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The Navigator and the Conquistador : THE LOG OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS translated by Robert H. Fuson (International Marine Publishing Co.: $29.95; 256 pp., illustrated) : TO THE INLAND EMPIRE Coronado and Our Spanish Legacy by Stewart L. Udall; photographs by Jerry Jacka (Doubleday & Co., Inc.: $30; 131 pp.)

October 18, 1987|John Bryne Cooke | Cooke writes about the American West. His second novel, "South of the Border," will be published next year by Bantam Books

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. . . .

Thirty-six days after leaving the Canary Islands, where he refitted and resupplied his ships, he made landfall in the Bahamas. As Columbus himself indirectly acknowledged, it is possible that other intrepid mariners saw the New World before he did, but his landing is rightly celebrated, for it marked the start of continuous, recorded exploration and settlement of the Western Hemisphere, first by Spaniards and then, as Spain declined following the defeat of her Armada, by many other nations.

The 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage will take place in 1992. Getting a five-year head start on the quincentennial, Robert H. Fuson's new translation of "The Log of Christopher Columbus" will be published this Columbus Day. It is hard to imagine that another book could do more than this one to transform Columbus from a near-mythic icon into the living, breathing, imperfect, fascinating man he apparently was.

Fuson is a geographer by profession. He is also a Columbus enthusiast and scholar of long standing. In his prologue and introductory chapters he gives us the background we need before reading the log, and he acquaints us with the persistent controversies surrounding Columbus, most notably those concerning his origins, the site of his first landfall and the provenance and validity of the log itself. But Fuson wisely leaves for a series of appendices a more detailed discussion of these and other matters that may be of interest mainly to historians and Columbus devotees.

The log is a triumph. For bringing history alive, nothing can match a first-person account, but Fuson deserves much credit as the translator. Without ever making Columbus sound like our contemporary, Fuson makes his words accessible to the modern reader. Through Columbus' words, we come to know the man.

As he set out, Columbus wrote, "I was to go by way of the West, whence until today we do not know with certainty that anyone has gone." He was honest, then. Honest enough not to claim to be the first to take that route. It is soon apparent that he had courage, too, and great enthusiasm for the undertaking.

As a sailor and navigator he was without peer. He was an incurable optimist as well: Beginning in mid-Atlantic, he took everything as a sign that land was near. He saw a pelican and wrote, "This is a sure sign that land lies to the NNW because these birds sleep ashore . . . and they do not fly 60 miles." He saw a whale, "which is another sign of land, for whales always stay near the coast." He was still 20 days from his historic landfall.

Although he took some captive natives with him when he returned to Spain, for a man of his time his treatment of the Indians was remarkably enlightened. And yes, it was Columbus, in his log, who first called them Indios . To his dying day he believed that Asia lay just beyond the island he had discovered.

Because he was only human, he had his failings. He was ambitious for power and position, probably difficult at times, and as Fuson impishly reports in a footnote, he was a terrible botanist.

Fifty years after Columbus arrived in the New World, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado arrived in Kansas. In the meantime, Pizarro had subdued the Incas and Cortes the Aztecs, and Spain had learned much about her new-found lands. The journeys of Columbus and Coronado mark the beginning and the end of a half century of discovery that remains unparalleled in history. We are fortunate indeed to have former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall's "To the Inland Empire: Coronado and Our Spanish Legacy" published in the same month as Fuson's "Log."

Udall has written extensively about this nation's land and environment. "To the Inland Empire" is his first history. In it he demonstrates the abilities of a seasoned historian, and he transmits to the reader his love of his subject.

During the years 1540-1542, Coronado and his lieutenants explored parts of what are now the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and possibly California. In Kansas, finding no wealthy cities and judging correctly that the oft-told tales of El Dorado were chimerical, Coronado turned around and went back to New Spain (Mexico), but he had established that the North American continent was far larger than most Europeans believed at the time.

Udall is careful to distinguish between generally agreed-upon facts about the Coronado expedition and his own more speculative conclusions, where the facts are in dispute. But like Fuson, he never bogs down in arcane controversies. He keeps the story moving and he writes it well. He considers Coronado's feelings and motives in addition to his deeds.

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