The visionary behind the project died before it began, the first publisher lost interest and funding shortfalls persisted throughout.
In fact, the "Repertorium Columbianum" seemed even less inclined to reach its destination than its namesake, but the mammoth project has finally made landfall after 18 years.
Just in time for the observation of Columbus Day (Oct. 11), the 13th and final volume of the exhaustive compendium of Columbus-era documents has rolled off the presses. UCLA's Medieval and Renaissance Center, which sponsored the project, will mark the occasion Oct. 15 with a daylong conference on the latest in Columbus scholarship.
"It often felt as if this day would never come, but we're so pleased to be marking it," said Geoffrey Symcox, the general editor of the project and a UCLA professor of history. "We're really proud of our work."
At 5,343 pages, the "Repertorium" puts in one place what Symcox describes as "the most significant contemporary sources bearing on Columbus," including Columbus family legal records; Columbus' contracts with the Spanish crown; a bizarre collection of Biblical prophecies compiled by Columbus to argue his voyages were foreordained; and accounts of all four voyages by Columbus contemporaries, especially Bartolome de Las Casas, a Dominican friar critical of Columbus' treatment of indigenous people.
With participation from 22 leading Columbus scholars worldwide, the "Repertorium" is the most ambitious undertaking of its kind ever produced in English. But don't expect a hagiography. The project launched in 1986 paints a mixed portrait of the explorer responsible for sparking the first sustained encounter between Europe and the New World.
"This is not your grandfather's Columbus," Symcox said.
While giving the brilliant mariner his due, the collection portrays Columbus as an unrelenting social climber and self-promoter who stopped at nothing - not even exploitation, slavery or twisting biblical scripture - to advance his ambitions.
"Many of the unflattering documents have been known for the last century or more, but nobody paid much attention to them until recently," Symcox said. "The fact that Columbus brought slavery, enormous exploitation or devastating diseases to the Americas used to be seen as a minor detail - if it was recognized at all - in light of his role as the great bringer of white man's civilization to the benighted idolatrous American continent. But to historians today this information is very important. It changes our whole view of the enterprise."
The "Repertorium," which began rolling of the presses at the rate of roughly a volume a year in 1993, includes what editors are characterizing as the definitive editions of the following texts:
Ã‚Â· The log of Columbus's first voyage: While numerous English translations have been produced over the years, the UCLA publication placed three separate versions of the text side-by-side, each with its separate translation. Earlier translations had used just one version as the basis for translation.
Ã‚Â· The first English translation of all of Las Casas' enormously influential writings on Columbus: Up to this point, his accounts of Columbus' second and fourth voyages have been excerpted in anthologies.
Ã‚Â· The first complete English translation of "The Book of Privileges," an assemblage of agreements between Columbus and the Spanish crown, which provided the basis for decades of litigation against the crown by Columbus and his heirs.
Ã‚Â· The first English translation of 16th-century Spanish translations of Aztec accounts of the Spanish conquest of Mexico; the English translation of the Nahuatl text is widely recognized as the best ever produced in any language: Past translations were made before the enormous strides in the understanding of the Nahuatl language that took place in the last couple of decades.
"Anybody who wants to do work on the encounter between the Old World and the new has to come to this series," said Teofilo F. Ruiz, the chairman of UCLA's history department and an authority on Renaissance Spain. "It's exquisitely done."
Meanwhile, the final volume in the series, the first biography ever written of Christopher Columbus, is the first English translation in more than 50 years of the text that was originally published in Italian. Reputedly written by Columbus' younger son, Fernando Colon, the biography is actually the handiwork of as many as five different people, three of whom may never have known the man, concludes volume editor Ilaria Caraci Luzzana, a scholar at the University of Rome.
In addition to Colon's accounts of his father's exploits, "The History of the Life and Deeds of the Admiral Don Christopher Columbus" shows the fingerprints of Las Casas as well as the 16th-century author who translated the Spanish document into Italian and possibly the Venetian publisher who first printed the text in 1571. Other possible contributors include a little-known figure who bought the text from Columbus' grandson, and perhaps even the grandson himself, Luzzana contends.
While Don Fernando's authorship of the document has been questioned in the past, scholars have only raised the possibility that the book may have been written by a second author who had access to Columbus family documents.
The apparent hand of so many collaborators deals a blow to the document's accuracy, which had been perceived as sound in those portions that were corroborated by Las Casas' work, Luzzana contends. But those similarities now appear to stem from the fact that they were both written by the friar.
The "Repertorium's" history is nearly as tangled. The brainchild of UCLA Italian historian Fredi Chiappelli, the project found itself without a director when Chiappelli suffered a stroke in 1989 and died before the first volume was published. Symcox, whose specialty is 17th- and 18th-century Italian history, stepped into the breach. But by that time, the team assembled by Chiappelli had disbanded, so Symcox had to recruit new contributors, including Anthony Pagden, a UCLA professor of political science and history, and James Lockhart, a UCLA professor emeritus of history. When economic considerations dictated an emphasis on more commercially viable projects at the publishing house for the first three editions, Symcox had to shop around for another publisher.
"Frankly, this is not a series that is going to sell a lot," said associate general editor Blair Sullivan. "This is mostly for libraries."
Despite generous initial funding, the operation struggled to make ends meet as the years went on. The text itself was nettlesome as well.
"It's hard to preserve the meaning of these documents since they are from the late 15th and 16th century," Sullivan said. "We were working with Old Italian and Old Castilian, and the languages have changed a lot since then."
The "Rediscovering Columbus" conference, which assembles eight leading Columbus scholars for a day's worth of presentations, celebrates victory in the face of so many obstacles. Among topics to be discussed: the scholarly legacy of the Columbian quincentennial, new perspectives on the encounter from indigenous points of view, Columbus's legacy to Magellan and new information on Columbus' disputes with the Spanish crown.