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An exotic curiosity

He pioneered the shelving of books vertically and cataloguing to avoid purchase of duplicates. His three works Epitomes, Materials and Table of Authors and Sciences, the last in the form of a card catalogue, anticipated the Internet and search engines.


This book is an exotic curiosity; partly on Columbus and his voyages to ‘discover’ the western hemisphere, partly on his illegitimate son Hernando (1488-1539) centred on his collecting books and making catalogues thereof, but mainly on a superb exposition of the manners, times and culture of post-Renaissance Europe with the Reformation and Luther in the background.

All three aspects are interesting, but the last is illuminating. Despite speculations and surmises in the narrative, we encounter the world of art, learning, geography, and science. The author, a Cambridge University professor, writes “the point of a life is to make sense of the world in which it’s lived” and adds formidable academic scholarship. The first part is about Columbus, the second about Hernando’s voyages to the new world and his stay in Rome where he monitors a law suit against his brother and begins his book collection at the time when Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo were at their craft. Later, Hernando’s 1637 books purchased in Venice were drowned on the way to Spain; hence the curious title of this book. Columbus, real name Christophori Colon, neither learned nor lettered, was a Genoan who deliberately kept his antecedents obscure.

Arriving in Portugal around 1470 when about 30, he married a Portuguese and his son and heir was Diego. Hernando was born of a woman ‘of lowly station’, coldly cast aside by father and the eldest son. Columbus’ sailing plans, rejected by the Portuguese, were approved by the Spanish monarchs.

His four voyages were in 1492-93, 1493-96, 1498-1500, and 1502-1504. Claims of gold in abundance proved false, and the settlements failed through natural disasters, infighting among settlers, hostility of the natives and disease. He faced criticism for his time as governor and treatment of Spanish settlers, and when his “showmanship was wearing thin”, he resorted to a mixture of prophecies and nautical knowledge, along with huge slices of good fortune.

When sons Diego and Hernando went on the third voyage the settlers were in open revolt with Columbus’ “complete collapse of power, reputation and prospects”. He returned half blind and wrote the Book of Prophecies referencing the Bible and explorations as a crusade of universal evangelisation.

God was on Columbus’s side and he was “chosen for a special role in history” though stricken with bouts of blindness and fever. On the fourth voyage, along with Hernando, he was first to record variation due to magnetic north, and the most accurate measurement of longitude to date.

Columbus died in 1506, and Diego was appointed governor in Hispaniola (now Haiti and Dominican Republic). Hernando made two more voyages west in 1509 and 1512, then went to Rome to monitor a suit against Diego by the mother of his brother’s illegitimate child. He started to collect books and papers indiscriminately with a “compulsion to list”. In 1511, he posited a circumnavigation of the globe which had been a fixed idea for his father.

Meanwhile, the cruelties of the settlers against the natives were exposed, but “Diego and Hernando were relatively unbarbaric”, and in 1511 a court ruled that the Columbus clan held the viceroyalty of lands actually discovered. Diego was recalled in disgrace in 1514, his mistress died, and the Rome case closed. He was reinstated after five years as governor, but again recalled after three years in 1523.

With Diego’s malpractices, the family’s hold on the Spanish court was slipping and in 1534 the family was divested of the viceroyalty. Diego died in 1526, but in 1536, a court installed Diego’s son as admiral of the Indies and gave Hernando a pension. Hernando worked from 1517 to 1523 with royal support on a geographical encyclopaedia called ‘Description of Spain’. From 1518 he assisted Sebastian Cabot (son of John) as chief navigator, and started a Latin dictionary which ended in 1523 just at the letter B after 50,000 entries. When Philip of Spain was made Holy Roman Emperor,

Hernando accompanied him to the Low Countries, Germany and England from 1520-22. Paper and printing had become commonplace and at age 33 Hernando had one of the largest libraries in Europe. By the Tordesillas Treaty of 1494 the Pope authorised all new discoveries divided between Spain and Portugal, but in 1514 a Papal Bull decreed that Portugal could claim any lands discovered by sailing east, which aborted Spain’s dream of an universal empire. The treaty set uncertain parameters and Hernando was in the Spanish team to negotiate clarity with Portugal but achieved nothing.

By 1526 he was Spain’s chief geographer and map-making supervisor and came close to solving the question of longitude earlier by 200 years. Hernando’s motivation was search for perfect order; he gave importance to authorship, and with special interest in medicinal herbs thought there could be just one book of universal medicine.

He pioneered the shelving of books vertically and cataloguing to avoid purchase of duplicates. His three works Epitomes, Materials and Table of Authors and Sciences, the last in the form of a card catalogue, anticipated the Internet and search engines.

By 1524 Epitomes had 1361 alphabetical entries. Materials was like an index of his collection. His biography of Columbus, posthumously printed after 30 years in Italian with dubious insertions by an unknown hand, had “considerable acts of historical revision”, among them that it was clear by then that America was not part of Asia, and that exposes had been made of the brutalities of settlers. Also glossed over are Columbus’ trade in Arawak Indian slaves, the pure chance that drove his career, and that he saw himself as God’s messenger.

Hernando’s achievements were the first to record magnetic variation, introduce mapping on scientific lines, conceive a universal library and compose a biography of a common citizen with documents and eyewitness reports. By his death he was the owner of the largest collection of printed images in the world.

He “was ever the master of beginnings but not of endings”’. Among his setbacks were illegitimacy; encumbered with Columbus’s legacy and Spain’s contested claim to new world discoveries since many others now contested for this title, the revocation of the king’s support of Discovery, the aborted Latin dictionary, the circumnavigation of the world by Magellan, and his fruitless pursuit of the promised inheritance, and finally to be cheated by brother Diego.

By 1529 his health was fading and finances dependent on his brother’s aristocratic wife’s good will. On his death, Hernando’s was the largest private collection in Europe at 15,000 volumes, apart from printed images and music and pamphlets, though there were few texts in English since few non-English knew the language.

Hernando gave his estate to Diego’s son and died in 1539. The collection, much depleted by the Inquisition, neglect, flood and pilferage, is in Seville cathedral and numbers only 4,000 titles. The surviving works are Hernando’s Latin dictionary and Discovery. Columbus’s logs are gone, as is the card catalogue. But Epitomes of 2000 pages, to Wilson-Lee’s joy, was fortuitously discovered in 2019 at Copenhagen.