How Hernando Colón compiled the greatest private library in Europe

The untold story of Christopher Columbus’s bibliophile son.

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Being born the illegitimate son of Christopher Columbus was never going to be an easy legacy for poor Hernando Colón. The consequence of his father’s affair with a low-born Córdoban orphan, Hernando lived in the explorer’s shadow. He would spend most of his life trying to maintain Columbus’s legacy as the first discoverer of America, in the face of fierce opposition from various factions within the Spanish aristocracy who never fully embraced the Genoese pilot as one of their own.

Yet, as Edward Wilson-Lee argues, Hernando was far more than just a vehicle driving his father’s reputation. Without Hernando’s scholarly labours following Columbus’s ignominious death in 1506 from gout and arthritis, including the posthumous publication of the first biography of his father, The History of the Life and Deeds of the Admiral Don Christopher Columbus, much of our understanding of the great navigator would be lost.

As a precocious child, Hernando meticulously documented the Columbus family achievements and went on to become one of the great intellectual mediators of the early 16th century. In line with the Renaissance humanism of the time, he developed a classificatory obsession with books and pictures that saw him compile the greatest private library in Europe, consisting of some 15,000 books and more than 3,000 prints and drawings. He built Spain’s first botanical gardens in the grounds of his house in Seville (which also housed his vast library), from where he also compiled his monumental Description of Spain, containing more than 6,635 entries as well as some of the most detailed regional maps of the country of his time.

Yet Hernando was no armchair geographer. He travelled with his father on his fourth voyage to the Americas in 1502-04, experiencing a shipwreck and a bloody mutiny off Jamaica that brought father and son close to death. As Columbus’s heir, Hernando was established as part of the Spanish court, travelling extensively throughout Europe as it descended into the sectarian conflict of the Lutheran Reformation. From 1512 Hernando visited what Wilson-Lee calls “the main arteries of the Renaissance book trade” – Rome, Venice, Nuremberg, Cologne and London – buying up thousands of books that provided the foundation for his library. As he travelled, his path crossed that of some of the most important figures of the day, including Ferdinand and Isabella, Erasmus, Albrecht Dürer, and Thomas More (whose invented language in his Utopia provided Hernando with a model for the hieroglyphs he used to describe his own book collection).

Hernando’s intellectual and political horizons were also global. He led the Spanish diplomatic delegation that claimed the spice-producing Molucca islands following Magellan’s first circumnavigation of the globe (1519-22), and provided his paymaster, the emperor Charles V, with a truly global vision of his empire extending from North Africa to Peru and the Philippines.

However, rather like Hernando’s Life and Deeds of his father, Wilson-Lee’s book – the first modern biography of Hernando written in English – is far more than just a straight account of a life, albeit a rich one. As with Shakespeare, it is very hard to humanise Columbus, as both men have achieved an iconic status that transcends their lives.

Wilson-Lee, however, manages to recapture something of the father through the son as he dissects Hernando’s accounts of their relationship and adventures, from his earliest memories of Columbus’s return from his first transatlantic voyage in 1493, through the horrors of shipwreck and abandonment off Jamaica they suffered together in 1503, to his intellectual collusion as a teenager in Columbus’s increasingly messianic fantasies of having triggered the Second Coming with his discoveries. “The addition of an apocalyptic context to the life of a pubescent boy with a megalomaniac father,” notes Wilson-Lee in one of the book’s most moving sections, “can hardly have failed to affect him irreversibly.”

Nevertheless, by the time Hernando came to write his father’s life he was “a calm and methodical compiler of information”, sympathetic to the natives Columbus actually enslaved, someone who, Wilson-Lee notes, “looks a lot more like Hernando himself”, independent from his father. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that at the heart of this book by a Cambridge don is the library compiled by an ambitious 16th-century scholar trying to use his arcane education for more worldly ends. It is Hernando’s library, his methods of compiling and cataloguing it, and the loss of a significant part of it in a shipwreck in 1522 – listed by the indefatigable bibliophile as “The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books” – that really fascinates Wilson-Lee.

“It is one thing,” Hernando wrote to Charles V, “to build a library of those things found in our time: but entirely another, to order things in such a way that all new things are sought out and gathered forever.” Hernando’s was the first universal library, an attempt to collate and systemise all known knowledge, and Wilson-Lee revels in enumerating and sometimes getting lost in its contents.

As with the story of the Columbus legacy (for all his achievements, the great seaman was also accused of tyranny, incompetence and cruelty), not everything succeeds in this book. Other libraries can lay claim to universality before Hernando’s, and to suggest that it was “an extraordinary premonition of the world of the internet”, and that Life and Deeds  was “the first modern biography”, surely goes too far in celebrating a scholar whose collection of books drew little interest after his death in 1539 and quickly dwindled to just 4,000 volumes, most of which can still be consulted in Seville’s cathedral. What is particularly odd in a book that celebrates Hernando’s library is that its actual classification, organisation and display is only cursorily described in the penultimate chapter.

The attempt to write a biography of first Columbus, then Hernando and his library, as well as providing a capsule history of the age of discovery while also sketching Iberian and northern European international culture and politics under the Reformation, would have defeated most historians. Nevertheless, Wilson-Lee does a fine job of capturing the intellectual excitement of a moment in European history when universal aspirations in the fields of learning and travel seemed boundless, even as the possibility of one scholar unifying all knowledge became an obvious fallacy. He is also sanguine enough to appreciate that libraries are no longer sufficient in mapping the virtual information overload of the 21st century. 

Jerry Brotton is professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary, University of London, and author of “This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World” (Penguin)

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Young Columbus and the Quest for a Universal Library
Edward Wilson-Lee
William Collins, 401pp, £25

This article appears in the 08 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Nuclear Family