You’d Have to be Crazy to do it: Columbus’ Four Voyages

The Four Voyages: Being His Own Log-Book, Letters and Dispatches with Connecting NarrativesThe Four Voyages: Being His Own Log-Book, Letters and Dispatches with Connecting Narratives by Christopher Columbus

You probably know the story of Columbus, right? How he sailed to the new world with three ships: the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. That he was looking for a trade route to the Far East and thought he landed somewhere in India. Maybe you know he went on four voyages and that he was a strange guy.

But there’s a lot more to him than what’s commonly assumed. If you want the full story, or least a first-hand look at Columbus the man and what it was like to travel with him, The Four Voyages is a great place to start.

In these pages, Columbus comes off as alternately paranoid, thinking everyone on his crew is out to get him, and single-minded. He claimed to have spent days at the wheel of the ship, full 24-hour days without sleep, trying to get where he needed to go. He was devoutly religious, always careful to praise the holy trinity and occasionally claims to have heard God speaking to him. Given how nobody really knew what was happening on the other side of the ocean (most seemed to think it was China, ruled by the legendary Prester John), you’d have to be at least a little out there to even attempt the voyage.

But you’d also have to be a hell of a captain and Columbus certainly was. In one voyage, he ended up in modern-day South America and had to return to Hispanola for supplies. With no frame of reference other than the Cape Verdun Islands, located on the other side of the ocean, Columbus made a nearly direct path to his destination through unexplored waters. He knew how to the get the most out of his ship when he absolutely had to. He was a fascinating figure.

But this isn’t a book about him. His four explorations to the new world are the meat and potatoes of this book and they live up to expectations. Between stories of their first contact with the native Arawak people and Columbus being stranded with a beached ship, there’s a wealth of adventure here. There’s fighting with the cannibalistic Carib tribes, plots to remove Columbus from power and, most memorably, the story of Columbus being stranded with two unseaworthy ships on Jamaica, surrounded by natives planning to kill him and his crewmen. It’s harrowing stuff and they were pretty lucky to escape with their lived. Columbus certainly earned his reputation.

As for this edition, Cohen’s translation is clear and easy to read, plus he’s added tons of footnotes to explain just what’s being talked about: as noted, Columbus was not much a writer and his geography was usually muddled. Cohen’s editing helps make this book accessible to casual readers. What’s better is how he’s put this book together, weaving back and forth from various sources, some of them quite dry and scholarly, to create a thrilling narrative of each journey.

After all, Columbus never set down his memoirs and his log book has been lost to history. So Cohen worked from a variety of sources: a digest of the logs from his first voyage, letters from dignitaries aboard ship, a biography of Columbus written by his illegitimate son and several other first-hand resources. On their own, none of these would do much for these trips (except maybe the biography, which is the backbone of this collection), but as a whole each shows his trips from different angles: Columbus the discoverer, Columbus the captain and Columbus the paranoiac who alienated his crew and was shipped back to Spain in chains.

Rating: 8/10. All throughout this book I kept thinking “Why hasn’t HBO made a Columbus miniseries yet?” With a good translation and a creative editing job, Cohen turned a series of primary documents into a thrilling narrative. It’s hard to imagine a better version coming along. Recommended for those who enjoy reading about voyages and exploration.




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