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HERNANDO COLUMBUS, HIS FATHER’S SON. The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books – Edward Wilson-Lee.

“Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you will return.”

Young Columbus and the Quest for a Universal Library.

Hernando’s travels in the realm of knowledge and the new routes he pioneered through it were in a very real sense akin to what his father had achieved.

To reconstruct Hernando’s life from his books is to find him present at many of the most significant events of the age of Renaissance, Reformation and exploration.

The fascinating history of Christopher Columbus’s illegitimate son Hernando, guardian of his father’s flame, courtier, bibliophile and catalogue supreme, whose travels took him to the heart of 16th century Europe.

This is the scarcely believable and wholly true story of Christopher Columbus’ bastard son Hernando, who sought to equal and surpass his father’s achievements by creating a universal library. His father sailed across the ocean to explore the known boundaries of the world for the glory of God, Spain and himself. His son Hernando sought instead to harness the vast powers of the new printing presses to assemble the world’s knowledge in one place, his library in Seville.

Hernando was one of the first and greatest visionaries of the print age, someone who saw how the scale of available information would entirely change the landscape of thought and society.

His was an immensely eventful life. As a youth, he spent years travelling in the New World, and spent one living with his father in a shipwreck off Jamaica. He created a dictionary and a geographical encyclopaedia of Spain, helped to create the first modern maps of the world, spent time in almost every major European capital, and associated with many of the great people of his day, from Ferdinand and Isabel to Erasmus, Thomas More, and Dürer. He wrote the first biography of his father, almost single-handedly creating the legend of Columbus that held sway for many hundreds of years, and was highly influential in crafting how Europe saw the world his father reached in 1492. He also amassed the largest collection of printed images and of printed music of the age, started what was perhaps Europe’s first botanical garden, and created by far the greatest private library Europe had ever seen, dwarfing with its 15,000 books every other library of the day.

Edward Wilson-Lee has written the first major modern biography of Hernando, and the first of any kind available in English. In a work of dazzling scholarship, The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books tells an enthralling tale of the age of print and exploration, a story with striking lessons for our own modern experiences of information revolution and Globalisation.

Seville, Spain, 12 July 1539

On the morning of his death, Hernando Colén called for a bowl of dirt to be brought to him in bed. He told his servants that he was too weak to raise his arms and instructed them to rub the soil on his face. While many of them had been with him for a decade or more and were intensely loyal, they refused on this occasion to obey his orders, thinking he must finally have taken leave of his senses.

Hernando mustered the strength he needed and reached into the bowl by himself, smearing his face with the silt of the Guadalquivir, the river that meandered through Seville and held his house in the crook of its arm. As he painted himself with mud, Hernando spoke some words in Latin that began to make sense of this performance for those who had gathered at his side: remember that you are dust, he said, and unto dust you will return.

On the opposite bank of the river, Hernando’s father Christopher Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea had recently been raised from the same soil, from a grave in which he had lain for thirty years. If Hernando’s word is to be believed (and for many things in Columbus’ life we have only Hernando’s word) the men who opened his tomb may have been surprised to find, along with the explorer’s bones, a pile of chains. These chains were a link to a moment in Hernando’s past, when at twelve years old his mostly absent father appeared bound in them, returning as a prisoner from the paradise he looked upon as his discovery and his gift to Spain.

The meaning of the great explorer’s grave-goods, of these chains that he wished to be placed with him in his tomb, was something Hernando only divulged late in life, when he came to write his father’s story. But the dust with which he painted himself on the morning of his death would have made sense to all around him: it was a symbol of abject humility, humility he knew he could afford to vaunt because there was no doubt he had achieved something extraordinary. Hernando, the man who was welcoming his impending decay with open arms, had built an engine capable of withstanding for ever the onslaught of time. He died shortly after this performance, at eight o’clock in the morning.

An hour later the next act in Hernando’s strange death pageant began. Those closest to him had gathered at his house for the reading of his will, reaching his Italianate villa by the river by passing through the Puerta de Goles (‘Hercules Gate’) and the garden of unknown plants. Hernando had an extraordinary memory, an obsession with lists, and a delicate conscience, so his will tabulated in minute detail the people to whom he felt he owed something, right down to a mule-driver whom he had shortchanged nearly two decades previously.

But after the tables of his conscience had been cleared, his testament moved on to its great crescendo, a declaration all but incomprehensible to his time. The main heir to his fortune was not a person at all, but rather his marvellous creation, his library. As this was the first time in living memory that someone in Europe had left their worldly wealth to a group of books, the act itself must have been somewhat confusing; but it was even harder to make sense of given the form of the library in question. Most of Hernando’s books were not like the precious manuscripts treasured by the great libraries of the day venerated tomes of theology, philosophy and law, books that were often sumptuously bound to reflect the great value placed upon them. Instead, much of Hernando’s collection consisted of books by authors of no fame or reputation, flimsy pamphlets, ballads printed on a single page and designed for pasting on tavern walls, and other such things that would have seemed just so much trash to many of his contemporaries.

To some eyes, the great explorer’s son had left a legacy of rubbish. Yet to Hernando these things were priceless because they brought him closer to the goal of a library that would collect everything, to become universal in a sense never before imagined. It was not even clear where this strange and multifarious collection began and ended: in addition to all these written works, there were chests and chests of printed images the largest collection ever gathered and more printed music than had ever been brought together before. As some accounts would have it, even the garden outside had begun to collect the plant life of the world and arrange it in its beds. There was, however, no word yet for such a botanical garden.

Visitors to the library would have been greeted by the strangest of sights. The scale of the collection must surely have been impressive, by far the largest private library of the day, blurring the vision as the number of individual items expanded beyond what could be taken in at a glance. Contributing to this disorientation, they might have noticed next that the walls of the library had disappeared. In their place were row upon row of books standing upright on their spines, stacked in this new vertical way in specially designed wooden cases. To the modern viewer these kinds of bookshelves are so familiar as to escape notice, but visitors to the library were encountering these as the first of their kind.

This was just one of many elements in Hernando’s fabulous library design that defied explanation, beginning with the inscription at the entrance proudly declaring the edifice was founded on shit. Inside the library, the baffling marvels multiplied: the bookless cages in which readers were supposed to sit, the chests full of volumes that should be turned over two or three times a year but were not for reading, the bookshop of useless titles.

Then there was the army of paid readers, and the fiendishly complex system of security and surveillance. Most mysterious of all, perhaps, was the master blueprint for the library, which lay in pieces: more than ten thousand scraps of paper, to be precise, each bearing a different hieroglyphic symbol. Each of the myriad ways these pieces could be put together suggested a different path through the library.

It was possible to puzzle out some elements of the design by simple logic: the creation of the bookshelves, for instance, had been a matter of necessity. While previous collections, with hundreds or a few thousand volumes, might be stacked on tables or in chests and could be found at will by a librarian of good memory, a library on the scale of Hernando’s would have overwhelmed even the most capacious of human minds and quickly overflowed from most rooms. The new bookshelves took very little space from any room and displaced the weight of the books on to the walls behind them. They formed orderly ranks, so that their call-numbers could be read from left to right, in a sequence like a line of text; storing the books vertically also meant each one could be removed easily, unlike the horizontal stacks where removing the bottom book would make those above topple.

But here the logic of the library-explorer may have broken down. What did the line of text, made up of the titles of the books in sequence, actually say? How was the wanderer in the library to navigate their way through this world of books? As anyone who has ambled through a library will know, order is everything. The ways in which books can be organised multiplies rapidly as the collection grows, and each shows the universe in a slightly different light. Order the books alphabetically by author and the wanderer will find all of the Pérezes and the Patels together, whether or not their books share anything else. Ordering by size will save space by fitting books of the same height into snug shelves, but this puts pocket novels in the same place as prayer books.

The wanderer in the library is lost without the order that catalogues and shelving systems create; Hernando referred to such unmapped collections as ‘dead’. But even with a map the wanderer is stuck with the order given to them by the librarian, unable to go through the collection in any other way, especially in a book-hoard flooded as Hernando’s was with the kind of cheap print previously excluded from these civilised spaces.

Breaking old paradigms, whether by discovering a new continent or by allowing a new universe of information into the decorous space of the library, was useless or even dangerous unless there was a new paradigm to take its place, a new vision of what these expanded worlds meant. Without this those who had once felt at home in the world would simply be stranded in a pathless sea of information. As a solution, Hernando’s library aimed not simply to be universal but to provide a set of propositions about how that universe fit together. Some of these propositions could be found in the books kept at the centre of the library, colour-coded in leather that was black, red or white, or embossed which contained his catalogues (including the enchanting and mysteriously named Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books) while others can only be pieced together from the ten thousand pieces of the final map to the collection, with their hieroglyphic signs.

But not everything in the library fitted on to the shelves or could be put in the catalogues. Hernando’s will left strict instructions that as soon as both of his executors were together, they were to open in each other’s presence a chest containing his personal papers. An inventory of these survives, though now worm-eaten and delicate as a form left in ash. Among other things, it lists

designs for a house

ballads for singing

recipes for medicine

a catalogue of plants and gardens

the case of Doha Isabel de Gamboa

the art of making nautical maps

a book of the travels of the emperor

plans for the conquest of Persia and Arabia

a system of charity for the poor

a verse life of Columbus

a poetical treatise

certain geographical writings on Spain

a dictionary

a dialogue between Goodwill, Power and Justice

a ledger of Columbus’ writings

certain papers on the de Arana family

Most of the hundred-odd entries in the inventory are illegible, but the parts that can be deciphered begin to give some sense of the myriad adventures of Hernando’s extraordinary mind. Some of these works by Hernando survive the immense dictionary he compiled by hand, the geographical encyclopedia he began on a personal tour around the whole of Spain, but many are lost entirely. The list, moreover, is not complete, and omits many of the things in which he played a part, including the maps he helped create, some of which changed the shape of the known world. Some of his works were likely not listed because they were no longer in his possession at the time of his death.

Among those writings mysteriously missing from this list is perhaps the most famous document of all: the biography of Columbus which was printed, in Italian translation, under Hernando’s name in Venice three decades after his death. To this Life and Deeds of the Admiral we owe much of what we know about the great explorer, including the details of his early life and many of his voyages, especially the fourth voyage, the part of Columbus’ life we know most richly and intimately because Hernando was there as an eyewitness.

Though Hernando was not quite eighteen when his father died, he had the kind of intense knowledge of him that no one else could possibly have not only as his son, but as someone who had lived with him, in a confined space and facing death, for more than a year in a strange land. The fact that the Life was not mentioned among Hernando’s papers, and the curious circumstances surrounding its appearance in Italy long after his death, has led to endless controversies. The original Spanish version of this work has never been found, so we are entirely reliant on the Italian translation. Various theories emerged, many proposing a forgery undertaken in Hernando’s name, a conspiracy to falsify the life of one of history’s greatest figures.

But the missing pieces of this puzzle were waiting to be found in the labyrinthine remnants of Hernando’s library. Somewhat over four thousand titles today form the Biblioteca Colombina, housed in a wing of Seville Cathedral, all silence and spotless marble like a mausoleum. These are only a fraction of the books that made up this once immense library, but this fraction along with the map of the original collections that survives in the catalogues is more than enough to reconstruct the life of an extraordinary man in resplendent detail, detail almost unthinkable for most people who lived in his time. This is because Hernando’s books contain within their covers not just an exquisitely detailed map of the Renaissance world, but also a map of his life. In every book he bought, Hernando recorded the date and place of its acquisition and how much it cost, often also noting where and when he read it, if he met with the author, or from whom he received the book if it was a gift. He also responded in many cases to what the books said, though as will become apparent he had his own singular way of doing so. These many fragments, when pieced together, give an account of one of the most fascinating lives in a period filled with entrancing characters; of a man who not only saw more of the world and what it had to offer than almost any of his contemporaries, but also one whose insights into this changing world were astonishingly prescient.

To reconstruct Hernando’s life from his books is to find him present at many of the most significant events of the age of Renaissance, Reformation and exploration. But Hernando’s view of these events is rather like one of the deceptive, ‘anamorphic’ paintings of which the age was so fond, in which a picture viewed from another angle reveals something entirely different. This is in part because Hernando’s mind moved ceaselessly from event to system, from a single thing to a general framework into which it could be fitted. This will quickly become clear in the story of his life, for while most biographies start with a list of documents about their subject that need to be set in order, many of the documents through which we know about Hernando are themselves lists: catalogues, encyclopedias, inventories, logbooks, which he compiled obsessively and compulsively. We should not be deceived by the staid and impersonal appearance of these lists, documents which at first seem all fact and no interpretation. To the trained eye, each contains a story: how the list-maker imagines the place for which they have packed the items, their way of seeing the world that lies behind a particular kind of ordering, the secrets being hidden by omissions from the list.

If Hernando attempted to bring order to his rapidly expanding world by reducing it to catalogue entries and finding ways of organising these lists that seemed logical, he was far from immune to distorting influences, distortions that can be traced to the core of his being. Much of his life can be explained by his desire to become worthy of, perhaps even equal to, the father he worshipped, though this was a father whom he in a sense created, as he slowly and deliberately shaped our collective memory of Columbus into the man known today.

In death and in life, many of Hernando’s actions were in conversation with the father he last saw in his youth, but whose voice he continued to hear and record long after. Their relationship, both before and after the explorer’s death, was inevitably affected by the fact that Hernando was not the product of a legitimate union, he was, in the delicate Spanish phrase, a natural son. Although Columbus never paid this distinction much mind, the circumstances of his birth meant Hernando could win legitimacy only by showing himself to be his father’s son in spirit. Hernando’s travels in the realm of knowledge and the new routes he pioneered through it were in a very real sense akin to what his father had achieved.

For all that he died nearly five centuries ago, Hernando’s discovery of his world bears striking, sometimes uncanny, resemblance to the one we are collectively discovering every day. Perhaps no one has been as helpless in the face of information as those who have lived through the beginning of the twenty-first century: the digital revolution has increased the amount of available information exponentially, and as a result we are wholly reliant on the search algorithms developed to navigate it, tools whose modes of ordering and ranking and categorising are quickly remaking our lives. The invention of print was another such revolution, and the tools developed in response to it profoundly shaped the world until yesterday, during the age of print. The way of seeing things created by the print library has become so natural to us as to be all but invisible; we forget that its form is far from inevitable, that it was the product of specific decisions with immense consequences, consequences which our current age, sleepwalking into new ways of organising knowledge by search algorithms, seems likely to face on an even larger and more pervasive scale.

Allegory of the Transience of Life (ca. 1480-90), 33.3 x 22.6 cm, engraving printed on vellum. In the collection of the British Museum. This print by the anonymous fifteenth century engraver Master I. A. M. of Zwolle is one example of the early prints collected by Hernando Columbus.


Hernando was, in a sense, one of the first and greatest visionaries of the age of print. If his life has escaped the notice of previous generations, it was perhaps because the power of tools that order our reservoirs of information was not as obvious. To reconstruct his life is not only to recover a vision of the Renaissance age in unparalleled depth, but also to reflect upon the passions and intrigues that lie beneath our own attempts to bring order to the world.



1 Return from Ocean

Hernando Colén’s earliest recorded memory is characteristically precise. It was an hour before sunrise on Wednesday, the 25th of September 1493. He was standing next to his older half-brother, Diego, looking out at the harbour of Cadiz. Dancing on the water in front of him was a constellation of lamps, on and above the decks of seventeen ships about to weigh anchor, preparing to return to the islands in the west where their father had first made landfall less than a year before. Christopher Columbus was now the ‘Admiral of the Ocean Sea’ and was of sufficient fame that chroniclers took down each detail of the scene in front of the five-year-old Hernando.

The fleet was formed of a number of lighter craft from Cantabria in the north of Spain, vessels made with wooden joinery so as not to be weighed down with iron nails, as well as the slower but more durable caravels. On board the ships were thirteen hundred souls, including artisans of every sort and labourers to reap the miraculous and uninterrupted harvests of which Columbus had told, but also wellbred caballeros who went for adventure rather than work.

A favourable wind had begun to freshen, and as the dawn grew behind the city the dots of lamplight would slowly have been connected by the cabins and masts and riggings to which they were fixed. The scene and the mood were triumphant: tapestries hung from the sides of the ships and pennants fluttered from the braided cables, while the stems were draped in the royal ensigns of the Reyes Catélicos (Catholic Monarchs), Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, the great sovereigns whose marriage had united a fragmented Spain. The piercing fanfare of hautboys, bagpipes, trumpets and clarions was so loud, according to one observer, that the Sirens and the spirits of the water were astonished, and the seabed resounded with the cannonades. At the harbour mouth a Venetian convoy, returning from a trade mission to Britain, augmented the noise with their own gunpowder salutes, preparing to follow Columbus part of the way in the hope of learning something of his course.

It is unclear whether, in later life, Hernando could reach back beyond this earliest recorded memory to the rather different circumstances in which, earlier that year, his father had returned from his first voyage across the Atlantic. Columbus had arrived back in Europe with only one of the three vessels with which he had left Spain on 3 August 1492: his flagship Santa Maria had run aground off Hispaniola on Christmas Eve, and on the return voyage he had lost sight of the Pinta during a storm near the Azores. Thirty-nine of Columbus’ original crew of ninety or so had been left on the other side of the ocean, in the newly founded settlement of La Navidad in Hispaniola, a town built from the shipwrecked lumber of the Santa Maria with the assistance of the local king or cacique, Guacanagari, and named in honour of the Christmas Day on which it was founded.

Columbus’ skeleton crew for the return voyage had been reduced to just three men when the rest were taken prisoner by unfriendly islanders in the Azores, though he did eventually secure their release. And when the great explorer finally did reach Europe in the only ship remaining to him, the Nina, he was running under bare poles after another heavy storm had split the sails. To make matters worse, he had arrived back not in Spain but in Portugal, dragging his ship past the Rock of Sintra to take shelter under the Castle of Almada in Lisbon estuary, where he was treated with suspicion before eventually receiving a summons to make his report to King Joéo. Though later reports would focus on the crowds who covered the harbour in their skiffs, swarming to see the island natives whom Columbus had brought home as part of his plunder, Columbus’ royal audience was for all intents and purposes an imprisonment, and his release was in part prompted by Joéo’s doubts regarding the discoverer’s claims. Hernando’s written records of these early events would record the hardship but leave out much of the confusion of this first return, of the forlorn man and his outlandish claims.

Hernando’s early life was unusual, perhaps unprecedented because from the youngest age his personal recollections of his father would have contended with widely circulated written accounts of Columbus’ exploits. He may have been present at Cordoba in March when a letter was read aloud at the cathedral announcing his father’s discoveries, and he kept as central relics in his library several editions of the letter, printed first at Barcelona, through which the discoveries were announced to the world. Hernando’s later collecting was to place at the heart of his universal library precisely this kind of cheap print whose first rustlings could be heard in these reports on Columbus’ voyage. The letter that was to be the common reading matter of Europe was written by Columbus when he landed in Portugal, and the crowds of Jews embarking from Lisbon harbour for Fez in north Africa would have served as a reminder that his ocean crossing would be forced to compete for public attention.

The tumultuous course of recent events had reached a peak of intensity in the early months of 1492, when with the taking of Granada Ferdinand and Isabella finally completed the Reconquista, the capture of the Spanish peninsula from the Muslims who had ruled it (almost whole or in parts) for seven hundred years, a crusade which was cast as the righteous restoration of Christian rule. In an attempt to transform the small symbolic victory at Granada into a turning point in the ancient clash between the Abrahamic faiths, the Reyes Catolicos celebrated their military triumph by presenting the Jews in their dominions with an ultimatum: forced conversion or exile. This was only an escalation of a long-standing Spanish history of persecuting those of the Jewish faith, but it proved a decisive one. Despite the fact that the Jewish community had been established in Iberia even longer than the Muslims, and had been central to the flourishing of culture and society in Arabic Spain, many of them could not stomach the price of keeping their homes, which included agreeing that their sacred Talmud was merely a forgery designed to stop the onward march of the Christian faith. Those who chose to stay also faced the prospect of having their property confiscated by the likes of Tomas de Torquemada, the leader of the Inquisition set up in 1478, who would use this fortune to finance a golden age of Spanish art and exploration.

A great multitude prepared to leave, and in their number went many of the greatest intellectuals of fifteenth-century Spain. Forced, as one chronicler records, to sell their houses for a donkey and their vineyards for a little bread, they made the most of the disaster by casting it as a new Exodus, in which the Lord of Hosts would lead them in triumph to the Promised Land. Observing this pathetic scene did not restrain the same chronicler from accusing them of secretly taking much of the kingdom’s gold with them. The rabbis attempted to alleviate any feeling of desperation by having the women and children sing to the sounds of timbrels as they walked away from their homes. Though the Jews were given temporary asylum in Portugal, their safe haven there lasted only as long as Columbus’ first voyage, and when their paths crossed in Lisbon the Jews were on the move again, boarding ships bound for north Africa.

Even in his travel-worn state Columbus was quick to find a way for his own expedition to play a part in this grand historic narrative. His voyage west had, after all, been given royal sanction from the camp at Santa Fe outside the walls of Granada, at which Ferdinand and Isabella were celebrating the recent capitulation of the city’s last Muslim king, Boabdil, and from which they would also later issue the edict expelling the Jews. The letter he sent ahead to Barcelona from Portugal sang of the marvellous fertility of the islands he had found, in perpetual bloom, and the naked innocence of the native people, who were willing to part with the abundant gold of that region for a few trifles from the visitors they regarded as descended from heaven. If the Jews had a new Exodus, Columbus offered Christians a new Eden. The letter announced that even if the natives knew nothing of Castile or of Christ, they showed themselves miraculously ready to serve both. As a token of their part in an expanded Spanish empire, Columbus had renamed these islands as he took possession of them, so that they now reflected the hierarchy of Spanish power, from Christ the Saviour on down through the monarchs and royal children:

San Salvador

Santa Maria de la Concepción





In its final paragraph the letter makes clear what has been implicit in the preceding pages, namely, that these islands Columbus had encountered should be added to the list of famous victories achieved by the Catholic Monarchs, one which like the conquest of the Moorish kingdoms and the expulsion of the Jews would expand both the dominion of the Church and fill the coffers of Spain.

This letter, soon printed again in Latin at Rome and Basel, and accompanied by a picture showing one man guiding a ship towards an endless and fertile archipelago, was one of the central relics of Hernando’s childhood, at once cheap and priceless, flimsy and timeless, manufactured and intimate, widely distributed and intensely personal. Overwriting the native place names with Spanish ones was only one of the word-tricks by which this New World was transformed, tricks that included set speeches through which Columbus and others legally ‘took possession’ of the islands, even though these speeches meant nothing to the indigenous peoples listening to them.

The former names began to lose their authority, and often were soon lost altogether, as Spanish power came to seem natural in a place with so many Spanish names. For all the momentous consequences of their actions, Columbus and his crew often seemed little conscious of the power of this act of naming. As Hernando was later to record, the last named island, Hispaniola, was so called because they caught there the same fish available in Spain (grey mullet, bass, salmon, shad, dory, skate, corvinas, sardines, crayfish).

The power of Columbus’ names to change the world was often at odds with the casual way in which he chose them: to commemorate a particular event or an impression of the landscape, or, as here, because it brought back a memory of somewhere he had been before. One of the most powerful experiences for Columbus the explorer, and for the European audience of his feats, was the feeling of having found the familiar in an unexpected place, and around these familiar things the European imagination of the New World began to form.

. . .


The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books

by Edward Wilson-Lee

get it at Amazon.com