Whistlestop Blog

In fourteen hundred and ninety two . . . .

An acceptable procrastination in research is to do "deep background reading."  I am writing a master's thesis on the colonial and early national relations between a synagogue in Curacao (of the Netherlands Antilles in the Caribbean) and several congregations on the Atlantic seaboard.  Jews were in the New World from the beginning, either as conversos who sailed with Columbus or with the Dutch who settled South America and the Caribbean before they made their way to Manhattan.  Naturally, I came to see that I needed to read a biography of Columbus to find out how everything became so Spanish with important sprinklings of Dutch, English, and French outposts.  Wouldn't it be interesting to read an early biography, one written in the near time of colonial and early national spirit?  So I have just finished Washington Irving's The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, two volumes, published in 1828.

I liked the Irving of Sleepy Hollow, Rip Van Winkle, and the German student (one of the great horror stories, by the way), and I had read his Tour of the Prairies (1832) with appreciation for his observational skills.  I knew about his four-volume life of George Washington, but I did not know what to expect of his attempt at history and biography.  He lived in a great age of American historians -- George Bancroft, William Hickling Prescott, John Motley, Francis Parkman (all now condescended to as "romantic" historians) -- but Irving was a storyteller, a fabulist, a satirist, not a man of facts and dates.  I was pleasantly surprised.

First, Life and Voyages is well-written.  It is a pleasure to read:  smooth, fast-paced, exciting, vivid.  Second, it is sourced.  At the request of a U.S. foreign service officer, Irving went to Madrid to translate a compilation of documents related to Columbus for English publication.  He decided that the collection of primary sources was so good that they justified a thorough account of the explorer and his four voyages.  Irving backs up everything with footnotes and evaluations of differing accounts.  He was fluent in Spanish.  He read manuscripts.  He was in archival heaven.  Third, it is honest.  Irving is open in his admiration of Columbus, but he is prompt to bring out ambiguities, faults, and mysteries.  He is severe about the consequences of some of Columbus's own decisions, and he is stern about the legacies of imperialism.  Finally, it was both revelatory and useful.  It was great to revisit the great Age of Exploration, last taught in elementary school.  I did not know about the crucial roles that Columbus's brothers played in the four voyages; I did not know about the crazed personal politics of the Spanish nobility; and I did not know about the varied reactions of the indigenous peoples to the Spanish arrival.  I noted several intriguing references to conversos and "open" Jews.  Most importantly, I absorbed the complex and violent world that the Dutch would soon be operating in when they pushed into the hemisphere.

(Quick warning:  the Wikipedia entry on this book is complete nonsense, from its assertion that it is fiction to its odd and downright wrong assertions about what the book is.  Consult it only at your own risk.)

Choice passages

  • Columbus in a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella characterizing the natives:  "So loving, so tractable, so peaceable are these people that I swear to your majesties there is not in the world a better nation or a better land.  They love their neighbors as themselves; and their discourse is ever sweet and gentle, and accompanied with a smile; and though it is true that they are naked, yet their manners are decorous and praiseworthy."
  • Irving on mutineers during the fourth voyage:  "While Porras and his crew were raging about with that desperate and joyless licentiousness which attends the abandonment of principle . . . ."
  • Irving on Spanish (and European) oaths:  "The worthlessness of a man's word may always be known by the extravagant means he uses to enforce it."

There are 37 appendices exploring digressions important and trivial.  The book is now out of print, alas, except for the dubious print-on-demand editions.  What a tremendous and rewarding book!  Resist fashions and attitudes -- read a fine old historian today.