Raise the Holy Sail
Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem
By Carol Delaney (Duckworth & Co 319pp £20)
The Last Crusade: The Epic Voyage of Vasco da Gama
By Nigel Cliff (Atlantic Books 547pp £22)
Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama used to enjoy special status in our pantheon of heroes: Columbus for 'discovering' the continents that blocked his way to Asia, and da Gama for figuring out how to circumnavigate Africa for the same end. Both ventures ended up changing history by restructuring the networks of trade linking Europe to distant regions, and gave Europe an upper hand it had not previously enjoyed. Out of Europe's seaward escape would emerge global capitalism and the social and political arrangements some call modernity.
Both men therefore mattered to history, though their reputations were not secure at the time. As Stanford University anthropologist Carol Delaney reminds us in her careful and thorough reconstruction of Columbus's life, aristocratic and personal politics nearly erased him from the official version of Spanish conquests. The fact that we call these continents after Amerigo Vespucci, Columbus's self-appointed acolyte, rather than after the man who organised the expeditions that brought the New World under Spanish control, is a salutary reminder that reputation can be fickle in the transit from memory to history. It was only thanks to his second son and admirers in the next generation that Columbus got his place in the pantheon.
Columbus has since been set on pedestals by many peoples. Sailing for Spain endeared him to Spaniards. Americans claim a special relationship, though he's more special to some than others. During the quadricentennial in 1892, Italian Americans commissioned the Sicilian sculptor Gaetano Russo to carve a statue of this Genoese mariner to assert their dignity as one of the American founding peoples. Today Russo's statue still presides over busy New Yorkers as they pass through the subway interchange at Columbus Circle, perhaps the tallest pedestal that any of his devotees has ever built for him.
A hundred years after the statue was raised, some celebrated the quincentennial anniversary with a certain fervour, but one effect of the attention was to tarnish Columbus's reputation. The descendants of the people he claimed to have discovered disputed that the right of discovery entailed a right of domination. Charges of genocide, colonialism, ethnic cleansing and cultural eradication threatened to push him off his pedestal. Yet despite the critiques, the reputation of the generation of explorers represented by Columbus and da Gama has survived the shocks of the 1990s. Europeans and their descendants, it seems, just can't get over the five-century-old delight at finding themselves out in the world - and at having made a killing in the process.
Then came 2001. The new alternative storylines celebrating multiculturalism and cultural relativism were challenged by conservatives unembarrassed to revive old arguments about a virtuous West rising heroically above the fanatical Rest. Delaney and Cliff have written their biographies directly against this backdrop by bringing to light a feature of the zeitgeist of the Age of Exploration that passed mostly unremarked by the army of writers who churned out quincentennial books: the conviction that the end of time was approaching and that the Holy Land had to be recaptured from the Muslims who held it before the Second Coming.
This conviction is impossible to miss in Columbus's oeuvre, for his most striking composition, compiled before embarking on his fourth voyage in 1502, is his Book of Prophecies. Columbus assembled all the evidence he could muster to prove his theory that the end of the world was only 155 years away, including his own discovery of lands that had been foretold in the Bible. That left precious little time to prepare for the final rapture. Columbus's purpose was not just theological; it was practical. He needed his sovereigns to continue to fund his expensive expeditions to the New World, though these costs were nothing compared to those of retaking the Holy Land and rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. The expeditions were the answer to this financial nightmare, for the only way to raise the money to retake the Middle East was for him to continue sailing west in search of gold and trade routes to China. His sovereigns had to pony up. In his imagination, theology and business went hand in hand.
Columbus wasn't alone in his obsession with defeating Islam and reinstating Christian control of the Holy Land. As Cliff argues in his lively recreation of the life of Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese navigator was just as animated by the subject. He had stronger reason, as his travels into the Indian Ocean put him in direct contact with the Muslim world and, as often as not, in direct conflict with Muslim traders and rulers. Cliff does not dwell, as he might have, on the symmetry between da Gama's religious fanaticism and contemporary Muslim fundamentalism. He lets the whiff of Christian fanaticism drift in and out of his account without really trying to square the two strains of monotheistic intolerance that have gnawed at each other ever since. By contrast, Delaney is more willing to present Columbus's story as what she calls a parable for our times, warning against the evils that apocalyptic visions on both sides of the contemporary Christian-Muslim divide can still prompt.
Is their religious zeal grounds for removing these two men from their pedestals? Even if it is, this is unlikely to happen. Textbooks will continue, in however nuanced a way, to celebrate what both did - almost despite what they did - and disregard the motives that drove them to do it. Few curricula want to stress that it was not a thirst for knowledge, nor even a desire to engage in honourable trade, that drove these men to seek treasure. Even attributing their actions to pure greed might go down better than pointing out how passionately they hoped for a Christian reconquest of the Middle East and the eradication of all Muslims and Jews in a final apocalypse.
Delaney, by never quite allowing Columbus to dictate his own story, is able to walk the fine line between understanding her subject and recognising the dangers built into his desire to redeem the Christian world. Cliff does less well in keeping his distance. The more skilful writer, he charms the readers with lively dialogue, vivid details, and overwrought descriptions, somewhat undermining his exposure of da Gama's implacability as a crusader. One could ask why an author would choose to write yet another biography of someone whose myth Sanjay Subrahmanyam so brilliantly dismantled fifteen years ago in The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama, but it is the fate of popular-history writers to resurrect heroes.
Columbus survived 1992, and Delaney's doubts about the probity of his motivations are unlikely to carry him out of the pantheon. He is too securely part of the rise of the West narrative, especially now that some think the West deserves to be remythologised. So the chances are good that he will still be on his pedestal staring down Broadway in 2092 when the next centennial arrives and our descendants will have to go through this whole cycle again.
Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!
Timothy Brook is the author of Vermeer's Hat, The Troubled Empire and Death by a Thousand Cuts.