Columbus on the couch
issue 226 - December 1991
Columbus on the couch
Rummaging through dusty archives, historian Kirkpatrick Sale unearthed
the following rare document. A psychiatric case study of Christopher Columbus
by 15th century doctor Sigmundo Feliz, based on clinical observations
and the famous mariner's own writings.
Patient: Cristobal C
Occupation: Admiral of the Ocean Sea,
one-time colonial governor
Date: May 1506
This represents one of my most regrettable cases, for despite my best endeavours I was too late to be of any substantial benefit to this patient, and he died shortly after our last visit, a bitter, sorrowful man, still a victim of the paranoia and melancholia that seems to have afflicted him most of his adult life. He was a victim too, in a more physical sense, of a congeries of ailments I diagnose as Reiter's Syndrome - that is arthritis, uveitis, and urethritis, serious inflammation of the joints, the eyes and the urinary tract, leading most often to incapacitating stiffness, retinal bleeding and dysmicturition, sometimes as well to mental instabilities of a general sort.
I was fortunate to have in addition to several lengthy visits with this patient in recent months, full access to his most intimate papers, including logs of his major voyages to the Indies, letters written by him to the court over some ten years, notebooks he assembled for King Fernando and our late Queen Isabel, and marginalia in the numerous books in his library. From these I have been able to arrive at a reasonably sound judgment as to his basic character traits, his obsessions and his general psychological makeup. Of these I have isolated four as the most determinant and the ones I believe most useful for later researchers.
To be without roots, without a sense of home and place, is one of the most serious, though one of the least emphasized, psychological disorders. This patient suffered from this to an unusual degree. From what I have been able to discover, he had so little of that feeling we Spaniards call querencia - a love of home and a sense of inner well-being - that he could truly be called a man who never lived anywhere, who simply never had a home.
Late in his life, in a will, Cristobal C made one reference to having been born in Genoa, but nowhere else in all his voluminous writings does he refer to this as his home town, nor does he mention growing up there, or his parents or family, or any of its sights or sounds. (When he wishes to make comparisons between New World phenomena and elsewhere, he always picks Castile: 'very high mountains, all resembling Castile', 'fish like those in Castile', etc). Nor does he ever write a word in Genoese, or Italian, nor refer to a single Italian scholar or artist, past or present. It is as if, supposing this indeed to be his place of birth, he has chosen to eradicate it - and significantly, his parents - from his mind, a psychosis the effects of which are well recorded in the literature.
After his place of birth, the patient never once seems to have found a fixed abode for any length of time. His only real home, from his accounts, was on the deck of a ship, any ship, though one could hardly call the inconstant and ever-changing sea a psychologically fit 'home'. His only real wish, even then, was to go sailing to a different part of it, always somewhere else beyond the horizon.
As to family ties, those were similarly negligible. His only reference ever to his parents was a phrase in one will about praying 'to the souls of my father and mother'. His wife in Portugal is never mentioned in his writings and we do not know the date of his marriage or of its issue, his son Diego. His mistress in Cordova, by whom he had a second son, Fernando, is mentioned but once, in his last will, and nowhere are there any love letters or poems or memorabilia of this deep attachment, though from other writings we see he was a passionate man. I have encountered this stubborn resistance to acknowledging family in other patients, and though it ranges in degrees from a simple kind of forgetfulness to a full-blown blacking-out of a painful past, it is never healthy.
Lastly, I might mention the partiality that the patient seems to have had to several different names over the years - Colombo, Colomo, Colom, Colon - and yet he refers to himself by name only once in all his writings, and when it comes to signing his name he never uses the last name at all, choosing to use only his first name (as a lord or king might), or his title.
"I saw two or three villages and their people came down to the beach
calling to us and offering thanks to God. Some brought us water,
others food...but should your majesties command it, all inhabitants could
be taken away to Castile, or made slaves on the island; with 50 men we
could subjugate them all and make them do what we want."
COLUMBUS IN HIS REPORT TO THE SPANISH CROWN
AFTER HIS FIRST VOYAGE TO THE AMERICAS
Bending truth to suit unusual circumstances is a normal enough trait, but a persistent habit of equivocation and misrepresentation, while not necessarily pathological, is certainly dysfunctional - in some cases indicative of full-fledged disorders. This patient appears from all my evidence to be someone who found it difficult, even in non-threatening circumstances, to tell the truth, a habit of delusion that at times developed into self-delusion.
For example, it seems that he chose to keep what some have called a 'false log' on the first voyage of discovery, to record for the crew different distances made at sea from the true ones. If it was a written log it would have been entirely useless, a real sign of self-delusion since the crew could certainly not read, and if it was rather some oral presentation it would have been entirely counterproductive, since it gave the mileage each day as less than the real distance when of course the crew would want to be reassured that they were going faster to their destination. Why the deception? It seems simply to have been in the man's character, something he had to do, its utility aside.
For another example - among many, I am constrained to say - there is the curious incident in 1494 in which the patient made his entire crew swear, to a notary public in an official document and with a punishment of 'the cutting out of the tongue' if anyone should deny it, that the island along which they had been sailing, Cuba, was actually part of some unspecified mainland. True, the man seems to have been in a predicament, since he had declared to the Sovereigns that he would find a mainland on this second voyage to the Indies and so far he had only found islands, and impoverished ones at that. But still - he might have had the men agree informally to that tale, and anyway should have known that the King and Queen wouldn't take the word of a million seamen without some further proof of there being a mainland there.
The deceptions and self-deceptions are so recurrent in the man's career that we must reckon duplicity is a central part of his character. It is almost as if he had an imperfect understanding of truth and false-hood, or didn't care so long as one or the other served his purposes - but more, as if the one were as real, as true as the other. That way, as we know from our work, madness lies.
Although the obsessive drives that characterized the patient's life were tripartite in nature - we might traditionally put them as God, gold and glory - cynically we may regard them as exhibiting this singular psychosis.
If any further proof of Cristobal C's preoccupation with God were necessary other than his fulsome letters, I have seen his Book of Prophecies and it is one of the strangest, most unsettling documents in patient lore that I have come across. Not only is it a jumble of Biblical and canonical quotations designed to prove that the patient had a holy mission to proselytize the world and reconquer Jerusalem - 'He made me the messenger thereof and showed me where to go' - but it is shot through with a wild millenarianism of such uncanny precision that it figures the end of the world exactly 155 years into the future. The book reveals a conviction of divine purpose ('In this voyage to the Indies the Lord wished to perform a very evident miracle') that suggests all-out dementia.
As to gold, one has only to read the log of the first voyage, where the search - or permit me to call it the lust - for treasure is patent on every page. I troubled myself to count: there are 16 references to gold, some quite lengthy, during the first two weeks in the islands, another 13 in the next month, and then finally 46 references in the next five weeks. (The Spanish word oro is used 140 times in all - though he brought back only a few small nuggets and pieces of jewellery in the end). Later on he is even more revealing: 'Gold is most excellent,' he said on his final voyage, and 'whoever has it may do what he wishes in the world.'
And glory, this mania of an entirely personal kind: the patient, though in failing health, managed to compile 44 lengthy documents into a book for the Sovereigns in which he presented evidence for his claims to titles, rewards, benefits and revenues from the crown far in excess of anything they were prepared to offer. The fact of such a notebook, which might be presumed a true effrontery to Catholic royalty, is amazing enough evidence to compulsion. But the tone of martyrdom and victimization ('Had I despoiled the Indies... and given it to the Moors, I could have been shown no greater enmity in Spain.') bespeaks an almost total misunderstanding of the patient's true relationship in the royal schema, indeed in the world at large.
Finally, I must draw attention to a psychotic trait that can only be described as phrenitis - repeated delusions that occur with such intensity that they raise serious questions about how we are to regard his general sanity in the rest of his life. Moreover, the fact that he himself recorded these with perfect straightforwardness, and without shame - and indeed presented them in writing to the notoriously cold-blooded Sovereigns - suggests that he must have regarded such episodes as 'normal'. That is to say, he must have fairly well lost that ability to distinguish the normal from the abnormal that is one of the hallmarks of compos mentis.
Take, for example, the discovery of 'Earthly Paradise' reported on his third voyage - no, I am not making this up - and presented in a straight, sober letter to their majesties: 'I am completely persuaded in my own mind that the Terrestrial Paradise is in the place I have said,' where the earth 'has the shape of a pear, which is all very round, except at the stem, where it is very prominent, or that it is as if one had a very round ball, and on one part of it was placed something like a woman's nipple, and that this part with the stem is the highest and nearest to the sky, below the equinoctal line and in this Ocean Sea at the end of the East.' And 'all men say that Paradise is at the end of the East, and that it is.'
Angels and Paradise on a nipple: the patient truly seems to believe in these things, truly seems to see himself as a prime agent in them. It cannot be called incoherence, for the writing is too firm and deliberate for that, but it must be regarded clinically as some form of phrenitis, or paraphrenitis, and at rather an advanced stage.
Luckily, perhaps, the death of the patient has saved me from having to make a full diagnosis of his ailment and from having to prescribe some sort of therapeutic regimen that might enable him to settle comfortably into ordinary quotidian society. I certainly would find it most challenging to do either.
But I am moved to reflect upon the character of this patient, for it strikes me as very significant that this is a man who has braved many great dangers, travelled great distances, faced up to great challenges, and achieved great discoveries, and none can take that away from him. What are we to make of the fact that it seems to take a person with the abnormal character traits of Cristobal C to accomplish all that? What does it mean that the most momentous achievement of our age was rendered by a person distorted by several afflictions, any one of which might be regarded as a functionally disabling mental illness? What does it say about the nature of such achievements, about 'discovery' itself or even the desire of individuals and societies to strive for them? What is it about our culture, our cherished European civilization, that it needs to breed and put forth such people in order to find its salvation in the new, the far-off, the other, the elsewhere? Could madness be the hallmark of our achievers, our progress, our very civilization?
This much at least we can conclude. It has been said that the world owes all its outward impulses, its conquering of space and species, to men ill at ease, while the happy man inevitably confines himself within ancient limits and possibilities. Whatever else, Cristobal C was not a happy man - indeed, more ill at ease in a dark psychotic way than most around - and it might be argued that he represented supremely what was not a happy culture.
Kirkpatrick Sale is an American environmentalist and author of The Conquest of Paradise.
Name: Cristoforo Colombo (Italian). Also known as Cristobal Colon (Spanish) and Christopher Columbus (English); (Cristoforo = Christ-bearer)
Born: Genoa, Italy, 1451.
Died: Valladolid, Spain, 1506.
Married: Felipa Perestrello Moniz, 1480; one son, Diego, born 1482.
Background: Not much known of his early years. Son of a middle-class weaver; self-educated, ambitious. First sailed as a merchant's clerk, later as a trader on Portuguese ships visiting England, Ireland, and the Azores - as well as the Guinea Coast of Africa where the Portuguese had already set up trading posts.
Skills: Learned mathematics, astronomy and several languages (Latin, Portuguese and Spanish) on his own. Sailing and navigation training on the job. Persuasive talker.
Beliefs: A fervent Catholic and strong monarchist.
Goals: To find a Western sea route to China; to find gold for himself and for the Spanish Crown; and to spread Christian values to the 'dark areas' of the globe.
The Voyages: Columbus made four voyages in total. In return for three ships and enough money for a crew and supplies he demanded 10 per cent of all riches found, an Admiralty over the Western Ocean and the governorship of any newly-found land. That he got to the Caribbean at all was the result of a serious navigation error. He miscalculated the distance from Spain to Cipangu (Japan) at 2,400 nautical miles rather than 10,000.
First Voyage: October 12, 1492 - Landed on a tiny island in the Bahamas (historians argue over which one) five weeks after leaving the Canary Islands off the African coast. Then sailed to Cuba and finally Hispaniola (the island shared today by Haiti and the Dominican Republic). First settlement, 'Natividad', built in Hispaniola. Returned home with a handful of gold trinkets and six Taino Indians whom he presented to the Spanish court.
Subsequent Voyages: September, 1493; May, 1498; May, 1502 - Meandered around the Caribbean capturing slaves and extorting meagre quantities of gold from the Indians. Landed at Trinidad, Panama, Jamaica, Venezuela, Dominica and several other smaller islands.
This article is from
the December 1991 issue
of New Internationalist.
- Discover unique global perspectives
- Support cutting-edge independent media
- Magazine delivered to your door or inbox
- Digital archive of over 500 issues
- Fund in-depth, high quality journalism