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Discovering Columbus : COLUMBUS, <i>...

<i> Erickson is the author of 10 histories and biographies, including "The Medieval Vision."</i>

Many of the books scheduled to be published on the quincentenary of Columbus’ landing in the Americas next year promise a fierce debate over whether the admiral’s discovery served the cause of Good or Evil. This year’s crop, however, is essentially a sanguine one, suggesting that whatever calamities Columbus ultimately may have precipitated, at least he had the kind of dogged faith in a personal dream that symbolizes the Western ideal of character.

Like other explorers traveling in what Joseph Campbell has called “the Western Way,” from Arthurian knights seeking out untrodden paths in their quest for the Grail to Adm. James T. Kirk star-trekking “where no man has gone before,” Columbus was a loner, a visionary.

In “Columbus: The Great Adventure,” veteran Columbus scholar Paolo Emilio Taviani milks the explorer’s romantic heroism for all it’s worth. Dreaming in his youth of the sea, of “endless, wide-open spaces,” Columbus, Taviani writes, “developed a symbiotic relationship with the ocean and with the constellations.”

Columbus became seized by a dream, Taviani says, a “grand design": the dream of reaching the Asian mainland by sailing west instead of trudging the long and politically volatile land-and-sea route east.

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Once in the grip of his dream, he was sustained by “an unshakable faith and a limitless desire for glory, a character strong-willed and tenacious almost to the point of foolhardiness.” His inner certainty was so firm, his pride so unquenchable that he was able to deal with rulers “almost as an equal,” outbraving the contradictions, doubts and even mockery of others who could not grasp the inherent value of his grand design.

Taviani’s Columbus is, of course, more icon than man. Instead of being firmly anchored in his time--the second half of the 15th Century; an age on the cusp of modernity, the age of Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci, yet still recognizably medieval in culture and outlook--he becomes, in Taviani’s biography, a hero who towered above his contemporaries and soared as far beyond them in his imagination as he did in his achievements.

Relying on nothing but his own observations and his uncanny nautical skills, Taviani insists, Columbus ignored received opinions and did not read geographical writings until after he had conceived his grand design. “Columbus was not learned,” his biographer tells us. He followed an intuition that was “brilliant even in its errors.”

“Columbus: The Great Adventure” is alternately graceful and engrossing, laced with exotic, extraordinary reversals of fortune as well as battles against the elements. And yet there is no room for failure in Taviani’s romanticized portrait, or for disappointment. The chastened, tormented man that Columbus became on his fourth voyage to the New World, a man in pain, crying out for pity, receives scant attention. (“Weep for me,” the Admiral wrote while marooned on a beach in Jamaica, weary and bedridden with arthritis, his eyes so diseased that they bled, “whoever has charity, truth and justice.”)

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The robust modernity and “scientific curiosity” that Taviani claims for Columbus cannot encompass the mariner terrified that Satan might be hindering his first voyage, or the dreamer who, having reached the Venezuelan coast in 1498, believed that he was near the biblical Garden of Eden. Nor does Taviani’s heroic portrait accord well with Columbus’ treatment of his sailors when, on his second voyage, he forced them to swear that Cuba was not an island but rather part of the Asian mainland. Anyone who expressed a contrary opinion, he threatened, would have his tongue cut out.

If Taviani’s biography suggests that Columbus was divinely destined to reach the Americas, John Noble Wilford’s “The Mysterious History of Columbus” highlights the play of chance in the admiral’s life.

At age 25, Wilford points out, Columbus very nearly drowned when the fleet of ships in which he sailed was attacked by pirates off the Portuguese coast. He clung to an oar and reached shore, but hundreds of his fellow sailors perished. On the admiral’s first Atlantic voyage, Wilford writes, the outward crossing, “in the strict nautical sense, could hardly have been a more uneventful voyage.”

But the return crossing was stormy, with squalls and heavy seas that threatened to swamp the Nina and the Pinta. And then, when the crews finally reached land, it was in the Azores, where the suspicious Portuguese authorities arrested half the sailors. Later, advisers to the Portuguese king recommended that he kill Columbus before he could spread the tale of having reached Japan (as he believed he had) by sailing west. Had King John been less scrupulous, no one would have heard of the encounter with the new continent.

The landfall in the Caribbean, Wilford writes, was itself the result of pure chance. Columbus’ beliefs about the size of the Earth and the width of the ocean were wrong, and “if America had not existed, and at the approximate location of Japan in his calculations, Columbus would almost certainly have sailed into oblivion, never reaching land and perhaps never returning to Europe.”

Wilford’s attempt to look behind the legendary, heroic Columbus in an effort “to reconstruct the person who really was” is no small task, for there are still many controversies surrounding the discoverer and his explorations. Was he Genoese, or perhaps Castilian? Polish, Corsican, Irish, Armenian or Russian? (According to Wilford, he was “most likely a weaver’s son of Genoa.”) Was his first landfall in the Americas on Watlings Island (now called San Salvador) or on Samana Cay, as the National Geographic Society concluded in 1986, or on some other island? After reviewing the evidence, Wilford concludes that there may never be a definitive answer to this riddle.

“The Mysterious History of Columbus” is nevertheless an absorbing interim report, a comprehensive overview of how the Admiral of the Ocean Sea is perceived on the eve of the quincentenary.

And what of the rich and wondrous lands brought into the ken of Europeans as a result of the voyages of Columbus and his contemporaries? In “Kingdoms of God, Kingdoms of Jade,” Brian Fagan, an anthropology professor at UC Santa Barbara, offers a tantalizingly brief, yet vivid look at the kaleidoscope of memorable cultures in the Americas before Columbus.

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Here is the splendid city of Tiwanaku near the southern shores of Lake Titicaca in the Peruvian highlands, with its huge stone doorways, palaces, plazas and “brightly colored temples shimmering with gold-covered bas-reliefs.” At its height, in the 7th Century AD, Tiwanaku, with a population of about 50,000 people, was an “architectural masterpiece” marked by massive masonry buildings and by a huge terraced platform used for ceremonies and sacrifices.

Rising from the dense rain forest of the Yucatan, “like a green blanket stretching to the far horizon,” is the greatest early Maya city, El Mirador. This sprawling metropolis, with its colossal pyramids and temples, its cadre of priests, artisans, engineers and traders, covered six square miles. Nearby are royal tombs, containing corpses in “cinnabar-impregnated bundles,” and other sites where “massive stucco sculptures and masks depict the sacred mountain in the form of a great monster sitting in the primordial waters with vegetation growing from the sides of its head.”

Fagan’s evocation of Aztec culture is particularly memorable. The Aztecs believed that they lived in the World of the Fifth Sun (four previous suns having burned themselves out in the past), and that their world would one day end in a violent upheaval. To forestall this catastrophe, they had to placate the Sun-God by offering him sacrificial victims.

“It was the Aztecs’ sacred duty,” Fagan writes, “to feed the sun daily with ‘the precious liquid,’ a form of nectar found in human blood.”

Nevertheless, Fagan points out, for all their ardent militarism, “the Aztecs were by no means an unthinking or unfeeling people. For them every deed, however ambitious or prosaic, was imbued with symbolic meaning and governed by ritual.” Aztec priests used charts and poetry, for instance, to teach people the cycles of years.

The civilizations of ancient Mesoamerica and the Andes are sketched here in all their grandeur--and fragility. Founded as they often were, Fagan writes, “on a quicksand of uneasy alliances and unwilling tribute states,” these extensive empires rose and fell in a rapid cycle of “quick ascent to power, glorious climax, and sudden decline.” Many had succumbed to widespread revolts, or drought, or unknown cataclysms, centuries before the arrival of the Europeans.

Fagan reminds us that rigid and often repressive class hierarchies already were well established in the New World before the arrival of the Europeans. “The simple, basically egalitarian village societies of earlier times (had become) part of much larger, more hierarchical societies ruled by a tiny minority in the name of powerful temperamental gods. The societies were social and economic pyramids, with power held in the hands of an elite who organized the labor not of hundreds, but of thousands of commoners.”

Does this, then, lighten the burden of blame that historians have placed on Columbus’ shoulders? Wilford rightly suggests that the question is beside the point, for encounters of Columbus’ kind, “between the seeker and the spoiler in us all, are enacted every day. . . . People have choices, but they do not always choose well. . . . Columbus’ failings, as well as his ambitions and courage, are beyond historical doubt--and are all so human.”

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