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Christopher Columbus and the New World

Preface
The writing of historical biography is properly a work of partnership, to which public
credit is awarded too often in an inverse proportion to the labours expended. One group
of historians, labouring in the obscurest depths, dig and prepare the ground, searching and
sifting the documentary soil with infinite labour and over an area immensely wide. They
are followed by those scholars and specialists in history who give their lives to the study
of a single period, and who sow literature in the furrows of research prepared by those
who have preceded them. Last of all comes the essayist, or writer pure and simple, who
reaps the harvest so laboriously prepared. The material lies all before him; the documents
have been arranged, the immense contemporary fields of record and knowledge examined
and searched for stray seeds of significance that may have blown over into them; the
perspective is cleared for him, the relation of his facts to time and space and the march of
human civilisation duly established; he has nothing to do but reap the field of harvest
where it suits him, grind it in the wheels of whatever machinery his art is equipped with,
and come before the public with the finished product. And invariably in this unequal
partnership he reaps most richly who reaps latest.
I am far from putting this narrative forward as the fine and ultimate product of all the
immense labour and research of the historians of Columbus; but I am anxious to excuse
myself for my apparent presumption in venturing into a field which might more properly
be occupied by the expert historian. It would appear that the double work of acquiring the
facts of a piece of human history and of presenting them through the medium of literature
can hardly ever be performed by one and the same man. A lifetime must be devoted to
the one, a year or two may suffice for the other; and an entirely different set of qualities
must be employed in the two tasks. I cannot make it too clear that I make no claim to
have added one iota of information or one fragment of original research to the expert
knowledge regarding the life of Christopher Columbus; and when I add that the chief
collection of facts and documents relating to the subject, the 'Raccolta Columbiana,'—
[Raccolta di Documenti e Studi Publicati dalla R. Commissione Colombiana, etc.
Auspice il Ministero della Publica Istruzione. Rome, 1892-4.]—is a work consisting of
more than thirty folio volumes, the general reader will be the more indulgent to me. But
when a purely human interest led me some time ago to look into the literature of
Columbus, I was amazed to find what seemed to me a striking disproportion between the
extent of the modern historians' work on that subject and the knowledge or interest in it
displayed by what we call the general reading public. I am surprised to find how many
well-informed people there are whose knowledge of Columbus is comprised within two
beliefs, one of them erroneous and the other doubtful: that he discovered America, and
performed a trick with an egg. Americans, I think, are a little better informed on the
subject than the English; perhaps because the greater part of modern critical research on
the subject of Columbus has been the work of Americans. It is to bridge the immense gap
existing between the labours of the historians and the indifference of the modern reader,
between the Raccolta Columbiana, in fact, and the story of the egg, that I have written my
narrative.
 
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