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47 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Balanced and informative, perhaps definitive
I'm a little bit of a fan of Christopher Columbus. The challenges he faced in his life, especially in the first voyage he took across the Atlantic, were tremendous, and he faced them down with what appears to be considerable fortitude, viewed across 5 centuries. The ships he and other explorers sailed in were so small that today they'd probably be termed "boats" instead;...
Published on October 4, 2011 by David W. Nicholas

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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good overview, weak on details
If you want a detailed perspective on Columbus's voyages, this is a good book. It sets his travels in the context of their times, and provides what seems like a balanced and well-documented description of the Admiral's challenges and actions on both land and sea. It is difficult to finish the book and still admire the man whole-heartedly, given his frequent brutality with...
Published on August 25, 2012 by JClarke


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47 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Balanced and informative, perhaps definitive, October 4, 2011
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This review is from: Columbus: The Four Voyages (Hardcover)
I'm a little bit of a fan of Christopher Columbus. The challenges he faced in his life, especially in the first voyage he took across the Atlantic, were tremendous, and he faced them down with what appears to be considerable fortitude, viewed across 5 centuries. The ships he and other explorers sailed in were so small that today they'd probably be termed "boats" instead; the navigational instruments he had were hilariously primitive; his weaponry was not that much further advanced than that of the natives he met; and of course he was hampered by court politics and the fact that he wasn't even Spanish, yet sailed for the Spanish Crown. In spite of all of this, he accomplished a lot more than you'd expect, finding a host of islands in the New World, and founding the first settlement there. Of course, he never really got over the idea that India and China were just across the horizon, a few day's journey away, so his legacy is one of accomplishment rather than theoretical discovery, but he *did* accomplish things, and those accomplishments were of course very crucial in the development of civilization around the globe.

Laurence Bergreen does an excellent job of laying out Columbus's accomplishments, the places he discovered, things he saw, people he met or brought with him on the voyages. Bergreen doesn't ignore the rest of Columbus's life, but he does skim over it, pretty much. From what I remember, we don't know that much about the rest of Columbus's life anyway, so it's not that big of a loss that the author sees fit to concentrate on the voyages themselves, and tries to tell us what is known about them. One of the interesting tidbits you can glean from a careful reading of the book is that Hispaniola (the island that now comprises the Dominican Republic and Haiti) was the island he apparently was most interested in. He visited it in all four voyages, and established his first 2 settlements in the New World here. He left a settlement on Hispaniola when he visited there the first time in 1492, and when he returned a couple of years later to discover that a combination of disease, starvation, dissension, and native hostility had wiped out the settlement, he tried again. Using the experience he'd gained the first time, he endeavored to choose a better settlement site, and planted another colony, which survived and is still there today, the oldest European settlement in the Western Hemisphere. He'd negotiated status as administrator of whatever colony he founded, under Ferdinand and Isabella's jurisdiction, but his skills as an administrator weren't up to his excellence as a navigator. Things eventually fell apart, and at the end of his 3rd voyage he was arrested, his property seized, and he and his followers and loyalists were sent back to Spain. He had a sense of the dramatic and how things would play back in Spain, so he insisted on keeping the shackles on his wrists when he appearred in front of the Sovereigns, and it was a good idea: they ordered him freed and his belongings restored. A 4th voyage cemented his reputation as an intrepid explorer and seafarer, though he wound up stranded on the North Coast of Jamaica for more than a year, the ships being victims of worms that bored holes in their wooden hulls. His sojourn as a castaway, and his rescue, are a fitting end to the story.

Bergreen does an excellent job of outlining all of this, making all the points he feels should be made, and keeping the narrative rumbling right along. Columbus was an interesting character, and when possible Bergreen lets him speak for himself. He also was a product of his time, greedy and at times insensitive to the lives and liberty of the natives on the various islands that he explored. Bergreen does a good job of recounting that while there were people even then who felt that the Indians' rights should be protected, there also were a number of people who pretty much didn't care about anything except enriching themselves, and felt that they were free to steal from the natives, given that they were all pagans.

The author gives credit where credit is due, citing Columbus's original orders dealing with the natives (he insisted that their rights be respected in all things) and how the situation later deteriorated to the point of occasionaly outright conflict. Others involved in Columbus's expeditions (typically critics of his who often revolted against his rule) were worse than he, but of course blamed all of the bad things that happened on Columbus, banking on his status as a Genoese to color the argument. It generally didn't work, and Columbus died much respected, if not financially rewarded, in Spain. The legend that he died in poverty is just that: a legend. Interestingly, there are two claimants to possession of his gravesite. He was originally buried in a tomb in Spain, and moved a few times before being transferred to Santo Domingo on Hispaniola. When that island was transferred to France, bones were moved to Cuba first, then back to Spain, but the administration in Santo Domingo insist that Columbus himself remained with him, some of his relatives being removed by mistake. Probably we'll never know at this point.

I really enjoyed this book, in case you can't tell, and I would recommend it pretty much across the board to everyone. It's very well-written, illustrated with maps of the voyages that are well-done also, and has 3 picture inserts (1 in color) with portraits and pictures of all the relevant characters. Very well-done.
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Readable and Comprehensive: The Complicated Journeys of Christopher Columbus, October 7, 2011
By 
Jason Golomb (Northern Virginia) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: Columbus: The Four Voyages (Hardcover)
Laurence Bergreen has made a habit of crafting well-told modern historical narratives about some of history's greatest explorers. Bergreen went world-wide with an exploration of the great world navigator himself, Ferdinand Magellen in "Over the Edge of the World". Then he took readers East to follow Marco Polo on his travels in "Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu". And now Bergreen comes closer to home as he travels from Spain to the New World with Christopher Columbus in "Columbus: The Four Voyages".

All of these books synthesize a wealth of contemporary sources and modern references to build out something more than just 'the story' of discovery. Bergreen constructs a view into their exploits through historic and modern lenses that ultimately shines a broad beam of light across the entirety of their adventures.

Moving from Marco Polo to Christopher Columbus is not such a long leap for Bergreen. Columbus carried a well-worn copy of Polo's "Travels" during all his journeys and used it as guidebook in his own search for a route west: from Europe to the Indies and to see the Great Khan in China, then known as Cathay. Marco Polo was a 15th Century Frommer, apparently. Unfortunately, what Columbus had no way of knowing was that "...two oceans and two centuries separated..." Columbus from his target, wrote Bergreen.

Bergreen paints Columbus in a rainbow of personality traits. He was the brave, god-fearing (and preaching), navigational genius that traditional history remembers and teaches us as children. And at the same time he was confused, lost, indecisive and downright delusional. He single-handedly expanded an empire, while at the same time ignited a slave trade across both sides of the Atlantic.

Christopher Columbus is a complicated individual. Bergreen uses a myriad of sources to put flesh on the bone of the great American discoverer, but I still find it difficult to pin him down. Columbus wrote extensively of his four trips in his own journals. His son, Ferdinand, wrote a biography. Neither of which one could consider completely unbiased, of course. The great Bartolome del las Casas who would fight vigorously for the rights of the indigenous people of the Americas wrote about Columbus's voyages. While blasting him for making religious excuses to justify his treatment of the natives, he clearly respected his spirit and accomplishments.

Bergreen wrote that Columbus "was more than a discoverer, he was an intensifier of both his voyages and his inner struggles. This penchant for self-dramatization is part of the reason Columbus's exploits are so memorable; he insisted on making them so."

Columbus was a creation of the time period in which he lived. He saw the world and his explorations through his very medieval perspective. While Slavery wasn't completely accepted within Europe, it certainly existed in Columbus' home of Genoa. Religion was an important part of everyday life. Columbus was even referred to as a "priest of exploration". And there's no better example of the dichotomy of who Columbus was than to understand that, according to his son, he "was so pious that he could be mistaken for a man of the cloth. And a real rarity among sailors was his strict personal policy to never swear." While at the same time he clearly didn't let religion get in the way of some of the awful things the Spaniards did to various Caribbean natives under his watch.

"Somewhere at the confluence of Ptolemy's flawed cartography, the legends of antiquity, Marco Polo's account, and sailor anecdotes lay clues of a great prize waiting to be discovered." Columbus never truly gave up on his search for Marco Polo's Cathay and gold. He adjusted. He modified his trips, as circumstances forced. He kept hunting for gold, and when he couldn't find enough, he focused on colonization, expansion and conversion.

In about 400 pages, Bergreen pulls together all four of Columbus' trip to the new world. He blends Columbus's story into the context of his time. And despite the fact that he died miserable, poor and a broken old man, Bergreen writes, "...he could not, nor could anyone else, have imagined...the long-term implications of this voyage. To him, it was the fulfillment of a divine prophecy. To his Sovereigns and through ministers, it was intended as a land grab and a way to plunder gold. Instead, it became, through forces Columbus inadvertently set in motion and only dimly understood, the most important voyage of its kind ever made."
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good overview, weak on details, August 25, 2012
This review is from: Columbus: The Four Voyages (Hardcover)
If you want a detailed perspective on Columbus's voyages, this is a good book. It sets his travels in the context of their times, and provides what seems like a balanced and well-documented description of the Admiral's challenges and actions on both land and sea. It is difficult to finish the book and still admire the man whole-heartedly, given his frequent brutality with the native population he found as well as his ineptness at dealing with men on land. Yet the book also leaves me admiring his seamanship, courage, and persistence.

Where the book suffers as serious history is in keeping details straight. As another reviewer wrote, it often seems that the writer kept jumbling up his index cards. One glaring instance: On page 266 it describes how in August of 1499, one Adrian de Mujica was sentenced by Columbus to die for his part in a revolt, and the man was apparently soon dispatched. But on page 273, in June 1500, Adrian de Mujica is conspiring once again (from the grave?) and he is sentenced again to hang. Were there two men of the same name, and the author failed to explain it? Did the first execution actually not happen? If so, the text is completely obscure. Or did the author confuse two different men?

Prior to the start of the fourth voyage, Columbus seems washed up, enfeebled, without connections, living in a monastery. This is enlightening material, enriching our understanding of the man's life. But then one page later he is heading out to sea with four ships, going back to the New World. What happened? We are never told. Surely this was an expensive and difficult undertaking to mount, and making it happen from such a poor foundation is more than a missing detail. Oftentimes historical writers are left grasping for important information due to holes in the factual record, but the better ones point out the mystery rather than glossing it over.

And then there are the minor irritants. The book makes clear that his second voyage began in September of 1493--see page 128. He was rushing back to the Caribbean to relieve part of the crews from the first expedition--time was of the essence. Two pages later it notes that he departed the Canary Islands on October 7, 1494--more then a year later. That is obviously incorrect--it was October of 1493. Later on the same page, the same mistake.

And throughout, the descriptions of various battles, skirmishes and other actions tend to be so jumbled it is difficult to tell what happened. Certainly the author was not working from detailed, blow by blow sources. But this is a writing problem, not setting forth what little is known in an intelligible way.

The book, again, is enlightening in many ways. But when a history gets the small things wrong, one wonders about the truth of the larger picture.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Scholarship, yes; entertainment, not so much, November 5, 2011
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This review is from: Columbus: The Four Voyages (Hardcover)
Two sorts of readers may be attracted to this book. One is the Columbus scholar, who values every historical detail and wants to know the latest findings. The other sort are people like me, who are simply attracted to the exciting story of Columbus in order to enjoy a good read. Mr. Bergreen's very thorough biography is recommended for the first sort of reader, but not necessarily for the second.

A great deal of time in dusty libraries must have been required to produce this book. It has everything that the type-one reader will need--the level of detail is simply immense. Clearly it is a valuable contribution to our store of knowledge, if perhaps a bit much for the more casual reader.

But unfortunately, the quality of the writing fails to match the depth of the research. There are indeed some patches of good writing, and the book finally comes to life in the excitement of Columbus' ill-fated final voyage. But too often one has the impression that it has been cobbled together directly from the notecards, perhaps by several people who are not in communication with each other. Some paragraphs seem self-contradictory, or are simply obscure, even after several readings. Events are reported out of time sequence. Translations from old Spanish documents into English are awkward and garbled. Alas, the author is a fine chef but an indifferent waiter.

In addition there are numerous errors. On page 128 we are told that Columbus went from Cadiz to the Canaries by sailing southeast, and on page 236 we are told that the mouth of the Orinoco is located at the border of Venezuela and Brazil. On page 354 the writer confuses Dry Harbor, in Jamaica, with St. Anne's Bay. A further annoyance is that there are only five large-scale voyage maps, and these sometimes disagree with the navigational details in the text.

Nonspecialist readers who prefer stylish prose and good entertainment might try to find a copy of Samuel Eliot Morison's "Admiral of the Ocean Sea." This 1942 classic hardly offers the latest scholarship, but Morison is a fine writer, and besides that an experienced sailor, very strong on ships and navigational details. He has LOTS of maps. Morison's two more general volumes on "The European Discovery of America" are literary treasure too.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Bit Lacking and Tongue in Cheek, June 18, 2013
Overall - It is evident that the author did his homework on historical occurrences, but clearly went into the project with a preconceived bias against Christopher Columbus. An attempt was made at even-handedness, but seems a bit transparent.

As early as the book jacket we read: "he knew little of celestial navigation...", "tragic flaw of pride", "provoking fifty thousand natives to commit suicide" Laurence Bergreen seems quite determined to take a dry, mocking and condescending attitude toward his subject. He seems to inject every paragraph with a modern and disconnected sarcasm. I'm sure this style appeals widely to those sharing anti-colonialist sentiments so increasingly popular in modern academia. But there was more at work than simple-minded greed and fear of the Spanish monarchs as Columbus set out. Columbus himself wrote that he had always been predisposed to navigation, map making, astronomy, geography and math. Yet he is portrayed by Bergreen to be little more than a naive, impetuous, delusional ignoramus who was self-aggrandizing and tediously pious. Reading this book one would think any idiot could have done what Columbus did by sheer luck.

What would make this book better: This read could be much sweeter if the author would immerse himself in the context of the time and provide more historicity. What struggles had Columbus overcome in his life? What did he overcome and what made him equal to the task of discovering the New World? This was a new chapter in history that Columbus had brought us to, albeit unknowingly! At least he had the faith to go looking. Perhaps it should be to his credit that he stood for something and had faith in himself sufficient to explore new trade routes. Europe was tearing itself apart and slowly dying of stagnation. Without the driving inspiration that was the new world, European concepts of personal liberty, democracy, art, religion and academics might have been assimilated into Eastern empires and lost forever through conquest.

I'm not entirely bashing the book, nor am I claiming that Columbus was some kind of Saint. There were plenty of blotches on the canvas that was his life. But it seems that if you are going to research an individual sufficient to make a biography, you might at least take the time, culture and situation into consideration. There is a lot to learn from Bergreen's "Columbus", but a lot of interjected smugness and a seeming contempt that suggests adventurousness, scholarship, faith, spirituality, and ambition are easily dismissible as naivety, greed and misplaced pride when they don't align with one's own way of thinking.

Perhaps I'm like Columbus, but I was hoping for more than what I found here.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fighting Terrorism Since 1492, November 2, 2011
By 
Bill Emblom "Bill Emblom" (Ishpeming, Michigan USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Columbus: The Four Voyages (Hardcover)
Please note the four stars above signify I like the book. I'm not saying it is not a five star book. Prior to Lawrence Bergreen's new effort the best book on Christopher Columbus, as far as I'm concerned, has been "Christopher Columbus--Admiral of the Ocean Sea" by the late Dr. Samuel Eliot Morison of Harvard University.

I did find myself reading through Dr. Morison's book on Columbus easier than Bergreen's new book on Columbus. Mr. Bergreen appears to have done considerable research in his book, but I did find myself being told in minute detail of every atrocity committed by Columbus and his men in their quest for the three goals: Gold, Glory, and God. Columbus and his Spaniards were first greeted as gods from the sky by the Tainos or Arawaks, but it wasn't long before violence raised its ugly head. Whereas Dr. Morison's book on Columbus casts a more favorable opinion on Columbus, author Bergreen exposes all the warts of Columbus and his men.

Most people don't realize that Columbus made four trips to this new world, and not just the one that initially probably landed him on the island of San Salvador. It's interesting to note that Juan Ponce De Leon was one of those on the second trip. De Leon, as we know on a later voyage, landed on Florida. Columbus was cheated out of having this new world named after him by a scoundrel named Amerigo Vespucci. Read the book and find out how. Both Morison and Bergreen agree on this.

Whatever you may think of Columbus he did believe he could reach the east by sailing west, and was willing to take the risk of crossing the ocean to get there. Had he not landed on land unknown to Europeans he and his men would have perished at sea, because their goal was thousands of miles beyond his estimation of the size of the earth.

I am reminded of a poem written by Ogden Nash regarding Columbus that went like this:
So Columbus said, Somebody show me the sunset
And somebody did and he set sail for it.
And he discovered America and they put him in jail for it.
And the fetters gave him welts,
And they named America after somebody else.

As an armchair navigator you will enjoy this book, and it is worth your time. Expect a lot of detail which isn't bad if you are comfortable with this.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Terrible....plain and simple., November 7, 2012
By 
mike esposito "espo" (Morton Grove, IL United States) - See all my reviews
This was without a doubt the worst book of history I ever read. The author has no direction: random passages that don't flow together. Disjointed time lines; going back and forth. No mention whatsoever of the outbound voyage from Spain to the New world. Chapter 1 begins with Columbus in the new world. Chapter two about his young life and the political situation in Italy/Spain in the 15th century. This was the best part of the book. Then chapter three picks up where the first chapter ends. We hear nothing about the outward voyage, which was quite interesting, as it was never done before.

I have reviewed many books, never gave a 1 star...until now.

Very, VERY disapointing. Please, don't waste your time or money on this one.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Accessible History, November 24, 2011
This review is from: Columbus: The Four Voyages (Hardcover)
I've read a number of books about grand voyages and epic events. The least readable of them contained hundreds of mind-numbing pages about political intrigue and peripheral matters. Those are the books that often take 200 pages to get underway, and by that time I've lost interest.

Bergreen avoids this trap. I was hooked from the getgo because Bergreen wrote this for the general reader and not Columbus scholars. The first voyage is under way in the first chapter, and that's how Bergreen draws us in. He wisely delays background information on Columbus until Chapter 2, when we want to know more about the man's precedents because of what we've just read. Some reviewers found the structure confusing. I thought it was brilliant.

So, in my estimation, the subject matter is absolutely fascinating; the research, meticulous; the pacing, expert; and the writing, crisp. I can understand a 4 star rating or a nitpick about this or that, but I cannot understand how anyone who loves history and accounts of great adventures could find this book dull. I learned a long time ago not to dismiss a book simply because some people didn't like it.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Dont't Waste Your Time, June 12, 2014
This is a 448 page book covering all four voyages so I expected a real page-turner narrating all the dramatic events of those journeys. I was very disappointed as the narrative is very disorganized and dull. Bergreen manages to write a dull book about the four voyages of Columbus! He doesn't even cover the maiden voyage to the New World. Also there's no attempt at a serious evaluation of a very interesting and important man. He clearly hates Columbus and feels the need to interject his negative and often repetitive judgements of Columbus. He doesn't seem very fond of Christianity either and he barely makes an attempt to put Columbus and the voyages in context. For example there's no history of Spain or the Reconquista other than his assertion that Ferdinand and Isabella were mean to Muslims and Jews. No mention of the Muslim conquest of Spain. No mention of the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Fortunately I purchased this book on sale. I feel bad for anyone that paid full price.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars So much I didn't know!, April 26, 2013
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Well-written book about a fascinating man and his voyages, and the Spanish colonization of the New World. I was astonished by both the bravery and the cruelty of the Columbus and his crews. Years of not knowing whether they would ever make it back to Spain; repeated near-disasters at sea; repeated rebellions among the ships' crews; friendship and war with the natives; an astonishing succession of incredible experiences. Bergreen presents Columbus as a man of great strengths and great weaknesses. He was a gifted navigator, and a terrible leader of men. His single-minded pursuit of China and gold blinded him to the implications of the land that he did find.

His excessive demands on the local population for gold that did not exist and tribute that he thought they owed the Spanish king caused some, according to Bergreen, to commit suicide by destroying their own crops. Neither they nor the Spanish would have anything to eat. The Spanish never considered trying to be self-supporting. They relied on supplies from Spain and from the Indians. Columbus tried to start a slave trade, but too many of the Indians died on the voyage back to Spain.

The book moves along well, with the various conflicts and dangers described thoroughly, but the story always moving forward.

Highly recommended, both as an interesting story and for its insight into the relations between the Spanish explorers and the population they met and nearly exterminated.
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Columbus: The Four Voyages
Columbus: The Four Voyages by Laurence Bergreen (Hardcover - September 20, 2011)
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