'The Last Voyage of Columbus,' by Martin Dugard

How Columbus shipwrecked his career

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Christopher Columbus "was a man with nothing to lose, facing the prospect of death on a distant tropical island. His words reflected the frustrations of watching his years of bravery forgotten, his reputation decimated, and his powers and responsibilities stripped, one by one."

Thus Martin Dugard, author of "Farther Than Any Man: The Rise and Fall of Capt. James Cook," contrasts modern notions about a glorious explorer with the harsh reality of a 52-year-old Christopher Columbus shipwrecked on the coast of Jamaica 11 years after his greatest discovery.

In his book, astonishing adventure stories are interwoven with personalized accounts of dazzling characters, the first of which is Columbus himself.

While including Columbus' first and most famous voyage, Dugard focuses on the explorer's fourth and last voyage as a less explored historical event and "the pinnacle of his career."

However, this "pinnacle" was reached in a most inglorious fashion. Plagued by storms, leaky ships, tropical diseases and a long-delayed rescue after his shipwreck, Columbus finally returned to Spain, an old and chronically ill man, whose only wish was to secure his heirs' well-being.

Dugard depicts "The Admiral of the Ocean Sea" as a gifted captain thoughtful of the needs of his crew at sea, yet not capable of being a good leader on land.

He shows us not the legend, but a man who fought prevailing notions of what was possible in his quest to find a westward passage to India, the source of precious spices promising enduring wealth for him and the Spanish crown,

Although Columbus' sole purpose in all his voyages was to find this alternate route, he failed to realize how close he came to it when he reached the Isthmus of Panama. Having promised his weary crew to return to Spain immediately, he turned around, giving up his long-held dream.

Dugard vividly describes the delicate relationship between the Spanish explorers and the various natives. The Spaniards depended on Indian tribes for food in exchange for worthless glass beads.

While Columbus romanticized the natives on his first encounter with them, he later secured their cooperation by making them believe that the Europeans were supernatural beings.

Using first-hand accounts from ships' logbooks, fellow travelers and the explorer's own journal, Dugard often steps back to let the historical figures speak for themselves.

But the book is not only about being at the mercy of the elements at sea and the challenges on land. It is also the story of an illegitimate son's longing to know his father.

Columbus second son, Fernando, had been brought up at the Spanish court, as was his older brother, Diego, the explorer's legitimate heir. But instead of staying in the safety of royal patronage like Diego, Fernando at 13 joined the father he barely knew on his last and most daring voyage -- an experience that brought the two close together and transformed him from boy to man.

Dugard heavily relies on Fernando's personal journal to reconstruct the fourth voyage, or "High Voyage," as Columbus called it. As a result, the reader is presented with Columbus not only as a commanding personality, but also as a man fond of his family.

The only real drawback is Dugard's limited depiction of the Spanish sovereigns' motivations for first supporting the explorer's lofty plans of discovery and later stripping him of all the rights and titles they gave him.

While Dugard attributes this change of heart mainly to Isabella's fondness for Columbus and Ferdinand's aversion to him, the real reasons might have been a lot more tactical.

But despite this small tarnish, the book succeeds in bringing great historical events to life.

  "The Last Voyage of Columbus"
By Martin Dugard
Little,Brown ($26.95)   

Monika Kugemann is a former Post-Gazette academic intern.


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