It’s 1502 and after being sent back to Spain in irons, Columbus wins his freedom and a last chance to find the riches of Asia. He has won and lost much in his service to Ferdinand and Isabella, the rulers of Spain. He has discovered how to cross the Atlantic, found previously unknown lands and peoples, and has founded a successful colony (Santa Domingo) that is still a major city today. But his misrule of this colony has led to his imprisonment and he still hasn’t found Asia. Columbus is almost worn out, his honors have been reduced, and he has made many enemies. He has one last chance to win it all back.
The Lost Voyage of Columbus is a well-balanced and informative documentary about Christopher Columbus’ fourth and last voyage to the New World. Columbus has had a rough journey as any ever endured on the high seas, and the History Channel does a very good job at explaining why. This show is an excellent introduction to Columbus and well worth watching.
Columbus was a fascinating person, and the contradictions of his character would in turn save and imperil his expeditions. One of the great sea captains of all time, he was an ineffective leader on land. He could charm the Spanish court, yet made deadly enemies of the Spanish settlers. He could befriend natives one day—then enslave them the next. He was a religious fanatic and a master of the science and technology of the day. Sign on with Columbus and you’d have as much adventure as you can handle.
Throughout the story of The Lost Voyage of Columbus, the History Channel does a thorough job of explaining just about everything at his disposal that Columbus used or encountered. A weapon master explains and demonstrates both Spanish and Indian (later known as Native American) weaponry. Panamanian fishermen demonstrate the effects of shipworm on a wooden hull. Nautical and navigation methods are explored and the natures of the cultures that Columbus encountered are discussed. The viewer even gets a good idea of what the ships (and Spaniards) must have smelled like—pretty awful.
The story of the voyage is well told. The narrative is clear and the re-enactments of events support the story effectively. This isn’t a high budget production, but what they have to work with, re-enactments, CGI and graphics, are used well. A truly great adventure doesn’t need much embellishment, and a great adventure is what the viewer gets, here.
Columbus and his crews face as much danger from the Spaniards as they do from the natives. They endure hurricanes, wander through the lagoons of Central America, only to experience their ships falling apart while under sail. At one point the crewmen are praying for death rather than endure any more—and this is before they are shipwrecked.
Columbus tries to found a colony that almost gets wiped out by the natives before his ships leave. (This must be a record for shortest duration of a European settlement.) He realizes that his ships and men won’t last much longer and decides to head home. At this point two discoveries occur. The first is the aforementioned shipworm, and what it can do to a wooden hull. The second is that their last shipwright was killed in the last battle with the natives.
Through frantic bailing and good luck (the ever thorough History Channel explains 16th century bilge pumps at this point), Columbus and his crews manage to beach their ships in Jamaica where they are stranded for a year. Nearly helpless, Columbus manages to improve his diplomatic skills enough to convince the Jamaicans to feed him and his men. This lasts until part of his crew mutinies and goes rampaging all over Jamaica. One of his most stalwart crewmen, Diego Mendez, attempts to reach Santo Doming (455 miles away) in a dugout canoe.
Angered, the Jamaicans withhold food from Columbus and the mutineers prepare to turn on him, as well. His valiant brother, Bartoleme, subdues the mutineers after a fierce battle while Columbus (apparently with some time to think of such things) calculates that a lunar eclipse is coming. Using the eclipse, Columbus convinces the Jamaicans that he is a powerful sorcerer and in turn, they begin providing food, again. Diego Mendez finally gets the governor of Santo Domingo to loan him a ship and Columbus and his crew are rescued.
While the viewer can’t help but marvel at the courage and endurance of Columbus and the Spaniards, there is a growing sense of loss as the show progresses. The History Channel tells the story honestly and lets the events speak for themselves. But even after recognizing that the Spaniards had been brutalized by seven centuries of war, the cruelty with which they treated the natives of the lands they visit is still inexplicable. One gets the feeling that things could have and should have gone differently, and is saddened and ashamed that it didn’t.
A happier tale is that of Diego Mendez, a humble clerk with the heart of a lion. While the knights act “like savages”, if you will, this clerk acts like a knight. He was an invaluable and unfailingly loyal help to Columbus, took hardship with good cheer, and helped keep the expedition together. He never drew his sword against the Indians unless it was to save his shipmates and wound up rescuing them all by risking his life and using tact with the Spanish enemies of Columbus. One wishes that more men like Mendez were sent across the Atlantic, but perhaps such men were as rare then as they are now.
The only extra feature is a timeline showing the events in the life of Columbus.