Close this search box.

186: 1492: Conquest of Paradise with Patrick Wyman

Patrick Wyman is a historian, host of the Tides of History podcast and author of The Verge. He joins us today to dive into the historical accuracy of Ridley Scott’s 1992 movie 1492.

Disclaimer: Dan LeFebvre and/or Based on a True Story may earn commissions from qualifying purchases through our links on this page.

Did you enjoy this episode? Help support the next one!

Buy me a coffeeBuy me a coffee


Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

Dan LeFebvre  02:05

At the beginning of the movie, we see Christopher Columbus defending his theory of a round Earth at the University of Salamanca in 1491. Obviously, we know from history that people did used to think the world was flat. But as I was watching the movie, I came away with the impression that Columbus was the lone crazy guy who thought he could survive a journey across the oceans to the west. But then there was a brief moment. And in some of the dialogue, there were Columbus refers to the works of Marin de Tyr contradicting the popular beliefs of people like Aristotle and Ptolemeus, that was what people seem to rely on to cement their belief in a flat world. So that got me thinking, if Columbus is referencing somebody else who had some contradictory beliefs as well, maybe there were others who had similar beliefs, and it wasn’t as much of an uphill struggle as the movie makes it seem. So how well did the movie do setting up this concept of Christopher Columbus maybe being the one crazy guy who believes the world is round when everybody else believes it’s flat?


Patrick Wyman  03:07

So it’s really interesting. And I think on a basic level, the the whole scene is an invention. Christopher Columbus never had to defend beliefs in in a round Earth, because, honestly, people believed that the earth was round. That was a fairly well known bit of geographic information and geography was a really highly developed field of study. There were a lot of experts in this, I think. They drew the inspiration for this scene from Columbus’s interview, not at the University of Salamanca. But in Portugal, with the advisors to the king of Portugal, whom Columbus had tried to pitch before the kings of Spain, the kings of Portugal were much more deeply involved in overseas voyages. And so the king of Portugal kept basically a club of really highly regarded geographers who kind of sat at the cutting edge of knowledge. And they laughed Columbus out of the room. They left Columbus out of the room, not because he thought the earth was round, and they thought it was flat. But because Columbus basically believed that the world was much smaller than it is. He believed that the world was somewhere between 20 and 30%. Smaller than it actually is. He wasn’t alone in this. There were a number of people around that time and before who had believed this, one of them as mentioned in the movie, a guy named Tuscan, Nelly at the roughly the same time Tuscan le tosk. Tuscan Elliot was arguing for this the smaller Earth, the French Cardinal Pier, they IE, another person who believed to so Columbus had read them Columbus had picked up this belief from from learned sources, it’s not like he was it felt like he was original in this. It’s just that the geographers that he was arguing with in Portugal knew better they actually had estimated the size of the Earth remarkably accurate. So it turned out that Columbus was just wrong about this. And it turned out that the the rulers of Spain were much more because they weren’t as heavily invested in overseas voyages. They didn’t have Their own kind of clutch of court geographers, they were not, they did not have the kind of scholarly background necessary to say, Oh, dude, this is just a bad idea.


Dan LeFebvre  05:10

Okay, so that movie just kind of cuts out that whole just to get to Spain basically, is what it sounds like.


Patrick Wyman  05:17

Yeah. And I mean, and I think they are heavily they, the movie goes heavy on this idea that you that you mentioned in your question, the idea of Columbus is kind of a lone genius. And that’s definitely it definitely makes it more narratively compelling. But it also obscures a lot about Columbus, the person and a lot of the stuff that I think makes him interesting. But for those of us who were raised in the United States, this movie is very much in the tradition of we have to see Columbus as a lone genius kind of setting off into the Atlantic. There was a Flemish guy named Ferdinand van Omen, who tried basically the same thing five years before he, he went do West into the Atlantic. But he was never heard from again, probably because he did not find the winds he was looking for. So his ship was blown off course or wrecked or what have you. So people were trying the thing that Columbus was trying based on roughly the same sets of beliefs that he had come up with just happened to be right-ish.


Dan LeFebvre  06:09

Pretty much pure luck?


Patrick Wyman  06:12

Yeah, well, so it’s interest. I mean, Columbus, at the movie doesn’t really focus on this too much. But one of the things that Columbus did that that was really smart is he’s he sailed due south first before turning West, right? So he sails south to the Canary Islands, because he knows because Columbus is an experienced sailor, that you can find westerly winds, from the Canary Islands, if you try to sail due south due west, from the Iberian Peninsula, you’re not going to get the winds that you need, the winds are going to blow you all over the place. But if you go south and then turn West, then you’re much more likely to find the winds that are going to take you in the direction you want to go.


Dan LeFebvre  06:47

Okay, and is that what the other guy did? Basically, he just went to West instead of going south first, and he just went to West. Okay.


Patrick Wyman  06:53

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So but that’s but that’s because Columbus knew that Columbus had been to the Canaries before he’d been to West Africa before Columbus had sailed. Like there’s a line in something that Columbus wrote where he’s like, you know, every, every see men have sailed, I have traversed. And he’s not wrong about that. Like Columbus had a tremendous depth of practical knowledge about seafaring and things like wind, things like wind currents, you know, where’s a good place to get water? That was all stuff Columbus knew.


Dan LeFebvre  07:21

Okay, so it was more than just pure luck. There was knowledge there for sure.


Patrick Wyman  07:24

Yeah, yeah.


Dan LeFebvre  07:26

Well, in the movie after failing to convince the people, the University of Salamanca, we see Columbus being approached by a man named Pinzon, who says that his financier can get him an audience with Queen Isabella. And that’s basically how the movie shows that he’s able to get an audience with Queen Isabella about his expedition, was that a fairly accurate depiction of how that actually happened?


Patrick Wyman  07:49

Again, not really. So Columbus, prior to 1492, had spent years kind of worming his way into the good graces of the people who mattered at the Spanish court. This was an actual piece of genius from Columbus was that he was very much a social climber. And he had a, he had a real sense for who important people were that he could attach himself to is like a remora, you know, so Columbus got himself hooked up with the court of the, the heir to the Spanish throne, a young and rather unimpressive man, who would die before ever inheriting. But Columbus got himself tied into the people who were who were based in the princes court. And through these connections, years and years and years of kind of pulling strings and getting introductions and writing letters and doing his very best to get the meetings. That’s when Columbus was finally able to get it in. So pin zone is an interesting guy, and he does have a role to play in, he did have a role to play in Columbus’s voyage. Um, it wasn’t exactly this one. Basically, Columbus, by means of his string pulling eventually got connected to a group of financier’s, among whom was the was the one who’s mentioned in the movie, this guy suntan Joe, there were others. There were others as well. But basically, there was a clutch of people who were tied to the Spanish court, who were heavily invested in financing overseas voyages, and Columbus got in with them, because a bunch of them were genoways, like Columbus was. And so Columbus manages to kind of work his way into their good graces. And finally, he gets his audience. And finally, sometimes yellow is the guy who brings together all the funding for it because the hard part was, was not the voyage itself. It was that you know, you’ve got to find spare cash sitting around to pay for ships, things of that nature.


Dan LeFebvre  09:36

Okay, well, it sounds like the movie is doing what movies do a lot in heavily compressing the timeline there a little bit.


Patrick Wyman  09:44

Yeah, exactly. I mean, it’s like, it’s one of the things that I’ve always thought was really interesting about this movie is that it’s not a terrible movie, per se, but it’s just it’s abominable history. But that’s what makes it really good. Pelling is because it gives you a good kind of sense for, like, what do you have to do to kind of squeeze drama? or How can you How can you alter the raw facts of a historical narrative to give you an actual story? It’s interesting. I mean, I think it’s interesting.


Dan LeFebvre  10:14

There was a scene I wanted to ask you about that seemed like it was just thrown in there like and that was when Columbus actually met with Queen Isabella, it was in January of 1492. And there’s some text in the movie that mentions this is the fall of Granada and move even implies that Columbus uses this event to convince her to fund his expedition saying something like everyone thought Grenada was impregnable, until she actually conquered it. Can you give a little more historical context around the fall of Granada and how it all played into the Columbus’s story?


Patrick Wyman  10:43

Yeah, so I mean, I think the fall of Granada plays in a whole bunch of different ways. So Granada falls in 1492. But it falls after 11 years of more or less continuous warfare in the Iberian Peninsula. So Granada was the last slice left of Moorish Spain. So there had been Muslim polities kingdoms Emirates in Spain since the eighth century, and Granada was the very last of them, they had slowly receded over the process of what was called the retcon Keystone. So the Spanish reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula, from the Muslims, it had stalled for a long time, for actually a couple of centuries, there had been no further progress made until the middle of the 15th century, the Isabella’s predecessor captured Gibraltar, and then Isabella herself as part of her appeal to become queen because she had to fight a succession war, to become queen in the first place. Part of the reason that she became queen is because she was she made a big point of saying, I will carry the war to the Muslims, I will do my duty as a good religious monarch, and I will go out and fight the Muslims, it was a lot harder than they thought it was going to be, which is why it took 11 years. And they ended up spending a lot of money to do this, because war in the 15th century was getting to be very expensive. You had to buy cannons, you had to pay for mercenaries, supplies, especially for these kind of extended campaigns. And we have to understand Columbus’s voyage in the context of that this long, long war, where the kingdom of Spain is coming into an idea of itself defined in opposition to being Muslim on the one hand, but also as a becoming a really, really efficient financial and war making machine. So Columbus is kind of hanging around the fringes of this, this, he’s making his pitch and he’s saying, you know, give me these ships, give me this money, give me these people, I’m going to go out into the ocean, there’s the Spanish quarter saying, well, we’re literally fighting a war, we are tapping every available financial resource in order to make this happen. And even though Columbus did not want an extraordinarily large amount of money, he wanted enough money that it was a pay would have been a pain to find it for the Spanish court. So basically, Columbus wanted the rough equivalent of the annual income of a minor nobleman. That’s what he wanted for his voyage. That’s what it was going to take. But because the kingdom of Spain was so cash strapped, because Castiel, and Oregon were, were had spent all of their money fighting this long, difficult war, the money was just was not there to spare for Columbus. They always thought they were going to take Granada, they always thought they were going to do it, it just ended up being a lot harder than they thought it was going to be. And it took them a lot. It took them a lot more time and a lot more money, then than anybody ever figured it would. And so this is the context in which Columbus is approaching Isabella. It’s because he’s not the main character in that story. Columbus is the main character in Columbus his story, but when it comes to the Granada war, and all the other things that were happening in Spain, Columbus is very much an afterthought.


Dan LeFebvre  13:48

Well, that leads right into my next question, because it talking about the motivation behind it. And according to the movie, when we do see Isabella, agreeing to fund the expedition, I he finally set sail with three ships from the port of Payless in August of 1492. But the movie heavily implies that the motivation behind this was essentially about the money. And oh, and also to to spread the word of God, but mostly about the money. Right. As the movie puts it, Columbus believed that they would be going to China, which he pitches in the movie, saying, you know, Marco Polo, claim this was one of the richest countries in the world. So imagine, you know, the types of things that we can can bring back. Is that a pretty fair overview of how the first expedition kicked off and the motivation behind it then?


Patrick Wyman  14:29

Yeah, that’s absolutely right. The motivation was absolutely money. Columbus, what came from a background as a commercial sailor, basically, Columbus was not like doing NASA things Columbus was he was not like trying to advance the good of mankind. He was a sailor who was used to working for commercial consortiums, right. This was how maritime voyages were structured and funded in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic at the end of the 15th century was you found investors you found ships You found a sailor who could lead the expedition and you tied all of that together with this really elaborate set of contracts. So that’s one of the things that I think is actually really interesting about this movie is there’s a scene where Columbus is arguing about contracts, and what his what his share is going to be what he’s going to get as a result of this. That’s very true to life. Because all of these guys were sticklers for contracts. This was a world of contract credit, really sophisticated financial dealings. And so I think the movie gets that very much right, that that’s, that was the world that Columbus came from, it was very much a commercial world, they were very interested in profit. They were not, you know, the religious motivation did play into it, it did matter. But they wouldn’t have thought of those as being separate things in the sense that we might like, like, yeah, sure, we’re gonna go and we’re gonna make profit. But you know, God’s Also, we’re also going to do our bit for God in the process. This is, this is part of it. There’s a there’s a saying that was written into, like, often hand copied into medieval merchant account books that says, forgotten for profit. And so the two are very closely connected. Like they went along pretty neatly. They didn’t see any real conflict between those Columbus certainly didn’t. The other people who were operating in that world didn’t it was it was a really neat pairing.


Dan LeFebvre  16:14

You mentioned the contract there. I think I’m gonna at least write it in the next one. Because when we see Columbus landing, that movie calls it the one a honey Island, I believe, on October 12 1482. And as soon as they land on the beach, Columbus signs this contract and names at San Salvador. And I guess that would make the journey roughly two months from August to October, landing him there. Is that when and where Columbus landed first?


Patrick Wyman  16:40

That seems to be correct. We don’t know the exact location. It was probably in the Bahamas or the Turks and Caicos, it’s we actually don’t know, because we’ve never found direct evidence that ties Columbus’s landing to a specific spot. And it seems to have been more or less forgotten afterwards, once they found the big islands of the Caribbean, like that first spot that Columbus had come ashore was just not that important. Because that’s not where the resources were. So yeah, but yeah, so so that’s when they came ashore. That’s actually not that long of voyage in the context of the in the context of the time and what other people were doing. There were much longer voyages being made south to West Africa, along the coast of Central Africa, all the way to the Cape of Good Hope. Those were really really long, scary, frightening voyages. Columbus’s in comparison was actually fairly short and non eventful. A couple of months at sea was not that long for experienced sailors. I mean, his men may have been grumbling along the way, and they may have thought he was crazy, because kopien was kind of crazy. But but but it was not like this was out of the realm of possibility. It’s not like they were being shot to the moon. It’s not like everything they were doing was untried. The ships they were in were old workhorse caravels of the type that had been in use for a half a century. The rigging was stuff they would have been familiar with the the journey West. Yeah, sure, that’s, that’s a little bit different. But it was all kind of very much of the time it was all kind of very much business as usual, to the extent that’s possible when you’re when you’re traveling to a new continent.


Dan LeFebvre  18:15

It’s interesting because when I was watching that I kind of got a different sense of I think they mentioned like they’re starting to run out of water and some of the men are thinking they’re going to start a mutiny and so I got very much got the concept of this is just an extremely long voyage they don’t have enough resources for it they’re not ready for it. Do we know what the conditions were like on the ship during the voyage itself?


Patrick Wyman  18:37

Oh yeah, the ship I mean, it was miserable. It was not fun like and traveling traveling into the middle of the sea on a on a Caravelle in the in the late 15th century would have been just an atrocious experience not something you really wanted to do. But it but the the guys who were doing this knew what they knew what they were doing, they were professional seamen. One of the interesting things about this is that the seaport of polos which is mentioned it was mentioned a few times this guy pin zone who shows up who shows up in the movie The ships were actually provided for Columbus as attacks in kind the seaport Apollo’s had been dodging its taxes to the Spanish crown so basically the caravels the the union the pizza were were a tax payment like okay you get you crazy guy going out into the Atlantic you can take these you can take these ships will wipe your tax debt clean but let people Apollo’s were experienced seafarers they all knew what they were doing these Wait, it would have been very difficult and unpleasant and they definitely would have been having fun in Columbus was Columbus for all his faults was a pretty skilled seafarers pretty skilled Mariner I think he always wanted to make himself seem like the hero of the story. He was very conscious of making himself seem like the hero and of raising the barriers, you know, so so if there was ever any discontent? Well, it’s almost a mutiny. You know, it’s the kind of discontent you get after a couple of months on the open ocean. When people are all people are all crammed together, but not like, like, this was not the worst rebellion that Columbus faced from his underlings.


Dan LeFebvre  20:09

Okay. I guess it makes sense that Yeah, that sounds like it would be a terrible voyage. But you know what you’re signing up for?


Patrick Wyman  20:15

Yeah. Oh, yeah, yeah. And I mean, and that’s actually, they were getting more used to doing things like this at the time, these kinds of long sea voyages, because the voyage is south, along the coast of, of North Africa than West Africa, and then kind of around the bulge of Africa, toward the Congo. And then further south, all of these voyages, the people who had been on them, and Columbus was one of them, Columbus had been to West Africa, he’d been to the Canaries, they realized that to find the right winds, you were gonna have to swing further and further out and out to sea, you were gonna have to leave side of land more and more often, in order to find the right winds to take you in the direction that you wanted to go. So they got really used to swinging way way out into the Atlantic to find the winds that were going to take them south southeast. Eventually, when they when the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope that involved a long, long journey out of sight of land. I mean, they got almost to Antarctica, before they ended up before they ended up turning back back north. But that was becoming increasingly common. That’s how the Portuguese found Brazil is they were swinging out to try to find the right winds to take them to take them southeast. So So this was it was very much of the time, Columbus was not the only one doing this in the at the end of the 15th century,


Dan LeFebvre  21:30

while Brazil is a pretty wide swing.


Patrick Wyman  21:34

Yeah, yeah. But that gives you a kind of a sense for what they were doing and how, because it was a community of of sailors, right, like Columbus was part of a larger community of people, you know, in the same way that like, truck drivers hang around at truckstops. And talk about the best routes and you know, where’s the best place to get food and all that, like, sailors were doing the same things. They are all kind of party to this same culture of innovation of kind of geographic knowledge, practical knowledge, Columbus was part of that world.


Dan LeFebvre  22:00

Well, soon after landing in the movie, Columbus and his expedition members encounter the native Islanders. There’s a lot of curiosity from both sides, which makes sense, but for the most part, the movie makes it seem like this encounter is very friendly. My movie doesn’t really show how much time is passing. But I’m assuming the friendly, less nice for a while because when Columbus asks one of the only tribesmen with a speaking role in the movie, you Japan, he asked him where he found like this silver hanging around his neck, the next thing we see, they’re on ships with Columbus and his men are showing them Cuba. So what was the first encounter between this Spanish expedition and the native tribes? Like was it as friendly as the movie makes it seem?


Patrick Wyman  22:39

Yeah, it was, it does seem to have been fairly friendly at that point. But you can see in the way that Columbus wrote about them the way that he was thinking about these people. So the movie goes out of its way to make Columbus into something of a humanitarian. And that was not the Columbus in real life in real life. Columbus’s first recorded thoughts about the people that he had found were, these people would be easy to conquer. And if all else failed, then they could be enslaved. And that could turn into a product enjoyable way to make these voyages profitable. And he actually says, very early on in a letter that he wrote that, you know, well, the people of the Canary Islands in the West Africans, they died in shipment too early on, but now look, they survived just fine, and we make money off of them. So this kind of way of thinking about people as as profit centers is very deeply wired into Columbus’s way of thinking it’s, it’s deeply wired into, into the kind of maritime culture that he comes from. And from the very beginning, that’s how he’s thinking about this new world that he’s found and about the people that he’s found. It’s notable that Genoa where Columbus was from was one of the few places where slavery was was really big business and was practiced openly in Western Europe. The agenda we use were accomplished slave traders. That was a significant part of the the maritime economy of Genoa was trading in slaves and it had been for a few centuries, they were quintessential middlemen, they did a lot of trading and slaves between the the Black Sea area and and the Muslim Mediterranean. That was part of the world that Columbus had come up in. And so it was pretty natural. When he arrived for him to start thinking in those terms. I think, if there’s a disservice the movie does to popular history, I think it’s that it does not treat Columbus’s it does not provide an accurate representation of how Columbus viewed the natives. Like from the very beginning, Columbus was ready to ready to do whatever in order to make the voyage profitable.


Dan LeFebvre  24:37

He had the impression that I got was during that first expedition. Columbus wanted to be friendly with the natives because he didn’t have enough men. Like basically he thought that, you know, if we were to go to war with them, then we will be overrun. And so, according to movie he stays for like seven months and then he returns to Spain. But then when he does return There are, I believe, 39 volunteers that elect to stay behind and build a fort. Is that how the first expedition ended?


Patrick Wyman  25:08

It was not quite that long. So the movie kind of stretches out the period of time of the of the first expedition, they were only there for a few months before returning, they got back in, I want to say march of 1493. So it was only a few months that they were actually there. A lot of that was time spent in transit, especially over the last few weeks that they had a rough return voyage. But yeah, Columbus did leave some guys behind. And that’s in large part because the Santa Maria that had the largest of his ships was no longer seaworthy for the return voyage. So it would have been really tough to pack long enough supplies in those two smaller ships to be able to take them. Okay, so


Dan LeFebvre  25:45

it was less volunteering. It was more, you’ve been chosen to volunteer, because there’s no room for you. Yeah, you’re


Patrick Wyman  25:51

gonna be sticking around, you’re gonna be sticking around here. I mean, it’s nice. It’s nice.


Dan LeFebvre  25:58

When they dig it back, we see we see them in Spain, we see Columbus presenting a bunch of items from the expedition, you know, like birds and tobacco, introducing tobacco and even some of the the tribesmen that movie never really mentioned, but I’m going to assume they didn’t have a lot of say in whether or not they could go back or not. And then there’s some gold, of course, not a lot of gold, but there’s enough gold there that you know, he can present it. What was the reaction to Columbus’s return?


Patrick Wyman  26:27

This is one of the things I think the movie gets, right? Not so much in a not so much in the actual sequence of events, because Columbus actually ends up in Portugal first and very nearly gets detained by the king of Portugal. He said a whole bunch of he said a whole bunch of really inflammatory things to the king of Portugal and almost got himself arrested. Very on brand for Columbus very on brand stuff. But when he arrives in Lisbon, not in Spain, Columbus writes a letter. And he writes a letter that he sends ahead to the Spanish court to the financier sometimes Yo, and this this is, what this is what makes Columbus famous is this letter gets printed, and reprinted and reprinted and reprinted by all of the new printing presses that are popping up in Europe around this time. And so the word gets out. And people get really excited about this, because people in Western Europe were interested in kind of new discoveries and new things they weren’t they were conditioned by the discovery of the Canaries, by these voyages down the West African coast by word of what the Portuguese were doing, rounding the Cape of Good Hope. There was a kind of an interest in, you know, expanding horizons. And the medium for getting that word out existed in the form of the printing press. So word spread really quickly, Columbus became famous, well known. And the upshot of that was that when it came time for Columbus’s second voyage, money poured it, instead of having to kind of scrimp and scrape for the funds to put this voyage on, they were ready to put commercial muscle behind it. And that’s more or less what happened. These profit oriented merchant investors saw that there was a potential for profit there and they’re like, well, we want to be first. It’s like, it’s like venture capitalists jumping into jumping into a new tech company. They were like, okay, we see the potential for returns for returns here. If we pour some money into this, then we’ve got a good chance of getting our money back.


Dan LeFebvre  28:17

Yeah, in the movie, the the second expedition is so much so much larger next 17 ships carrying 1500 manual blacksmiths and carpenters, and farmers and miners. We even see Columbus, maybe somewhat controversially, according to the movie, adding his own two brothers, giving them important titles of the islands. How well did the movie do showing the scale of that second expedition?


Patrick Wyman  28:41

It was perfect. That was exactly what the second expedition was. And, and I think we have to really understand it in a commercial context that this is a commercial enterprise, the first word was a commercial enterprise. And the idea was, okay, we found this new, basically set of commercial opportunities here, we’re going to want to rush to exploit that as soon as possible. The same thing happens when the first Portuguese voyage goes to India, they leave, they come back. And the second voyage is launched almost immediately. And it’s many, many, many times as large because these were all profit oriented commercial investors who saw Okay, this is what we can get for this. This is what the possibilities are, we’re willing to sink the funds, we’re willing to risk the funds. And there’s this whole, like culture, I think you could say, of mercantile investment. And it really is a lot like venture capitalists. Today in working in Silicon Valley there, it’s like, these are people who are right on the cutting edge of things that are happening. They’re looking for commercial opportunities. They’re smart, they have money to spend, they understand kind of the the economic structures and market structures and incentives that go along with this. And so when they see it a possible edge, they’re willing to pour money into it significant sums of money because the second expedition, I mean, the amount of money that they spent on Columbus, a second expedition could have funded a small army for a military campaign. That’s a really significant use of resources at that point, not like his first expedition, which was practically nothing.


Dan LeFebvre  30:04

So even then, at that point after the after the first expedition, did they? Did they recognize the scale of what had been discovered? Or did they still think that it was almost the outskirts of China that they had discovered at that point?


Patrick Wyman  30:17

opinions differed on what exactly it was that Columbus had found. Some people thought it was Asia, he himself was heavily incentivized to believe it was Asia, because that’s where the commercial opportunities were. But to give medieval European people some some credit, there had been hypotheses that there was another continent. On the other side of the Atlantic, in between Europe and Asia, people had thought that for a long time, they called it the Antiquities. And so a lot of people when Columbus finds this new land, we’re thinking, Oh, yeah, of course, like there’s there’s good this is just the Antiquities, this is an Asia, this is an Asia at all, particularly those who had actually gotten the size of the world, right, who understood how far Columbus had traveled and thought, well, they can’t be kind of made it to Asia, Columbus would go to his deathbed, thinking that he had made it to Asia, and and insisting that he had made it to Asia. But I would say, by his third voyage, it was pretty clear that that’s not where they were, if not, by the second, and again, from the very beginning, a lot of people thought, Well, okay, he’s in the activities. Okay. Yeah. Well,


Dan LeFebvre  31:20

what you mentioned there about having a financial motivation to think it’s, I think it’s something and of course, if you’re wanting to do more expeditions, you’re going to need finance ears, and so that’s gonna drive what you’re telling them.


Patrick Wyman  31:34

Exactly. Yeah. And, and the second expedition was, was a money loser, you know, like, the second expedition did not make back its money. And you can see, that’s why they turned fairly quickly to kind of increasingly brutal forms of exploitation, to slave trading to, you know, kind of whatever they can, whatever they could come up with, because that’s what they were incentivized to do. They that these were, you know, it’s like they had to make their money back somehow. And the ways that they knew how to make their money back involved making people search for gold, selling people in selling people into slavery, they were used to thinking of people as profit centers, to be driven or enslaved or kind of otherwise commodified. And that’s exactly what the Spanish dead.


Dan LeFebvre  32:16

Well, when we do see the second expedition land in the movie, the men that were left behind to build the fort, we find, essentially, the charred remains of the fort, the remains of the men there. And immediately, suspicion falls on the tribes. But they claimed they didn’t do it, despite not believing them. Columbus, as you think you use the term earlier humanitarian, he kind of puts forward this this vibe of, there’s not going to be any retaliation, we want to keep everything peaceful. How much of that actually happened?


Patrick Wyman  32:47

I think the movie gives Columbus maybe a little too much credit, as far as that’s concerned. But yeah, I mean, it did not take very long for the relationship to sour. And I think you have to, you have to view that in light of where the Spanish were coming from, they were coming out of this long war, this long period of defining themselves in relation to external enemies. And that had created this very distinctive sense of what it meant to be Spanish, of what it meant to be a what it meant to belong to that society. So this is the kind of the baggage that they’re carrying with them, like they’re not a blank slate, when they show up in the new world, they have ways of doing things, ways of thinking about people, ways of thinking about the opportunities that are available to them, ways of organizing themselves with newly conquered people, that they just transplant directly from the conflicts they’re coming out of into the new world. This is like, I mean, it’s like these are the blueprints that they’ve shown up. So what what I think the movie gets, right. What I think where I think it’s accurate is it captures that turn very quickly that it would have taken a kind of a Herculean effort, to not let those things define their relationship with the natives of the New World. And nobody was willing to put in that effort Least of all, Columbus.


Dan LeFebvre  34:04

In the movie, one of the guys who barks this violence, there’s a Spanish nobleman named moxa. And he cuts off the hammer tribesmen you mentioned, you know, having them search for gold, they’re searching for gold, somebody didn’t find any gold that day. And so he cuts off his hand and Columbus is appalled at this. But then this leads to bloody conflict between the tribes and the Spanish. How well did the movie do showing the events that were leading up to this violence?


Patrick Wyman  34:34

It takes a lot of liberties and license with the actual sequence of events, but I think it gets the broad outlines more or less correct that very, it did not take very long for the Spanish to transplant these ways of thinking about labor and then being owed labor into the new world. It’s eventually called the encomienda system, but basically it involves, you know, Spanish nobles, or a Spanish kind of holders of a lease on a land or, or control over a group of people being granted the right to their labor. So this is and they just kind of transplant this system from the old world to the new. And along with that all of the ideas about what they’re owed by these people leavened with their kind of cultural otherness and religious otherness. So not only do we get to tell them what to do, they’re not like


Dan LeFebvre  35:25

us, almost like they’re not even human.


Patrick Wyman  35:28

Yeah, I mean, and even if so, when you look at kind of like highfalutin intellectual texts of this period of time, they’re like, Oh, no, of course, these people are human, of course, the you know, they’re just in there, they just await the Word of God, so on and so forth. In the reality of it was that, that your, your average person who’s being put into this situation would not have thought of them as being human in the same way. Because they didn’t think of Muslims as being human in the same way or even necessarily of peasants, if you’re talking about a nobleman of being human in the same way, exploitation is exploitation and hierarchy are built into this worldview. And so this was when I talk about baggage, this is the baggage that they’re taking with them, it would not have occurred to a Spanish nobleman that even a common soldier was the same kind of person that he was, were deserving of the same kind of treatment or respect, there was this was not an egalitarian world. By nature, it was a hierarchical world. And so that becomes part of what they take with them into the new world, as they’re, as they’re building this kind of a new society, like, it’s not a blank slate, all of this stuff is that these are the blueprint, these are the cultural, social, economic, political blueprints that they’ve brought with them.


Dan LeFebvre  36:44

Because that they are actually in the first expedition. But Columbus was talking with one of the leaders, the village leaders or something like that. And he was like, you know, I’m gonna come back with with a bunch of people, and I’m gonna bring back God, and the guy was like, I already have a god. Like, I already have medicine, I already have a god, I don’t need, I don’t need these things. And, you know, and you just saw the look on Columbus’s face of like, this is what we’re here to bring, we’re here to bring you to this just didn’t seem to understand.


Patrick Wyman  37:16

Yeah, and it wouldn’t, it just would not have occurred to Columbus to think in those terms, like the, this is not the same thing as like judging people by our own 21st century standards. But it’s like, they really did look at the world in significantly different ways. in Columbus, there’s, there’s a great book written by a scholar named Valerie Flint, that’s all about Columbus as kind of a medieval person, he has the background and the knowledge and the worldview of a late medieval person, because that’s what he was, he was a late medieval person. And so were all the people who went with them. They were a product of the 15th century. And so like, we don’t have to impose our own kind of moral or ethical standards to understand that like, Oh, yeah, know that they were not especially concerned about the well being of these of these natives, even if on paper, they were supposed to be like that was that was written into kind of their charter documents and contracts was they were supposed to, you know, treat these people well, when they’re supposed to be converted, and so on and so forth. But, you know, when the rubber met the road, it’s like, is the voyage going to be profitable or not? That was of a much greater concern to literally everybody, including the Spanish crown than it was, then was there a kind of spiritual or physical wellbeing?


Dan LeFebvre  38:30

Well, I have a feeling my next question, I already know the answer to it based on what you’ve been saying. But the way that the movie kind of comes to a head, it portrays this this conflict between Monica and Columbus. And it’s super easy to walk away from the movie, assuming that Columbus is the good guy, he just wanted peace. And Moscow was the one who ruined it all when he when he cut off the guy’s hand and basically was overly cruel and violent. Is there any truth to this portrayal of Columbus being the good guy, and Mexico or somebody else, just being this bad guy that we see in the movie?


Patrick Wyman  39:06

I think what the movie does, and it’s a very like Ridley Scott thing to do in a movie, is to just like personify all the bad stuff about a society or a culture and a single in a single person. And to make that person, the antagonist. The end that’s like, you know, and it’s a great storytelling technique. It’s great for you structurally, if you’re making a movie because it gives you your antagonist. Right? It gives you It gives you the, you know, it gives you the mirror against which to compare your protagonists. In reality, Columbus was just as much a product of that kind of world and that kind of worldview as everybody else on his expedition was. That’s not to say that there weren’t dissenting voices. There were people who were like, horrified from the very beginning, what the what was happening, but Columbus was not really one of them. Columbus’s, you know, he’s offering, he’s offering women to his native women to other people in the expedition. He’s perfectly willing to engage in violence against them. Where Columbus really gets into trouble. And this is like the movie kind of makes it out to be like, oh, Columbus has been done dirty by the people who don’t like him on the expedition. As far as we can tell, though, Columbus really did go kind of power mad and crazy. After not too long of having been Governor General of the Indies, that he was he was mistreating his crew members, he was mistreating the colonists is mistreating the natives. And so he does eventually get sent back to Spain in chains to answer for trip by his choice. They were perfectly happy to not have him in chains. Columbus wanted to be in chains, which says a lot about Columbus. Columbus grew kind of increasingly messianic. As time went on and got into these Lake, even for the time what were thought to be somewhat excessive spiritual devotions like he has, like he has a he talks about having had a vision and kind of a mystical experience on one of his later voyages, and his crew members just think he’s lost it. So you can kind of see Columbus slipping. And there are a bunch of different ways to interpret this. But I think it’s basically like he’s in over his head. He’s being asked to manage a lot of people. He’s never been good at managing people, because that’s not what he’s good at. He’s not like, he’s not like an organizational kind of guy. He’s, he’s a navigator. And he’s kind of a promoter, a self promoter, above all, and those are not skill sets that mesh really well with having to build a new society with having to understand the incentives of now hundreds of people who are working under you, that’s just not stuff Columbus was, was really prepared or equipped to do either, you know, in terms of his skill sets, or probably his personality either.


Dan LeFebvre  41:39

That’s it That’s interesting that he chose to be in chains. That’s kind of surprising.


Patrick Wyman  41:44

Yeah, yeah. Well, he thought that he had been done wrong. And he added that he hadn’t misstepped at all. And so he’s like, look at me, I’m righteous. I’ve been put in chains. I’m putting myself in chains to show the unfairness of this situation. So when he got back to Spain, they would think, like, there’s a lot of like, kind of cultural parallels for the kind of martyred figure being in chains. And that’s what Columbus was playing on.


Dan LeFebvre  42:09

Okay, yeah. So playing more of a martyr. Okay, okay. Well, at the end of the movie, we do see that things kind of fall apart for him. He’s replaced by the new Viceroy of the Indies, San Francisco, Baba dia. Then in January of 1501, he’s imprisoned, although he does get released and goes back for one more voyage. And we see in the University of Salamanca, they’re now teaching that the man who found the new world was a different Italian Explorer. That will be America, Vespucci. And according to movie, he’s the one that discovered the mainland, while Columbus only discovered the islands. And so that’s why we have America, right base based on that. And then at the very end of the movie, we find out that it was the biography that his son wrote, as the movie puts it, quote, gave Columbus his rightful place in history. How well does the movie do showing the end of Christopher Columbus, his story,


Patrick Wyman  43:04

Columbus, his end is, depending on if you see Columbus as a hero, then his end is a tragic one. Right? Like he’s, he’s dies, impoverished. He dies kind of forgotten. Now, what’s interesting is his kids, his sons spend a lot of time in litigation with the Spanish crown about what they’re owed. And they actually win the lawsuits. They’re called the Plato’s column of column Venus or Plato’s colombiana. But so they eventually win these lawsuits. And so by virtue of that his sons become wealthy, because they’re, they’re granted, not everything Columbus had been promised. But basically, they’re they’re given enough money, enough resources, to be able to live kind of the lives of leisure gentlemen, which, ironically, is what Columbus had wanted for his sons all along, he had wanted them to become nobility. And they more or less became nobility as a result of these lawsuits down the road. So one of his sons compiles like this incredible library, that is still the still kind of famous today. But so in terms of whether Columbus was forgotten or not, or written out, I think that Columbus, Columbus becomes really important, again, to this story in the 19th century, and the early 20th century, for reasons that are very much of the 19th and the 20th century. And in large part because people wanted to personify the story of exploration. They wanted to have figures to hang on to they wanted, if not heroes, at least protagonists, and Columbus for a lot of reasons that were relevant in the 19th and 20th century fit that bill. So one of the things that I mean, I’ve tried to emphasize in our discussion and something that I talk about a lot in my book, The Verge is Columbus was very much of his time and of his place. There were a lot of people who were doing things like Columbus was doing. He was not the only person who had thought of sailing West he was not the only person who knew how to organize a voyage like this. And so if Columbus was eventually, if not forgotten, at least, like not as exalted as he be, as he has become in the more recent past, it was because I think people understood that there were a lot of folks who were doing this stuff. America, Vespucci is interesting. At one point, he had actually been in the delicate words of the historian who wrote the recent book about him a procure of women, he was a pimp, before he became an A well known Explorer. So these are, this is a world that’s kind of full of colorful characters and people who were out doing stuff and who, who are experienced navigators were living in that world. Columbus is one of them. There are things about Columbus that are extraordinary, like the depth and breadth of his knowledge is kind of a practical sailor, is pretty wild, even in the context of the time. But in terms of his attitudes, his background, you know, his social climbing, all of that stuff is very kind of standard. And so when we’re talking about Columbus, his place in history and how he’s remembered, do we see Columbus? Do we want to see Columbus as exceptional? Or do we want to see him as representative? And I think that’s kind of the real question, we have to ask ourselves, I tend to see him as representative. If you’re making a movie about him, you want him to be exceptional? Because that’s because, you know, an exceptional protagonist is much more compelling than one who’s just kind of like bog standard.


Dan LeFebvre  46:26

What was there anything from history that you wish had been in the movie but wasn’t in there?


Patrick Wyman  46:30

That’s a really good question. Um, I think Columbus’s like late career meltdown. So he spends a lot of time having visions and hearing and hearing voices that he interprets as he interprets. This is kind of a mystical experience. And his sailors just think he’s crazy. They just think he’s lost it. And I think that’s, that’s kind of the point where you can see that Columbus is not cut out for the job of managing all of these folks like this is already after he’s more or less lost control. And he’s already he’s already on the outs. But like, you can see he’s kind of snapped. And that so Columbus, Columbus isn’t really a martyr to his own cause. So much as he is somebody who was tried and found wanting, he reached as high as he possibly could. And then he failed. It was probably for the best that he was replaced by other people, even if the consequences were no less horrifying. In the in both the short and the long run. Columbus was not up to the task.


Dan LeFebvre  47:30

Thank you so much for coming on to chat about 1492 conquest paradise, you have a new book that if you’re listening to this today, it was just published today called The Verge, reformation Renaissance and 40 years that shook the world. What we talked about today with Christopher Columbus is really just chapter one, because you cover for 1492 1530. So for someone listening to this, who wants to learn more about what happened after Columbus, can you give an overview of your book and where they can get a copy?


Patrick Wyman  47:55

Yeah, absolutely. So my book covers what I think are the major developments of this period of time, a lot of stuff happens in a very short period of time. It’s why I think this, this period is interesting. You get the reformation, you get these huge, this outbreak of huge wars in Western Europe, you get rising states, you get bankers, you get the emergence of the Ottoman Empire kind of encroaching on the western Europe. And you’re left with this paradox, which is that you have guys like Columbus, who I think are not truly extraordinary. And yet, they’re laying the groundwork for the eventual emergence of Western Europe as the global hinge. Right as the kind of the global core. I think that that transition happens in this period. And it happens because of bog standard guys like Christopher Columbus who are the product of a very specific point in time. So voyages of exploration, I think, are really interesting, because they’re a manifestation of the interesting stuff that was happening there. Like in terms of the way that you could finance things this need to get out of Western Europe because Western Europe didn’t have anything that was worth having. Like there’s there’s a reason why it’s Christopher Columbus going outward. And it’s not down from the Indian Ocean or junks from China coming to Western Europe because there’s nothing worth sailing around the Cape of Good Hope to get in Europe like they got Okay, we got nice wool textiles. All right. Okay, that’s great. Fantastic. We’re very happy for your for you and your wool textiles. So it’s interesting that there’s there’s this way in which Western Europe is a backwater, which is why voyages of exploration are going out. But it’s also already home to these very specific sets of developments and institutions and ways of thinking about and organizing activity that become really, really, really important down the road. And that’s what the verge is about. So, voyages of exploration are just the tip of the iceberg. Do you see the same thing with regard to gunpowder warfare with regard to religious turmoil, printing presses, even something as simple as wool trading, you can already see the outlines of this future down the road and that’s what the book is about.


Dan LeFebvre  49:57

Thank you again, so much for your time, Patrick.


Patrick Wyman  50:01


Thank you, I appreciate it.



Latest episode