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Wreckwatch Magazine Book of 2020

Edward Wilson-Lee

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books. Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library

Scribner, New York, 2020

416 pages, paperback, $17.00


Click here to get Wreckwatch mag for free.

Where Columbus was a giant of the age of discovery, Edward Wilson-Lee’s The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books brilliantly rediscovers his son, Hernando, as “one of the first and greatest visionaries of the age of print.” This book is no dry tome, it’s a majestic tour de force that explores the mind of a Renaissance great against the flow of Empire. Wilson-Lee presents a fitting tribute to the man behind the legend, impeccably researched, stunningly woven together and as epic in delivery as the West’s most famous explorer.


As in life so in death, image was everything to the Columbus family. In the will of the Admiral’s son, the main heir to Hernando’s fortune was not a person but a fantastic creation, the largest library collection in the world. This mausoleum of universal knowledge was planned to forever entomb the legacy that justified the voyages of Christopher Columbus.


While the Admiral of the Ocean conquered the world, curating the family image fell on Hernando’s shoulders. The modern image of the explorer was fashioned and immortalised in his son’s Life and Deeds of the Admiral. From living with the royal court of Spain as a youth, being educated by the land’s finest minds, such as the humanist Peter Martyr, one of the first historians of the New World, Hernando the eyewitness listened and watched history unfold at the heart of the most powerful superpower of the age. He collected public accounts of his father’s Americas’ discoveries, had access to his lost diary and letters and, aged 13, accompanied the Admiral on his Fourth Voyage to the New World in 1502.


From a critical distance Hernando saw the blood, sweat and tears his father shed chasing his dream and family honour. He’d watched the Admiral’s rebuffed petition for royal patronage in 1487 and in 1491 the growing complaints about his, and his brother Bartholomew’s, high-handed treatment of Spanish settlers in Hispaniola. After the disgruntled logged their complaints directly with the monarch, Hernando too ended up in the line of fire.


At the gate to the Alhambra the mob peppered him with complaints about how Columbus had ruined them. The mob leered at the 11-year-old Hernando shouting, “Look at the Sons of the Admiral of Mosquitoes, of him who discovered the Land of Vanity and the Land of Deceit, to be the sepulchre and the misery of the Gentlemen of Castile!” When the Admiral returned to Spain in November 1500, it wasn’t as a gift-laden conjurer but stripped of his governorship, his hands and feet bound in chains as he was led to a show trial.


It was to the family fixer that the fight fell to secure his father’s estate and the royal promise of 1 to 2 million maravedis in annual rent, a fortune reserved for the nobility. Hernando also had to sort out his older brother’s sordid titillation after King Ferdinand appointed Diego governor of Hispaniola and Admiral of the Indies. The case of Isabel de Gamboa against Diego, asserting the legitimacy of their son – a bastard who might someday become Viceroy of the Indies – rumbled up to Europe’s ultimate supreme court, the Vatican.


Discovery of the Americas was but a launchpad to wider planetary exploration. Columbus wanted to prove he could sail to the East and round the world. Following the Italian geographer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli’s ‘narrow Atlantic’ theory, the Admiral calculated the distance from Lisbon to Cathay (China) at 6,500 miles.


The so-foreign ways of the New World were hard to grasp. Even the Admiral’s mind struggled to order the flood of new information he discovered. It was simpler to believe his mission was divinely inspired. Like Noah’s ‘colombo’, the dove, Christopher had brought back evidence of land as a covenant between God and his people. The end.


Hernando didn’t think this take on destiny would survive the test of time. So he started packaging his father’s meandering thoughts into a revised order, The Book of Prophecies, to break the family chains. He watered down his father’s millenarian theories to turn Columbus into the first figure in a new world. The pages that didn’t fit the makeover were ripped out.

Rather than down to God, in the Life and Deeds of the Admiral Hernando attributed his father’s successes to “his superhuman discipline, endurance, and self-control.” These works also erased the unpalatable: the visions the Admiral saw from 1498 and the divine revelations that guided father and son on the Fourth Voyage. Hernando cut out his father’s attempt to profit from the trade in Arawak Indian slaves.


To immortalize the Admiral’s legacy in a universal empire, Hernando built a universal library, “a memory bank in which the thought of the world was stored… capable of making connections through the fog of the printed world, of forming a single picture of the world...” The son travelled widely to Italy, Belgium, England and Germany, devoured works like Thomas More’s Utopia, and met the good and the great from royalty to the Dutch humanist Erasmus.


The Columbian legacy took the form of 4,200 books bought in the Low Countries, Germany and England, topped up with 1,674 acquired in Venice. By the age of 33, Hernando owned one of the greatest private libraries in Europe. To house his monument, he bought a dung heap outside the city walls of Seville at the Gate of Hercules along the Guadalquivir river. From this powerful place where Spanish treasure ships sailed to and from the Americas, visitors could stare across the water to the Cartuja de las Cuevas, where Columbus’s body rested in his tomb in the Capilla de Santa Ana. Next to his bones were the iron chains that once bound him in 1500. The setting of Hernando’s library was meticulously symbolic.


No matter that the edifice was not open to the great unwashed. The collection was “a doomsday vault that would prevent human culture from being lost again on the scale it had at the end of the classical period.” It was also the Big Data hard-drive of perhaps Hernando’s greatest long-term achievement: the compilation of three great catalogue guides to the collections, the Book of Epitomes, the Book of Materials and the Table of Authors and Sciences. With these works of synthesis to hand, readers anywhere in the world could navigate through the library’s collections remotely. Hernando had created the world’s first networked search engine.


Unlike Columbus’s reputation, the universal library – little known until now – had a less glorious end. In 1544 María de Toledo transferred the books to the monastery of San Pablo in Seville, where Bartolomé de Las Casas used them to write his monumental histories of the New World and the brutal genocide of its native inhabitants. Then in 1552 the library was moved to the Cathedral of Seville, where many volumes fell prey to the Inquisition as auctor damnatus, condemned authors. Of the original 20,000 volumes, fewer than 4,000 survive today. Hernando’s drawings, the greatest of the Renaissance, have completely gone, destroyed by water damage or thrown away. The originals of Columbus’s logs are the most painful loss.


Longer term, Hernando’s own vision inspired the English philosopher Francis Bacon’s idea of universal knowledge in his utopian novel New Atlantis, while his library served as a blueprint for London’s Royal Society. Ultimately, Hernando made sure that even if his father was mocked and derided in life, the Admiral had the last laugh thanks to his creative literary spin.


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