Fiction / My Bookshelf

Book Review ~ Dissecting History While Writing Intrigue

Originally published February 4, 2013

The Columbus Affair by Steve Berry.  Available in various forms including paperback for around $10.00


Well, I took a weekend off just recently and read a novel.  Something I haven’t managed in several months. It was a bit irresistible; I happen to really like Steve Berry even if I don’t always agree with his hypotheses. This one was quite an adventure; a different point of view on the motivations and goals of the celebrated and denigrated mariner, Christopher Columbus.

Just a little background is in order at least in part because those things we are most familiar with we often know the least about. The first known observance of anything like a Columbus Day was in 1792 in New York City. Nothing much happened after that until the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage to the new world. In 1892 the president, Benjamin Harrison, called for a national observance. The holiday was used to teach ideals of patriotism including support for war, citizenship, boundaries and national loyalty: oh, and “progress.” Columbus Day was not established as an annual holiday until 1906 in the state of Colorado. It became a federal holiday in 1937.

During the time in our history when our shores were flooding with immigrants, there was a large Catholic contingent arriving from European countries. They were not well appreciated. In order to capitalize on the purported religion of Columbus, the Catholic immigrants formed the Knights of Columbus. The hope was to fight the prejudice they were facing in their new homeland. The use of his name for the organization caused consternation as the holiday gained traction.

Italians took up the banner and worked hard to bring about public notice of Columbus’ accomplishments and it was they who pressed the hardest to establish a commemorative holiday. It wasn’t until 1971 that the official date was set as the second Monday in October (which also happens to be the Canadian Thanksgiving).

Not everyone liked the idea. In fact, three states do not celebrate Columbus Day at all, one being Alaska. In Hawaii they use the day to recognize their Polynesian ancestors and the founding of the island nation. In South Dakota they observe a Native American Day. This trend is growing as opposing parties lean toward using the holiday to observe something to do with indigenous people. So, although the resistance to the holiday in the 19th century was mainly due to fear of giving Catholics too much influence, the trend today is much more oriented to the lost heritage of the peoples the Europeans conquered. In South America the celebrations are most definitely oriented to remembrance of the people who lost their freedom, their culture and their lives in the European onslaught that followed. To them Columbus only represents disease, slavery & exploitation. I fully admit that for years I have referred to the holiday as “Yellow Fever Day.”

Columbus was not the first to find the western hemisphere. Leif Ericson arrived in Canada in the 11th century. A recent book entitled 1421: The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies has raised much controversy. Also, recent evidence indicates that the Polynesians may have been in South America as early as 1304-1424. It was a rather busy place. Why, then do we look to Columbus as the pivot of history? He is a very controversial figure. No other encounter caused as much death, destruction and loss of human dignity. Centuries of slavery and treatment as some sub-human race crushed the peoples of the South American continent and set the tone for attitudes toward indigenous peoples throughout the western hemisphere. What a loss of ancient wisdom. So we ask, why? What was the motivation behind the man that spearheaded this movement, this rape of a foreign land?

Wikipedia sticks to the mainstream tale. Columbus was born in Genoa of a merchant class family. Recently published writings indicate that he was a social climber par excellence and worked hard to get to the place where he could claim the aristocratic titles he so craved.  Some interpretations say that he was a devout follower of the church and his primary mission was to bring Christ to the natives. Well, there is that thing about gold and such, too. Of course said natives, once converted, were to serve their masters without complaint. This was actually one of the projects that got the Jesuits in such a pickle. They learned the native languages and tried to teach the remaining population to become self-sufficient and contributors to the changing economy around them. Educated, literate people don’t particular care to be slaves. So, the Jesuits had to be sent home, and not in good graces.

Is there another story? Did Columbus have other goals in mind? We have a great deal of evidence that he did not hold the natives in high regard so we can’t really picture him as concerned about their well being, spiritual or otherwise. So what was he up to?

Steve Berry wraps a story of intrigue that takes you to Jamaica, Cuba, Austria, Prague and Florida in search of the real Columbus. As always, his afterword sorts the fiction from the known, or suspected. This is an intriguing tale that follows the hints that history left which just might point to an alternative Columbus. One that was a devout Jew, forced to convert to survive. One in search of a safe haven for his own people. Here is an article from Huffington Post that provides more details on this interesting approach.

Hints left in history. Columbus had no problem thinking in terms of a “round” earth, no one really did. The Greeks had known for centuries that the earth was a globe and there had been expeditions to explore the western lands. It was just the size of the globe that Columbus miss judged. In fact he was following the navigation notes of another European who had already reached the Americas and returned. Though his purported goal was to spread the gospel, his initial voyage had no priest on board. He did, however, have a Hebrew interpreter. When his family, weary from court battles, finally settled for some small portion of what the crown had promised, they accepted Jamaica as their spoils. His family controlled Jamaica for 150 years.  It was not Isabella’s jewels that financed the voyage; the Spanish crown didn’t have the funds to support a voyage across the Strait of Gibraltar. It was the Jewish court advisers that provisioned the ships.

So, there you have it. A real history mystery that many pooh pooh and others find worth the trouble to research.  Check out Berry’s book and see what he has to say.

Tell me things you’d like to know – I’m always up for a good hunt!

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