'The Last Voyage of Columbus': An Epic Tale Scott Simon talks with Martin Dugard, author of The Last Voyage of Columbus. Dugard delves into the rarely portrayed final journey of the famous explorer.

'The Last Voyage of Columbus': An Epic Tale

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Martin Dugard begins his new book with an uncommon image of Christopher Columbus, great explorer in chains in Santa Domingo, the colony that he founded. Columbus brought low just eight years after his dauntless journey to discover a new world, Columbus disgraced and under suspicion. The center of the book is the story of Christopher Columbus' fourth and final voyage, which he called his greatest, from which none of the four ships he led returned. The book is called "The Last Voyage of Columbus: Being the Epic Tale of the Great Captain's Fourth Expedition, Including Accounts of Swordfight, Mutiny, Shipwreck, Gold, War, Hurricane and Discovery." Whew! Martin Dugard joins us now from the studios of NPR West.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. MARTIN DUGARD (Author, "The Last Voyage of Columbus"): So nice to be here.

SIMON: One of the great incentives for exploration and finding trade routes wasn't just gold, silver, pearls or silk--but pepper.

Mr. DUGARD: Pepper was huge. You know, you have to remember that there was no refrigeration back then, and there was also no real hygiene. You know, bathing was considered immoral by the church. So, you know, Isabella, for instance, once bragged that in her entire lifetime she had bathed just on the day she was born and on the day she was married. So these people had a tremendous aroma about them. Their food they ate went bad very quickly, and very often that had a tremendous aroma. So what people would do is they would use spices, particularly pepper, to kind of dress up their food. And if you had a lot of money, you used a lot of spices to flaunt your wealth. What Columbus did was, when he came back after that first voyage, he appears before Isabella and Ferdinand. There had been no pepper in the Americas. But he had taken red chilies and said, `These are, in fact, red peppers,' and presented them to the court that way. And that's why to this day we still refer to them as red pepper.

SIMON: And how did it happen less than a decade after the voyage that made him famous in our time Christopher Columbus winds up in a jail that he built?

Mr. DUGARD: Well, Columbus was the necessary evil to the Spanish crown. They really lacked the maritime capacity to push westward on their own, and Columbus was a mercenary of sorts. He was an Italian who came to Spain to kind of foist his theories about the riches of the Indies being attained by sailing west. Once he had found those places, though, they sought to quietly discredit Columbus and replace him with Spanish individuals to run their new colonies. And they sent him back to Spain to go before Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand to plead his case. He goes into the Alhambra, in the--into the royal court there, and he falls to his knees before Isabella and Ferdinand, and he pleads for one last chance. And he's got the manacles on. You know, he had--once he'd been this strapping, swashbuckling guy, six feet tall, red hair, freckles. He's sobbing before Isabella and Ferdinand, pleading for one last chance. And a most amazing thing happens--is that Isabella starts crying, too. And she takes his hand, and in not so many words, she says, `It's going to be OK. You know, we're going to give you one more chance.'

SIMON: His relationship with Isabella has been the object of much speculation over the years, and your book confirms the idea that they had an extraordinary connection, even though they probably didn't spend more than just a couple hours together total.

Mr. DUGARD: Yeah. I don't think it was really sexual. But you have to remember, Columbus had a charisma about him. You know, he was something of a lady's man. And so when he was with Isabella, I think he really poured on the charm. Remember, he was trying to sell his idea of getting this one chance to go, you know, find these new places. But when they were together--you know, she was a very beautiful woman. She had a confidence and charisma of her own, and they were very much a match for one another. And I think in Columbus she saw something that she didn't see in her own husband because Ferdinand was a miserable, vile little man who really didn't deserve a woman like Isabella.

SIMON: By the time of Columbus' fourth voyage after the had convinced Isabella to give him the money for this last great adventure, his personal interest was in sort of plumping up his estate, wasn't it?

Mr. DUGARD: Yeah, he was getting to the end of his life. You know, at 50 years old, nowadays that's not an old man, but back then the average life expectancy was only 30. So when Columbus got to that point in his life, he really needed not just to look after himself but to looks after his heirs. And he was thinking about making sure he had one last stake. And now that the crown had effectively taken Hispanola away from them, he wanted to find a new place, some place new that he could stake his claim and kind of have like this little Columbus colony that would provide wealth to his heirs. It would provide gold and perhaps pepper.

SIMON: And where did his eyes fall?

Mr. DUGARD: In a real roundabout long way, it just basically--what is now Panama. This fourth voyage sets out. He runs into this massive hurricane off the coast of Hispanola. He isn't allowed to land in Santa Domingo because he's at odds with the local governor. And what he does is he sails due west, and he becomes the first man to reach what is now Central America. You know, and a really interesting thing is that is the only time in his life that Columbus actually sets foot on North America, is during that fourth voyage.

SIMON: The hurricane that he confronted, you theorize--more than theorize--was unlike weather any other explorer has ever encountered.

Mr. DUGARD: When Columbus came to the New World, he saw a hurricane for the first time. There were two huge hurricanes in--that struck the Spanish colonies on Hispanola, but this third hurricane--it was a hurricane of such magnitude that it basically leveled all of Hispanola and Santa Domingo. It just cut a swath right across the land. There were 30 Spanish ships leaving port that day, the day that the hurricane hit, and Columbus tried to warn them. He was sailing, and he was racing into port to warn them about this storm, and they ignored him. And all but four of the vessels that sailed that day went straight to the bottom of the Mona Passage.

SIMON: And, of course, his expedition paid the price for those storms.

Mr. DUGARD: Well, it sure did. He--well, he did a really smart thing. What he did was he pushed away--as soon as he was denied admission into Santa Domingo, Columbus realizes that if he's going to save his men's lives, he has got to push away from that storm as quickly as possible. And a great thing happens as his--his men are very upset that they have not been allowed to land in Santa Domingo because this was--they'd been away from home for three weeks now. They've been aboard this ship. And Santa Domingo was a place with women. It's a place with nightlife. And all of a sudden, they can't go there. But because of the storm, Columbus gets them to safe harbor. He saves all the men on all four of his ships and effectively re-earns their admiration.

As he sailed further south along Central America, he had a series of calamities and misadventures. You know, Indian attack; he finds this new colony with plenty of gold, more gold than he's ever dreamed of. And then he tries to start this colony, and as he sails away he hears the sounds of battle and he realizes his men are being slaughtered. He flees...

SIMON: To save lives.

Mr. DUGARD: To save lives. But as he's fleeing, he realizes that the ship worms that are so prevalent to this area have rotted the hulls of his ships. He has to leave two ships behind, and he only has two ships left. And he puts all his men on these two ships. And bare in mind, these ships are about the size of a Greyhound bus, and you've got, you know, 60 men per ship crammed into this space. These ships also are beset with ship worms, and they're sinking so low that the water's almost lapping up and over the--onto the deck. The water's almost even with the decks. And what he does is he sails almost due north and he runs the ships aground on the coast of Jamaica.

SIMON: I guess I hadn't understood until reading your book that for many, many years after his death he was figured to be just another European explorer.

Mr. DUGARD: Yeah, because what had happened is Amerigo Vespucci, who America is now named after--he basically stole Columbus' thunder. And he wrote this magnum basically saying that he had discovered the Americas. And meanwhile, because Columbus' heirs were trying to make sure that they got more money out of the crown after Columbus' death in 1506, his name was not allowed to be spoken in the royal court after about the--I think 1516 is the date. So he quietly drifted away, and he was just seen as some other guy who had made his way to the Americas along with some of the other bumbling Spanish who had been there right about the turn of the 15th century, 16th century.

SIMON: But finally, they uncorked his papers.

Mr. DUGARD: Yeah. You know, it's great, because they looked at these things and they realized--and this is, you know, almost 300 years later--that he had done some remarkable things. It was like--it's like people had found this brand new way of looking at the world. He was so thoroughly brought back to life that, you know, the Catholic Church even proposed him for sainthood, which was, you know--he was--it was not beatified simply because of the slavery things. And it came back to, people realize at some point he's not this super hero, but he's also not this guy who slithered around the Caribbean. He's the guy who found the place.

SIMON: In our time, has Columbus taken on too much of the blame for European imperialism?

Mr. DUGARD: Oh, I definitely think so. It's like shooting the messenger. Columbus got here first. I mean--well, let's take that back. He didn't get here first. You know, the Vikings beat him, the Chinese, all these people beat him, but he was the one who stayed. And because he stayed, the practice of genocide that the United States government perpetrated upon the Native Americans in the 19th century--that wasn't Columbus' fault, but for some reason he is tied in with all of that simply because he was the first European person to really come to the Americas and stick around. If it hadn't been Columbus, it would have been somebody else.

SIMON: Martin Dugard. His latest book is "The Last Voyage of Columbus." Mr. Dugard, thank you very much.

Mr. DUGARD: Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: And to read an excerpt of Mr. Dugard's book, you can visit our Web site, npr.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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