Christopher Columbus—heroic explorer or genocidal plunderer? Bergreen (Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu, 2008, etc.) says he was both, and more.
While best known for his breakthrough voyage to the Caribbean in 1492, Columbus returned to the New World three times, discovering hundreds of islands, establishing settlements in Hispaniola and exploring the coasts of modern Venezuela and Central America. Like Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey, he was a master at sea, a disaster on land. Ill-qualified for colonial administration, his attempts to turn a profit by accumulating gold and slaves, assisted by an unruly band of Spanish mariners and criminals, resulted in political back-biting that sent him back to Spain in chains at the end of his third voyage. The story of Columbus’ exploits includes storms and shipwrecks, military clashes, political skullduggery, mutiny, cannibalism and promiscuous sex, but Bergreen fails to assemble the dramatic facts at his disposal into a compelling narrative. Nor does he deliver the measured evaluation of the man and his career that a controversial figure of his importance merits. Bergreen clearly doesn’t like his subject much, and he interjects his own criticisms of the explorer throughout the text without specifying the standards by which he is judging his subject or the facts supporting his judgments. He even frequently reminds readers that, as every schoolchild knows, poor deluded Columbus was never anywhere near China or India. The author thereby becomes an intrusive figure in the narrative, while Columbus never emerges as the powerful, complex and charismatic personality he must have been. Furthermore, the text exhibits a confusing lack of discipline and order. For example, more than once Bergreen relates the same incidents or circumstances twice with varying details and no recognition that this ground has already been covered. As a result, readers will have difficulty trusting the sequence of events as presented.
A well-researched but disappointingly delivered biography of a monumental figure.