by Carol Delaney
New York: Free Press, 2011. Pp. xvi, 319.
Illus., maps, append., notes, biblio., index. $26.00. ISBN: 1439102325
As Oscar Wilde observed, “
America had often been discovered before Columbus, but it had always been hushed up.”
Long revered as an heroic explorer and Italian-American cultural icon, Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) has in recent decades gotten a bad rap from modern historians, variously blamed for genocide, slavery, imperialism, and global ecological disaster.
Standing at the end of the medieval world and the beginning of the modern era, Columbus is a particularly challenging historical figure to understand in his own context. In this creatively imagined, skillfully narrated and deeply researched book, anthropologist Carol Delaney, author, among other volumes, of
Abraham on Trial: The Social Legacy of Biblical Myth
gives us a new perspective on this problematic man.
Deeply religious, immersed in apocalyptic prophecies and theological speculations, Columbus was driven by a dream. What he wanted was to obtain enough gold to fund a crusade to re-conquer the Holy Land from the Ottoman Turks. He believed that this had to occur before the end of the world and the return of Jesus could occur.
Delaney writes: “If Columbus’ story can be read as a parable, with a tale to tell, and a warning about the unintended consequences of religious intentions believed to be good, it is well to keep in mind that today’s world is very different from his. With biological, chemical and nuclear weapons at our disposal, we could easily bring about the Apocalypse. . .
. How can we diffuse the power of the apocalyptic myth before its destructive self-fulfilling prophecy becomes a reality?” (page 244)
In the event, of course, Columbus was too deeply wrong about too many things. The world turned out to be much larger than he expected. His carefully selected crews turned out to be too rapacious and anarchic to manage any sort of reasonable first contact with the inhabitants of the New World. The feudal aristocrats who ruled Spain were too preoccupied with conspicuous consumption and European dynastic quarrels to channel the returning flood of gold and silver into the Holy War that Columbus intended.
For generations his descendants were tied up in litigation, attempting to enforce all the promises that Queen Isabella had made to Columbus; promises that King Ferdinand and his successors had conveniently ignored. Fortunately for future historians, this generated a massive paper trail, which Delaney has put to good use in documenting this delightful and informative book.
Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem belongs on any shelf next to Samuel Eliot Morison’s masterful 1943 biography of Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea.
Mike Markowitz, who has previously reviewed
The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire
, To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940, and
Wild Bill Donovan
for StrategyPage, is a D.C. area defense analyst, game designer, and numismatist. He is the co-designer, with John Gresham, of Supermarina 1and Supermarina 2, both from Clash of Arms.