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He Went Thataway

The Tropics of Empire: Why Columbus Sailed South to the Indies

By Nicolas Wey Gomez
MIT Press, 2008

Nobody ever razzes Magellan. Vasco de Gama gets to hold his head up high at his local pub. Cortez and Balboa have never started a brawl between reedy academics. John Cabot never has protesters chanting his name and hurling invective at his memory. They manned their vessels, charted their courses, and sailed, as it were, into history. The waters closed over their wakes, and their exploits were forgotten by schoolchildren, and that was the extent of it.

Not so the first and best-known of them all, however. The great Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus has been attacked and defended with undimming vigor since the boiling hot August day in 1491 when he knelt before Queen Isabella of Castile and proposed his great “Enterprise of the Indies.” His defenders have praised him as a visionary trailblazer and one of the greatest navigators of all time. His detractors have branded him a rapacious colonizer and, more recently, an agent of genocide. Every aspect of his various achievements has been at some point the focus of critical brickbats, up to and including whether or not those achievements happened at all.

Oh, not that he didn’t make his legendary voyage in 1492 (he gained the financial backing of Isabella and her brutish husband Ferdinand only after years of going hat in hand to every other monarch on the market, including Henry VII of England, who was too busy at the moment pretending to fight France to lay out any funds, much to his later chagrin). That part is too well-documented to be contested except by those sad unfortunates who will contest anything. But in some circles, in certain schools of thought, all the rest of it is up for grabs and always has been.

Foremost being where Columbus got his cockamamie idea of sailing west to get to the East in the first place. Was it really the product of meticulous study, long-won nautical experience, and perhaps a dash of inspiration, as his defenders have always maintained (and as the marginal notations or “postils” in the various books we know he possessed would seem to indicate)? Or was it the idea of somebody else, perhaps some drink-sodden anonymous sailor whose stories Columbus thievingly appropriated, as his detractors, led by Henry Vignaud, have long held (even going so far as to say all those postils were made after the first great voyage, to make it look like the whole enterprise was the product of meticulous study, long-won nautical experience, and perhaps a dash of inspiration)?

Columbus took his great venture very seriously, and when he proposed it to the various monarchs who would grant him an audience, he went further than asking for ships and supplies: he asked for land-titles and property residuals. In these very precautions, the great American historian (and greatest of all Columbus biographers) Samuel Eliot Morison sees all the proof he needs of Columbus’ originality:

It would require a larger volume than this to follow Vignaud [whom Nicolas Wey Gomez refers to as “the bad cop of Columbus studies”] and his successors point by point, and I am as eager as I hope the reader is to leave this stagnant harbor of idle speculation and get out into blue water. My interest is in what Columbus did rather than what he proposed to do. But I may say here that unless his enterprise had been to sail westward to Asia, no long sessions with experts and princes would have been necessary, no elaborate equipment would have been wanted, no honors and privileges demanded, no obstacles encountered, no objections raised. For forty years before 1492 the kings of Portugal had been granting undiscovered islands to specific explorers, if they could find them; and Columbus could have obtained a similar grant on the same simple conditions. Unless he proposed to do something more novel and important and eventually more profitable, there was no sense in his demanding three ships, hereditary titles, profits of trade and all that.

And even if we agree to disagree about the precise origin of Columbus’ plan, there’s still the vast intellectual quagmire of fifteenth century cosmology into which that plan exploded like a mortar shell. The quality of that quagmire that will confound most modern Western readers is its stagnation; the royal and clerical authorities from Castile who, for the consideration of their monarchs, contested the validity of Columbus’ ideas, buttressed their arguments with so-called ‘authorities’ who’d been dead for centuries. Columbus was told that since Saint Augustine didn’t believe in the existence of the antipodes, the antipodes must not, scientifically, exist at all. One can only imagine the level of frustration this must have produced in a seasoned seafarer, even one as self-servingly pious as Columbus.

Brown University professor Nicolas Wey Gomez, in his intellectually coruscating and physically splendid new book The Tropics of Empire, avoids the typical narrative of Columbus’ life and voyages and instead dives headlong into these murkier ideological waters, and the story he tells isn’t quite like anything else in the entire sprawling canon of Columbus studies. This is an invigorating and intensely thought-provoking book that wants very badly to undermine certain contented assumptions about the significance of Columbus – and that succeeds admirably in doing that.

The terra that will be incognita to most of Wey Gomez’ general readers will be the prevailing ways intellectuals viewed the shape of the world in 1492 (needless to say, nobody thought it was flat – Wey Gomez doesn’t even bother to glance in that direction). The dominant vision of the world was one of five zones, only the ‘middle’ two of which were habitable. These zones encompassed the known world and had Jerusalem as their center. To their north and south, it was widely believed, lay zones as barren and inimical to life as if their Creator had never touched them. It’s vital to Wey Gomez’ point that we understand that the best authorities in Columbus’ time considered this distinction not just geographical but spiritual as well: the further you got from the central zones, the further you got not only from civilization (as the present age would use the term) but from grace. Learned men for centuries had been slowly advancing the idea that the ancient authorities were wrong about the very shape of the world itself, with figures like fourteenth century cosmographer Pierre D’Ailly maintaining (as he does in his Ymago mundi, and as Columbus knew he did) that things were perhaps very different from how everybody had been taught:

Indeed, it may not be far-fetched to suggest that in D’Ailly’s motion to displace the geographical center from Jerusalem to [the equatorial Arabic city of] Arym, we are already witnessing the transition from a geographical imaginary that regarded the Mediterranean basin as the absolute, temperate middle between a cold periphery to the north and a hot periphery to the south, to an imaginary that was beginning to regard the Mediterranean as merely the northern fringe of a far broader geographical system, the middle of which was now the equator itself.

Wey Gomez spends a large, hugely satisfying amount of space in his book delving into such philosophical considerations, arguing – rightly – that they were vital to the very practical questions of ship supply and launch points, not to mention securing royal backing. And the book’s dense, expert narration never loses sight of the enormous doctrinal changes Columbus and his supporters were asking the Christian world to make in order even to contemplate the venture he was proposing:

The debate between Columbus and his detractors never rested on the roundness or flatness of humankind’s abode; rather, it was a matter of whether the spheres of earth and water configured an open or a closed geographical system. Columbus’s detractors also cited the theory of the five zones in arguing that the lonely island of the earth was itself besieged to the north and south by the intolerable cold and heat of the frigid and torrid zones. By contrast, Columbus and his supporters argued that the inhabited world generally extended not just farther east and west than some believed but also father north and south, into the allegedly inhospitable regions of the globe.

Columbus didn’t just sail west to reach the east, Wey Gomez wants to point out and stress; he sailed south in order to sail west to reach the east. It wasn’t just a direction, it was a philosophical – even a religious – choice, and it reflected a cultural mindframe of the northern hemisphere toward the southern that Wey Gomez believes sent deep pylons into the Western consciousness … pylons that support cultural (and therefore colonial) presuppositions that are, he argues, “very much with us today.”

Of course, it wasn’t all philosophy. Castile and Portugal had just reached a peace accord which neither kingdom was eager to see overtly shattered by impetuous explorers. Columbus was under royal orders not to voyage south of the Canaries into the regions the accord had set aside for Portugal; this, as much as anything, dictated his choice of stepping-off point for his epic crossing:

It is also known that the wind patterns an water currents in the Atlantic were crucial factors for launching an outward passage from the Canaries: Columbus understood that his chance of crossing the ocean was significantly greater just beyond the Canary calms, where he expected to catch the northeastern trade winds – although, as some authors have pointed out, simply “westing” from the Canaries, instead of dipping father south, was hardly an optimal sailing choice, since Columbus’s fleet was bound to lose, as soon as it did, the northeasterlies in the mid-Atlantic.

As we now know, political factors also determined Columbus’s choice to launch his first voyage from the Canaries: he was under strict orders not to venture below the Canaries and toward Atlantic Africa, so it made sense for him to first descend to the archipelago and from there to try his luck across the ocean along the latitude of the boundary recognized by Castile and Portugal in the peace treaty of Alcacovas.

But such technical considerations came later; in the initial stages of planning and then pitching his voyages, Columbus had to provide ideological and even scriptural grounding for what he was proposing to do, and to find. Such a task was thorny enough in the best of circumstances; it was rendered all the more tangled by the fact that Columbus was forced both to invoke such ancient authorities and to subtly hint that they’d all missed something:

Columbus’s invocation of [ancient geographical commentators Peter] Comestor and [Nicholas of] Lyra served Columbus to argue that, in the process of condensing to water in the beginning of time, the water vapor that covered the earth had come to occupy “very little room.” In other words, the gathering of the waters had significantly reduced the total volume of water in the world, which implied a significantly larger surface ratio of land to water than his opponents in Castile had been ready to admit prior to the discovery. And just as this “schooled” reading of Genesis 1:9-10 [“And God said, let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear”] would have previously furnished legitimacy to the prospect of fording the Atlantic, it now did so to Columbus’s insight that he had stumbled upon a landmass that may have long been intuited by, but had ultimately remained unknown to, the ancients.

The narrative voice Wey Gomez employs reads like that excerpt throughout the 600 pages of his book; it’s a near-perfect blend of serious scholarship and readable grounding in the subjects he discusses. The Tropics of Empire is a highly detailed, joyously intellectual examination of how world-views occur and change gradually over time, but it is also a thrilling account of a world in upheaval (and a man determined, for whatever reason, to exploit that upheaval in one very specific way); historians will consult it every bit as pleasurably as general readers with a basic preparation in Western history and a curiosity to know more.

Both groups of readers, it must be noted, will encounter a singularly beautiful object. This book is a little taller, a little wider, and a good deal heavier than an average hardcover. The binding is solidly sewn rather than precariously glued, and the paper-stock is much heavier than the market norm, the better to display the copious and fascinating illustrations that occur throughout. The ancient and medieval maps are especially eye-opening, and here they’re given reproductions of sufficient care and quality to evoke something like the wonder they must have stirred when they were first drawn. Wey Gomez thanks his “designer” Erin Hasley, and his readers must too: the book is a physical marvel to hoist in the hands and open on the table. There are deep and potent theories and arguments being dissected and debated in this book, and the MIT Press is to be congratulated for giving that process the glorious physical dimensions it deserves.

That process is as much Wey Gomez’ subject as any nautical voyage – that process, and the ways in which it informed what our author calls Columbus’ “tenacious disorientation.” There were two Columbuses involved in changing forever the way the West looks at the world, and the divergence between those two is mirrored in the divergences we experience today:

… even as the explorer Columbus saw himself southing through marvelous suburbs of a miraculous Eden, the colonizer Columbus would continue to see, and to treat, its peoples as the childish or monstrous inhabitants at the mouth of Hell. These were not the contradictory certainties of an ignorant or fickle mind. Columbus’s certainties were those of an intellectual and material culture intent on remaining the moral center of an expanding geography that was gradually relegating Europe to the northern fringes of the orb. And I would venture that this paradox still stands today as the crux of our global culture’s own troubled relation to the tropics.

The Tropics of Empire doesn’t simplify our problematic relationship with the feats of Christopher Columbus, nor does it want to. The very nature of those feats, at once so titanic and divisive, probably means they’ll be debated forever. Although it would be no consolation to the Discoverer himself, debate is understandable. It’s the price you pay for being first.

Bartolomeo Piccolomini was first introduced to the wonders of the waters on his father’s 12-foot sailboat off the shore of his native Fiumicino. He later graduated, ironically enough, from Rome’s John Cabot University. This is his first publication in English.