It’s probably just as well Chicago won’t be hosting a 1992 World’s Fair commemorating the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas. Even at the proposed cost of over $2 billion, the festivities probably wouldn’t have held a candle to the lakefront Columbian Exposition of 1893. That fair–it was a year late because the mammoth task of construction held it up–attracted some 24 million visitors at a time when the national population was 63 million. According to Kirkpatrick Sale in his new history, The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy, it was “the largest crowd for any single event in the history of the world to that point.” A promotional pamphlet billed the fair as “a very panorama of the possibilities of human ingenuity and persistent effort.”

Americans hadn’t needed a world’s fair, of course, to learn the magnitude of the Italian explorer’s voyage in 1492 under the flag of Spain: the heroic settlement, development, and eventual independence of the new American nations; the march of progress; the westward expansion of law and morality; an ever-increasing gross national product and standard of living, fueled by unmatched ingenuity and technological prowess; the restless striving for new frontiers. A century ago the qualities considered so integral to the United States were celebrated in textbooks, parades, speeches, memorial statues. Then as now, the legacy of Columbus loomed as large as that of any figure who ever set foot on the soil of the New World.

For all the deification of Columbus, however, and the inchoate comprehension that the technology and patriotism on display at the fair stemmed somehow from that lone figure, relatively little was known about Columbus’s life. Or more accurately, much that was known was fiction. A further century of scholarship has filled in many details, but Sale, in the half of the book that chronicles the mariner’s life, acknowledges that much of that life remains unknown to us.

The other half of the book, which might be termed an ecological history, discusses the immediate and long-range effects of Columbus’s voyage–on Europe and Europeans, on the native peoples of the Americas, and on the American land itself. In Sale’s eyes, Columbus’s legacy is more a matter of genocide, environmental degradation, and spiritual malaise than progress and patriotism. The book is an effort to understand the dark side of the last 500 years, which might easily have been lost in the hype surrounding the quincentennial.

Many of the stories told about the man known in Spain as Cristobal Colon are no more than myths: that Queen Isabella of Spain pawned her jewels to pay for his first voyage, for example, or that contemporary mariners thought the world was flat. But to winnow these colorful accounts–as Sale does–is not to deny the very real accomplishments of a remarkable man. Colon did spend seven years persuading Isabella and King Ferdinand to underwrite the first expedition; he did navigate to the Caribbean with uncanny skill, taking advantage of favorable winds that few, if any, mariners of the time knew; he deduced correctly that the North Star does not stand still, contrary to what Mediterranean sailors thought; and it’s likely he was the first European to recognize that South America–whose coastline he explored at length–was a continent, distinct from Asia. (That last point has been disputed by numerous historians, who have claimed that Colon believed he’d found merely a new sea route to Asia; but Sale is convincing that Colon knew better.) Most significant, Colon’s first voyage–though it was not the first European voyage to the New World–opened the floodgates of colonization at a time when Europe was economically stagnant and eager to expand its influence and wealth.

So–he was a real hero, right? An achiever worthy of the title “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” which Isabella and Ferdinand granted him, a man deserving of a national holiday plus lavish centennial celebrations? Well, maybe. Sale details several unsavory items, the kinds of facts schoolchildren (and some reputable historians, if one is to judge by their writings) haven’t learned about Colon. He was at times a foolish mariner, sailing doggedly into contrary winds, and in such a hurry to find gold that he once set sail at night just off a dangerous coastline, only to have the Santa Maria run aground. He lied to his crew, to the king and queen, and to himself (it sometimes seems) about how far and where he’d sailed. He was a miserable failure as governor of Spain’s first New World colony, on Espanola, spending much of his time amassing a considerable personal fortune.

And further: During his tenure as governor of Espanola (a large island now divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Colon tired of the complexities of government and set out to explore more of the Caribbean. After coasting Cuba for four weeks, he had his crew swear a ludicrous oath that they’d been sailing along the shore of a continent; those who claimed otherwise were to be fined and have their tongues cut out. Sale has no good explanation for this bizarre behavior, but he does suggest that Colon was subject to periods of mental instability and self-deception. There is pretty good evidence that he suffered from Reiter’s syndrome, a disease of inflamed joints, urinary tract, and eyes–and Sale’s image of Colon bleeding from the eyes while scanning the new lands where a brutal colonial enterprise would soon begin is an arresting one.

Of course any hero has foibles, and it is risky to judge historical figures by the standards of our own age. More interesting, really, are the mysteries about Colon. Historians have speculated for centuries about his birthplace, his beliefs, his life before 1492. Colon was given to self-promotion, and Sale maintains that the very lack of reliable information about him is a pretty good reflection of who the man was: “The trail that Colon left behind is so confused and incomplete, from his birthdate and birthplace on, as to suggest more than mere carelessness about fact-and-fiction on his part, and even more than the paucity of authoritative documents in an age before printing was commonplace. The darkness there suggests rather that he was a man truly without a past that he could define, without a home, or roots, or family, without ever a sense, or love, of place. His early years are dark because, in a sense, they are empty.”

Sale suggests that Colon was very much a man of his time. Certainly his navigational achievements reflected the advancing science and technology of Europe. But also his greed for gold reflected the cupidity and growing materialism of 15th-century Europe; his apocalyptic millenarianism, his belief in his own calling, reflected the spiritual doubts of a subcontinent under the hegemony of a corrupt church; and his heroic striving reflected the gung-ho spirit of a new age of rationalism and capitalism. But most important the man’s rootlessness, his constant longing to be someone or somewhere else, mirrors the restlessness, the frontier mentality, the perception that there are no limits that pushed the Old World west–and has informed the consciousness of the New World to this day.

“We Spanish,” said Hernando Cortes, the conquistador of Mexico, “suffer from a strange disease of the heart, for which the only known remedy is gold.” Sale’s book is about how that malady wrought havoc on Americans and Europeans alike, though to him the disease is not just about gold but about a longing that can only be described as spiritual, a restlessness for which there may be no cure, a restlessness that the colonists, like their descendants, sought to heal with more restlessness.

The progress of empire on Espanola is the prototype for what was to happen later throughout the New World at the hands of the Spanish, English, French, and other Europeans. Colon found the island on his first voyage, was given some tantalizing gold artifacts by the native Tainos, and left some of his crew behind to man Spain’s first colony, a hastily constructed coastal outpost where the Santa Maria had been destroyed. The spot was a poor one, but Colon claimed that divine intervention had wrecked the ship there.

He sailed back to Spain in early 1493, bursting with optimistic stories of lodes of gold, and returned later that year with 17 ships and over 1,000 aspiring colonists, all men. They expected to find gold, lots of it, without much effort–not such an unreasonable proposition if they could get the natives to do the work for them. To this end the colonial administrators, headed by Colon, sanctioned enslaving the Tainos, demanded regular tribute in gold, and used often-deadly force whenever they felt it was justified.

The colonists went beyond even the barbarity of this law. Fernando Colon, the admiral’s son and no critic of colonization or of the lust for gold, reported that “Each one went where he willed among the Indians, stealing their property and wives and inflicting so many injuries upon them that the Indians resolved to avenge themselves on any that they found alone or in small groups.”

The Tainos–whom Colon had characterized in his journal of the first voyage as “the best people in the world and above all the gentlest”–were no match for European arms, dogs, horses, or ruthlessness. What’s more, they lacked immunity to the impressive array of diseases the Spaniards unwittingly imported–measles, typhus, pneumonia, small-pox, among others. (The natives are thought to have gained an equally unwitting, if not as devastating, revenge by infecting the invaders with syphilis.)

The dying, and the cultural dislocation, must have been overwhelming for the Tainos. Sale estimates that up to 99 percent of the native population of Espanola died by 1514. Astounding though that figure may be, it reflects what happened later across the Americas. Once contact between Europeans and natives became more common, epidemics swept the New World, decimating entire peoples that had never seen a white man. Population statistics for the New World before 1492 have been highly controversial–not least because it is easier to excuse the excesses of colonization if one believes the new lands were never very densely populated. But some historians have recently suggested that as much as 95 percent of the North American native population was wiped out by 1600 or so. The toll of more overt wars between Europeans and natives pales in comparison to that first unconscious genocide. The disruption among the survivors must have been enormous; what is amazing is that so many accounts by later European explorers and settlers depict native societies that were still viable after such a blow.

Other historians have claimed that native Americans lived in harmony with nature merely because they possessed less destructive technologies than Europeans. But Sale portrays these precontact societies as paradisiacal–and he believes that the Europeans were cruel to them partly out of jealousy at their Edenic way of life.

Sale devotes several chapters of The Conquest of Paradise to the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, which began in 1607 and represented the first English colonization of what was to become the United States. There as elsewhere, the early settlers didn’t bother to try to learn from the natives. They had landed on a highly fertile coastal plain teeming with game, nuts, corn, fish, and fruit. But the colonists paid little attention to native foods, preferring to plant European crops–if any–many of which wouldn’t grow in the new climate. Often they depended on resupply from England rather than on the natural bounty all around them, and it’s possible that thousands of settlers starved when that resupply was not sufficient. Sale ascribes that decimation to the psychological difficulty of adjusting to lands so different from what Europeans knew: “Not knowing how to assimilate the American wilderness, and in some sense knowing themselves inadequate to it, they withdrew, to find that mental refuge where they could imagine the wild did not really exist, or at least not sufficiently so to need evaluation and recounting. . . . When the English did see nature, it was with a vision, as we would expect, refracted by the marketplace. . . . Nature was hardly more than a storehouse of commodities or potential commodities.”

Indeed, writes Sale, there is little evidence in the written leavings of the 15th century of what we today might call the appreciation of nature. Moreover Europeans showed an unwillingness to see human beings–at least themselves–as part of nature: “In its attitude to the wilderness, a heightening of its deep-seated antipathy to nature in general, European culture created a frightening distance between the human and the natural, between the deep silent rhythms of the world and the deep recurrent rhythms of the body, between the elemental eternal workings of the cosmos and the physical and psychological means of perception, by which we can come to understand it and our place within it. To have regarded the wild as sacred, as do many other cultures around the world, would have been almost inconceivable in medieval Europe–and, if conceived, as some of those called witches found out, certainly heretical and punishable by the Inquisition.”

At Jamestown the land was subjected to the cultivation of tobacco, which brought high prices in England. The settlers axed old-growth forests to clear fields, whose thin soil eroded easily and was exhausted in a few years. Once-plentiful wildlife was driven out. But there was money to be made, lots of it, and for a good long time there were plenty of new forests to be cut down, with no owners but the Indians–and they were just savages anyway.

Readers who might take offense at Sale’s tendency to categorize and judge our ancestors on the basis of modern ecological insights might consider how the habits of those ancestors persist today. The destructive agricultural practices introduced at Jamestown continue, augmented by chemical fertilizers and pesticides, leaving a legacy of exhausted soils, poisoned waters, and eroded fields. The deforestation Colon’s men initiated on tropical Espanola–clearing trees to make way for cattle ranches–persists at a fantastic rate in the Amazon. The legacy remains in the pattern of greed, of ignoring the lessons of the land. Take it and run. If you don’t do it, someone else will. There’s more on the next island, over the next ridge, out west somewhere.

Sure, Sale can sound preachy at times. The tone of crisis pervading The Conquest of Paradise might easily make readers think it remarkable that any of the lush world Colon found has survived. Nature’s resilience is remarkable, but what we have now is not what could have been. Sale holds that Colon initiated one of history’s greatest missed opportunities. Fifteenth-century Europe, he says, was “a most proficient civilization in material terms, capable of immense energy and immense impact, but still dispirited and adrift, turmoiled and beset, sickened by gloom and suffering–and, above all, not quite grounded in the living earth, not quite at ease with itself in the circularity of nature, not quite able to accommodate its limitless genius to the limited world in which, perforce, it lived.” That society stumbled upon peoples who knew about “fecundity and regeneration, about social comeliness and unity, about harmony with the natural world,” a culture Europeans proceeded to destroy rather than heed.

During Colon’s third voyage–when he was convinced that God had chosen him for glory–he wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella that “the Terrestrial Paradise” was to be found in South America. Sale believes that the explorer perceived, however vaguely, that the natives there experienced life in a fullness he could not imagine. When he died in 1506, Colon was wealthy and titled but still restless: he spent his last days petitioning for more royal privileges and a larger share of the gold of Espanola.

Those who followed him west and their descendants became through the centuries wealthy beyond Colon’s wildest dreams, but they retained his restlessnes. And, says Sale, understood little more than Colon the harmony that could have been theirs, and ours. I see little point in trying to wish away history–as Sale at times seems to do–but there is ample reason to work toward understanding our roots, toward understanding the places we live and how to live there.

The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy by Kirkpatrick Sale, Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.