The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Young Columbus and the Quest for a Universal Library by Edward Wilson-Lee - review by Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Felipe Fernández-Armesto

A Voyage Round His Father

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Young Columbus and the Quest for a Universal Library


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‘Never mind,’ said the canon-archivist as the 16th-century paper crumbled at the reader’s touch. ‘Plenty more where that came from.’ Peter Russell, sometime spy and longtime professor of Spanish at Oxford, used to tell the story of his exchange with the venerable custodian of the Chapter Library of Seville Cathedral, where the Biblioteca Colombina – the collection of Columbus’s son Hernando Colón – had lain for centuries, gradually yielding to worm, rot, thievery and neglect. Things are better managed now than in Russell’s day, but by the time a modern regime of stewardship arrived in the library some fifty years ago, the original fifteen thousand items had dwindled to somewhat over four thousand, and the world’s first attempt at creating a repository of universal knowledge – a sort of internet avant la lettre – was in ruins.

Edward Wilson-Lee’s fascinating and beautifully written account of how Hernando conceived and assembled his library is set within a highly original biography of the compiler. It’s a work of imagination restrained by respect for evidence, of brilliance suitably alloyed by erudition, and of scholarship enlivened by sensitivity and acuity.

Hernando was illegitimate and therefore, in the inheritance stakes, always a second-class son, though his father acknowledged him and gave him advantages equal to those of his elder and legitimate brother in education and access to courtly connections, along with the privilege of helping in the construction of the first Atlantic-spanning world. He accompanied his father in triumph and disaster. In boyhood he listened to the jibes of his classmates, lampooning the ‘sons of the Admiral of Mosquitos’. He heard the rattle of the chains in which Columbus returned in disgrace from his third Atlantic crossing. He accompanied his father on a voyage that ended in abject failure, leaving them marooned in Jamaica. After Columbus’s death he tried to rewrite history, suppressing whatever redounded to his father’s discredit. He fought for family honour against detractors who impugned his dubious claims to noble ancestry and against bureaucrats who tried to diddle the dynasty out of rewards for the explorer’s services to the crown. When writing his father’s life story, Hernando transformed it, in Wilson-Lee’s words, not only into ‘a narrative of personal destiny’, creating a legend that suckered many subsequent biographers, but also into an episode in ‘the providential history of the world’.

The library grew out of Columbus’s books and papers, especially out of the cosmographical works, universal histories and eschatological texts the explorer gathered in search of justification for his enterprises and intellectual ammunition against his enemies. Wilson-Lee suggests that Hernando felt he inherited his father’s project to encompass the world, but continued it by other means. He even, perhaps, ‘succumbed in some measure to the visionary madness he had removed with such painstaking care from the record of his father’s life’.

The ‘library that would collect everything’ became, as it grew unmanageably, a Borgesian labyrinth of ‘baffling marvels’. Wilson-Lee describes it with verve and strews his account with Rabelaisian lists, incantatory and almost magical in effect, of the sort Hernando loved. The protagonist emerges as an obsessive-compulsive who bought books by the thousand, compiled meticulous catalogues, labelled every item frenziedly, kept everything possible in triplicate, and planned all details of the library – including the view from the windows and the cage bars that were interposed between the books and potentially light-fingered readers.

Yet beyond the lust for detail, Hernando was a visionary fantasist who wanted to conjure a place where everything in the world was visible, like Borges’s Aleph (or, as Wilson-Lee points out, the Palace of Aletia in Columbus, a poem by the 18th-century Jesuit Ubertino Carrara). The scholar would be able to master it intellectually and his king could control it politically. ‘A memory bank in which the thought of the world was stored’ could become, Wilson-Lee argues, an instrument for forging a universal empire. A further purpose emerged from Hernando’s response to the insecurity of the time, with its dizzying turns of fortune’s wheel, its shipwrecks, wars and book-burnings: to create a ‘doomsday vault that would prevent human culture from being lost’.

Linking the ‘biblioglyphs’ Hernando devised for his cataloguing system with More’s Utopia and the vogue for supposedly ‘Egyptian’ learning, Wilson-Lee helps us locate Hernando and his project in the intellectual world of the Renaissance – in the ideal of a uomo universale and in the exploration of the ‘small universe’ of the body, which reflected the world. For Hernando did not just collect books: until the swarms of volumes became too dense, he anticipated Gibbon in reading, or at least thoroughly perusing, everything before consigning it to his shelves. Wilson-Lee has read it all too and his mastery of the texts enables him to prove the long-disputed authenticity of Hernando’s biography of his father by linking passages to works we know the author read. He observes, judiciously, that the hero of the Life and Deeds of the Admiral is too tendentiously reconstructed to resemble the real Columbus, but rather he ‘looks a lot more like Hernando’.

There are some imperfections. Wilson-Lee sometimes supplements deficient evidence with speculations about what Hernando ‘might have’ done (though his musings are always informed and never vacuous). He refers to Peter Martyr as ‘Martyr’, as if it were a surname. He seems unaware that India preceded Europe in double-entry book-keeping. He unfairly accuses Pope Julius II of promising salvation to penitents, rather than remission of the temporal penalties of sin. He seems not to realise that Columbus allotted indio labour services on traditional indigenous lines. He accepts the 

insecure traditional dating of the Catalan Atlas. He predates by more than a decade the emergence of the myth that the Aztecs mistook Cortés for Quetzalcoatl. He is unaware that Columbus navigated by following the guard stars around Polaris and read his position from printed tables of latitudes based on hours of daylight. I think Wilson-Lee should have recognised the classical origins of the surely fabricated tale of Columbus intimidating Jamaican natives by predicting an eclipse; he might have noticed that the explorer’s claim to have been the first to see land at the end of the pioneering ocean crossing was cribbed from a version of the Alexander Romance. The slips, however, are small and few for so ambitious a book.

Towards the end, Wilson-Lee reflects on the parallels he perceives between Hernando’s project and the internet. Like computers, printing presses ‘upended the world of information’, which was ‘flooded by an endless supply of the new’. Like the hierophants of search-engineering, Hernando wanted readers to have an infinitely
searchable database ‘that would allow people to wander in places they did not know, perhaps had not even dreamed existed’. Like him, the webmasters have failed to give us that degree of liberation: cyber ghettoes prevail. ‘We are in danger of hemming ourselves into ever smaller enclaves, increasingly oblivious to the infinite … worlds that we simply no longer see.’ Hernando was the first bibliophile to appreciate the importance of ephemera and he nursed them as sedulously as any squirreller of tweets or transcriber of graffiti to the web. In Seville, he built an edifice to house his library on a municipal midden, which, to his own amusement (almost audible in the irony-laced lines in which he commemorated the event), he bought and cleared for the purpose: ‘I have founded my house upon the shit that others once threw upon the dunghill.’ Minutiae are still the starting point of every grand design of learning, and the grounds of knowledge remain as shifting and dubious as Hernando’s ‘shit’.

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