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An explorer's final adventures on the high seas

The Last Voyage of Columbus: Being the Epic Tale of the Great Captain's Fourth Expedition, Including Accounts of Swordfight, Mutiny, Shipwreck, Gold, War, Hurricane, and Discovery; Martin Dugard; Little, Brown: 296 pp., $24.95

June 19, 2005|Neil Hanson | Neil Hanson is the author of "The Confident Hope of a Miracle: The True History of the Spanish Armada."

On May 9, 1502, Christopher Columbus set out on "El Alto Viaje" -- the High Voyage -- the last and, in his own view, the greatest of his four voyages of exploration. As Martin Dugard's playfully archaic subtitle suggests, it was a journey rich in drama and incident, in the course of which Columbus became one of the first Europeans to set foot on the American continent, though he did not realize it. He believed and fervently hoped he was on the eastern shores of China or India -- hence the name "Indian" that he and subsequent explorers applied to all inhabitants of the Americas -- or even the Garden of Eden, "which no one can enter," Columbus wrote, "except by God's leave."

Searching for a western passage to the Orient, he continued the exploration of the Caribbean that he had begun 10 years before, made landings along the coast of Central America and unwittingly was within a handful of miles of being the first European to sight the Pacific from its eastern shore. He was the first to witness a hurricane and the eruption of a "mud volcano" -- both of which almost wrecked his small fleet -- and the first to encounter the Maya. It was also the occasion of the first European brutalities visited on them. The pearls and gold around the necks of the indigenous inhabitants encountered by Columbus were to seal the fate of them and their continent.

The weary and aging Columbus, as Dugard remarks, "no longer ached to return to the unknown but from the unknown," but as he prepared to sail for home and the wealth and acclaim that he craved, the triumphant voyage turned to tragedy. The Genoese had always been regarded with mistrust in Spain, and court intrigues had robbed him of the rewards from his first great voyage, including the governorship of Hispaniola.

Denied a safe anchorage in the harbors he had discovered for Spain because of these same intrigues, he was forced to ride out a hurricane at sea. After such a long voyage, shipworms had riddled the hulls of his fleet and Columbus was forced to run his sinking ships aground on the coast of Jamaica. A member of his crew, Diego Mendez, then made a heroic voyage in a native dugout canoe across 60 miles of open water, bringing word of their plight to Hispaniola, but the Spanish governor, no friend of Columbus, deliberately delayed sending help for months, hoping that starvation or native tribes would dispose of his rival. However, Columbus used his knowledge of an impending lunar eclipse to cow the natives -- the first recorded use of a trick that, centuries later, was to become a staple of adventure stories and Hollywood films.

After his eventual rescue, Columbus returned to Spain on Nov. 7, 1504, after 2 1/2 years away. The great explorer never went to sea again and died two years later. His wanderings in death almost matched those in life: He was exhumed and reinterred numerous times, crossing and recrossing the ocean between Spain, Hispaniola and Cuba before reaching his final resting place in Seville (though the Dominican Republic still insists that he remains interred in the cathedral in Santo Domingo). Spanish disdain for the foreign interloper who had claimed the New World for the crown led to his achievements and contributions to global exploration being ignored and expunged from the records for almost three centuries, before the rehabilitation of his reputation in the 19th century.

Although Dugard offers no original scholarly research and draws largely on well-known secondary sources, his retelling of the tale is masterly, as brisk and bracing as a stiff nor'easter. The fourth and final voyage has been extensively documented in other biographies of Columbus, but this is the first book completely devoted to that trip. The author's statement that "first-person observations by Columbus and others led to many of the descriptions in this book" carries the inevitable corollary that the rest are sifted through his imagination. That lack of historical precision and the absence of any but the most general footnotes may be an irritant to those who must know where fact ends and fiction begins, but those content to sit back and enjoy the voyage will be richly rewarded and entertained.

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