Of Columbus and His Wrecks
"Everything I touched turned to shit!"
Two journalists for Der Spiegel magazine, Klaus Brinkbaumer and Clemens Hoges, have recently produced a quickie entitled The Voyage of the Vizcaina: The Mystery of Christopher Columbus's Last Ship. Let me very quickly summarize the events that led to the writing of the book:
In 2001, an American treasure hunter named Warren White announced on the Internet that the remains of a very old shipwreck just off the coast of the village Nombre de Dios in Panama was in fact the Vizcaina, one of the four ships that had sailed with Christopher Columbus on his last voyage -- the "High Voyage", so named by Columbus himself -- to the New World in 1502 (the ship was actually sunk in 1504). But White had not discovered the caravel. Local fishermen had known of its existence for years. As it turned out, the salvage rights had already been claimed by a private Panamanian company called Investigaciones Marinas del Istmo, or IMDI for short. IMDI, run by a tacky lady named Nilda Vazquez who apparently greets visitors to her home wearing a bathrobe or negligee, is mostly financed by a former governor of the Colon province named Gassan Salama. IMDI's plan is to make as much money off the shipwreck as humanly possible. Unfortunately for them, they have had to, and will have to, rely on the work of scientists disinterested in filthy lucre. After all, Vazquez and Salama will need proof, if they plan on becoming gazillionaires, that their hunk of coral-encrusted wood is indeed the first Columbus vessel ever to be found. Enter our two German journalists, who helped organize a team of Columbus experts from around the world to inspect the wreck . . . but preliminary inspection is as far as they've gotten. The scientists want the Panamanian government to claim ownership of the ruin as a "world heritage" site; IMDI insists that the ruin belongs to them solely. The salvage dispute crawls through the enervated halls of Panama's courts.
But let's step back for a moment. What makes these businesspeople and scientists think that the shipwreck off Nombre de Dios is in fact the Vizcaina? Firstly, the wreck's hull does not have iron plates, which pretty definitively places its construction before the 1520's. "Age of Discovery" ships were susceptible to being eaten alive by shipworm during their long trans-Atlantic voyages: several of Columbus's caravels were lost to this pest. The divers inspecting the Nombre de Dios wreck have in fact found worm-holes in the hull. Also, the wreck contains a load of cannons and stone cannonballs of 15th century make. Even if this caravel wasn't part of Columbus's small fleet, it is certainly a very old ship -- so old, in fact, that Brinkbaumer and Hoges, basing their evidence on the testimony of several experts, could find only one other candidate whose ship this could possibly be, a historically unimportant merchant who had sailed with Columbus on his third voyage to the Indies and who had returned independently to the Panama coast some years later. Further, Columbus's log mentions that the Vizcaina was abandoned "near Belpuerto" -- the modern-day Portobelo, some 20 miles west of Nombre de Dios. All of these signs indicate the very real possibility that, for the first time, a caravel from the Age of Discovery has been found. Add to that the luster of Columbus's name, and the find takes on Titanic proportions.
But, as indicated, the issue remains in legal limbo, which means that The Voyage of the Vizcaina is an unfinished book and therefore something of a cheat. The compelling parts of the book have to do with the ongoing small discoveries about the shipwreck itself and the controversies surrounding archeological discoveries in general. The tension between treasure-hunters and scientists often deteriorates into personal pettiness (for instance, Vazquez informs the authors that one of the researchers from Texas A&M is gay), but the ironic fact remains that neither camp can apparently function without the other's help. This is a fairly interesting topic, taking up 30 or so (interspersed) pages . . . the length, in other words, of a long-ish article in Der Spiegel. Unfortunately, the bulk of the 302 pages of text deals with a fairly standard biography of Columbus himself, including a recounting of all four voyages to the New World. Literary editors and schoolteachers have a term for this sort of thing: padding. Nonetheless, as one might expect from any study, however desultory, of one of the truly titanic figures in human history, a few interesting nuggets emerge. The authors -- with the help of their obsessed, scholarly sources -- pretty convincingly nail down the environs of Genoa as Columbus's birthplace. They also make a strong case that Columbus was Jewish (baptized as a Christian, naturally). Citing the names of the explorer's parents -- Susanna and Jacobo -- along with his constant references in his diaries to Old Testament heroes like Abraham, Isaac, and Sarah, to say nothing of equating himself with King David (Jesus Christ is not mentioned once in the passages reprinted), the authors' assertions are certainly no weaker than any number of other writers who claim a collective kaleidoscope of ethnicities. It is interesting that he did not take a single priest along on his first voyage. Clearly, the man wasn't in a big hurry to proselytize to the "Indians", "Chinese", or whomever else he thought he might encounter. There is also some evidence that Columbus kept some Jewish sailors aboard his ships after the anti-Semitic rulers of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, promulgated an Edict of Expulsion in August of 1492: the Admiral was protecting his men from arrest. Well, who knows. Simon Wiesenthal, at least, thought the evidence was substantial enough.
Finally, Brinkbaumer and Hoges quote a provocative theory from a Yale Columbus scholar. In full: "If he or the crown really thought that he would make it to China, why didn't he take any opulent gifts? Why were there no ambassadors aboard? He knew from Marco Polo how the Great Khan lived, so why did he take glass baubles and cheap beads? Why were there no diplomats? After his return the queen and Columbus both spoke of 'the Indies'. I think they weren't certain of where they were, but they knew that it wasn't China." Columbus's admirers and detractors probably agree on only one thing: the explorer went to his grave convinced that he had found India or even China. The simple deductions quoted above seem to smash not only that theory, but even bring into question Columbus's fundamental purposes. We know what he wrote to his sovereigns -- his expectations that he would soon find the Great Khan, with infinite gold and baptisms of the heathen to follow -- but one isn't always candid with one's superiors. The notion that Columbus just wanted to explore the world is a notion that needs to be addressed by scholars, if, for no other reason, to restore to the man some common sense. It will be noted that by the High Voyage, his letters to Isabella no longer contained fantasies about Chinese gold. Clearly, he had found somewhere, and somebody, else entirely.
Those who are conversant with this material will find this book to be an utter bore, I suspect. However, I recommend it to those who know little about the man and his extraordinary achievements, both good and bad. A magnificent sailor (probably the greatest who ever lived), a cruel and inept governor, a racist, a loving brother and father, a man finally convinced that he had been sent by God to complete the discovery of the world, Columbus should still fascinate Americans (and not just Northern ones). His quest for gold and power continues to inform and mold the destiny of an entire hemisphere. Too bad he was a cursed man. The latest example? This shipwreck, likely his own Vizcaina, lying in limbo off the coast of the continent he "discovered".