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New Book Dispels Many Myths About Columbus - 2002-10-12


Americans observe Columbus Day on October 14 this year. The holiday commemorates the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the New World in October of 1492. Sailing under the Spanish flag, the Italian-born explorer set out to discover a new trade route to Asia and to find new converts to Christianity. Instead, he landed on one of the Bahama Islands in the Caribbean Sea. Columbus has been hailed as a hero for ushering in a new era of exploration in the Americas. He's also been attacked as the first of many European explorers to exploit and mistreat Native Americans. Author William Least Heat-Moon, who is part Osage Indian, takes a new look at the explorer in a book called Columbus in the Americas.

William Least Heat Moon has written several best selling books about his own travels around the United States. The most recent was River-Horse, the story of a cross-country river journey. He says he decided to write about the journeys of Columbus because he seemed to be a man everyone has heard of, but few people know much about. He's also a figure who's inspired many misconceptions. "Perhaps the most dominant of those misconceptions is that Columbus was one of the few people of the time who believed the world was a sphere," he said. "That's not true. Almost everyone in his time knew that the world is in fact a sphere. The conception that he was sailing across a flat plain, and that there were fears among his crew they were going to sail off the edge of the world, none of the men had that fear at all. They were afraid of sea monsters. Columbus himself believed in various kinds of strange creatures, men whose heads are in their chests, men with the heads of dogs, many misconceptions."

Beardsley:"And Columbus also believed the Atlantic was much narrower than it actually was?"

Moon: "That was perhaps his biggest and most important misconception. He thought the distance from Spain to the Far East was about the distance it is from Spain to the New World. So when he reached an archipelago of the Bahama Islands he was convinced he was in Asia because the mathematics of his mileage charts convinced him. The rest of Europe, I would say probably, predominantly, believed the Atlantic was much, much wider. They were right, he was wrong. But because he was wrong, he was able to succeed in the voyage. That's one of many mistakes he would make which turned to his benefit."

Beardsley:"What personal qualities did he bring to his assignment?"

Moon: "His dedication and his unwillingness to give up a belief harmed him. By the time he died after his fourth voyage he still believed he had reached Asia. He never did know he was in the New World. Nevertheless, that devotion to an idea also helped him maintain himself in the face of many doubters and in times of stress and trial. He was a person able to work with men and keep them in line so that they could be a serviceable crew. He was not a good administrator when he came to land. When he became governor of the islands it was a disaster. He just wasn't capable, and he turned to violence. But when he was at sea, he was a most capable mariner and he was one terrific navigator. He's the one who laid out the sailing directions to the New World from Spain. Once he did it and came back, just knowing that there was something about a month's sail from Europe if things went right, people then could find the way."

Beardsley:"What was that first crossing like?"

Moon: "In one sense it was quite easy because it took them I believe it was 33 days. It was quite brief, partly because of luck and partly because of Columbus's skill in navigation and his knowledge of winds and currents in the eastern part of the Atlantic." Beardsley:"And there was actually a contest as to who would be the first to spot land?"

Moon: "Yes, indeed. There was a reward of 5000 'maravedis', which is really not very much money, and a new coat for the man who spotted land the first time. And there were several false spottings. Columbus finally said the next person who cries out 'tierra,' and there is no land there, is going to lose any chance later at the reward."

Beardsley:"So the winner was?"

Moon: "The winner was a man named Rodrigo, who did not receive a thing for this because Columbus made sure he got the reward. Not one of Columbus's better moments."

Beardsley:"And what was that first meeting like?"

Moon: "The first meeting went well, and it went particularly well when you view it against his meetings with Indians of other islands in the Caribbean. Those meetings many times could become bloody and nasty. The Lucayos - that's a tribe who are a branch of the Tainos - were more curious than they were fearful, and that wasn't always the case thereafter. They came down to the shore to see what was going on. These were people who were more interested in being good hosts than they should have been."

Relations between the explorer and his hosts grew worse after that first exchange of gifts and greetings. Some native Americans were enslaved by Columbus and his crew, and many died from exposure to European diseases. Columbus suffered his own share of troubles. He governed new Spanish territory so poorly he was brought home from his third expedition in chains. On his fourth voyage, he was marooned for a year on Jamaica. William Least Heat Moon believes Columbus was a changed man by the time his travels ended. "I think it becomes more important to him to turn his encounters into economic gain for himself than they were initially," he said. "That isn't to say they weren't there initially, but I think it becomes of much greater importance. The desire to convert these people to Christianity, that remains fairly constant. But his desire to learn more and more about the exact location of where he was, strangely, seems to disappear. On the fourth voyage he pulls into Panama. The Indians told him that on the other side of this chain of mountains there was a great body of water. He showed no interest in seeing what that body of water was on the other side. So he missed discovering the Pacific Ocean. He missed setting foot upon the continental United States. He missed setting foot on South America, although his men went ashore. He could have been the discoverer of several more things than he was - partly because of illness, partly because he just suddenly seems to lose interest at times in questions that had driven him throughout his adult life.

Beardsley:"Did your own opinion of Columbus change in the course of working on this book? "

Moon: "Yes, I think so. Reading about him and reading his own journals I came away with a very mixed view. The American Indians' culture almost wiped out, they themselves almost wiped out - Columbus bears a great deal of responsibility for that. On the other hand, if you read about the man, it's an inspiring story because he simply didn't quit, even when he was wrong. And somehow he kept managing to bring these expeditions off. He's an admirable man as a seaman. As a man of certain ethics, perhaps less so."

William Least Heat-Moon is the author of Columbus in the Americas. The book is part of the Turning Points series published by John Wiley. The series features prominent writers offering personal perspectives on defining events in history.

Columbus in the Americas was published by John Wiley and Sons, 605 Third Avenue, New York, New York 10158.