them. The expulsion and Columbus' voyage seem unrelated -- although the first man to step off Columbus' boat after it landed in the New World was Jewish. He was Luis de Torres, the interpreter on the trip.

But Mr. Finkelstein weaves a fascinating history of the anti-Semitism that drove some Jews from Spain to Portugal, and then to early Dutch settlements in Brazil. The Portuguese eventually drove the Dutch from Brazil, and 23 Jewish refugees ended up in what is now New York, quite by accident, to become the first group of Jewish settlers in America.

Mr. Finkelstein begins by describing "the golden age" of the Jews in Spain, the time from 711 to 1248 when the Muslims ruled the country and promoted tolerance. Then the Catholics came to power. Even though Jewish scholars and businessmen held influential positions in their royal court, Queen Isabelle and King Ferdinand helped bring about the Spanish Inquisition in 1480. In the name of ferreting out disloyal Christians, officials sentenced at least 30,000 people to death. Many of Jewish ancestry were burned at the stake, and other Jews were forced to convert or flee the country.

Mr. Finkelstein's narrative is compelling, and the book's narrow focus provides insight into broader issues.

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