The most important single (only one copy) book in the world

Every so often I am going to depart from the Pacific theme (though I will generally follow a nautical subject) because some stories are just too fantastical to keep to myself.

One such story is the life and library of Hernando Colon, the illegitimate second son of Christopher Columbus. He set to sea with dad on the fourth and final voyage.

“I may be a bastard but I’m no slave trader like my old man.”

First, some facts, all of which are so implausible. Columbus set sail in 1492 and in just 36 days discovered the New World for Spain; and he was Italian which is sort of strange in itself. At the time his was the longest offshore voyage in history. Not that others hadn’t sailed into the unknown before on purpose or by accident but history is not ‘what happened’ it is the ‘story’ of what happened. And the story was that Chris thought he found India, hence Indians. If he had landed further north he would no doubt have called them Chinans. China was a known place since Marco Polo went there in the 1300s. The Spanish had established a settlement at Hispaniola, La Navidad, now the northern tip of Haiti voyage and is where Columbus set sail west toward (as yet undiscovered) Panama looking for gold and to find more local people and lands to exploit. In a storm his crumbling ship ended up shipwrecked on the beach in Jamaica for almost a year and a half.

“Oh, poop!”

The crew survived but the ship wasn’t going anywhere. So the captain gathered a group of volunteers to take the small launch to La Navidad 450 miles east and Columbus, his crew and son hunkered down waiting for rescue. The local ‘Indians’ were happy to welcome these exotic folks but as the months wore on the welcome was worn as thin as a weevily ship’s biscuit and, as the locals were very poor, they grew weary of feeding these large men. So the chief finally laid down the law and said no more tacos for ‘youse guys’!

Columbus was in a real fix but he came up with a scheme. He had been gone from Spain for two years. It was a miracle he knew what day it was but if he was correct just the very next day his almanac predicted an eclipse in his area. So he told the chief he would blot out the moon if his men were not able order the enchiladas suizas. He even predicted the time of night of the eclipse. They parties gathered. Suddenly the moon began to grow dim and then disappeared! He actually toyed with them for a time because totality lasted an amazing 47 minutes! He said he’d bring it back if they could have dinner. The restaurant reopened! They lived in the hulk of the ship for so long because his rescuers were in no hurry to come back for him as he had ended up on their list of people-to-not-rescue-quickly.

Ya can’t make this stuff up

Even by standards of the time Columbus was a reprehensible figure. He trod hard on both his staff and the locals as well as unleashing an epoch of European domination which is still ringing in our ears. Also, he introduced the slave trade to Europe.

But the young Hernando, witnessing the almanac trick, realized the incredible power of books and this set him on the path of a true intellectual. Back in Spain he founded a geographical society, debated the circumference of the earth disagreeing with his father, and began a Latin dictionary which he abandoned after writing 1,500 pages and only getting as far as ‘bibo.’

But his most magnificent achievement was amassing the greatest library in the world beginning in about 1510. In the ancient world, 1,500 years earlier, the Library at Alexandria had as many as a million books (scrolls and bound codices were all called books) but it’s demise from about 100BC to 150AD helping to kick off the Dark Ages. In 1450 the Vatican only had about 1,200 books. Hernando’s collection clocked in at about 18,000 a few years later. Between 1509 and his death in 1539, Hernando traveled all over Europe — in 1530 alone he visited Rome, Bologna, Modena, Parma, Turin, Milan, Venice, Padua, Innsbruck, Augsburg, Constance, Basle, Fribourg, Cologne, Maastricht, Antwerp, Paris, Poitiers and Burgos.

Now the word book is a multilayered term. Printing was just over 50 years old when Hernado began collecting many books were handwritten manuscripts and many more were cheap printed books more like bound newspapers. 500 years ago book binding was one trade and book printing was another. The unbound book was purchased and the buyer took it to a bindery. This meant that the first page was often quite elaborate so they were lavishly titled and illustrated often not reflecting the actual contents. This made cataloging difficult.

With so many books Hernado devised a system of sorting by subject, author and title thus invented the search engine (or reinventing it as the Alexandrian librarians must have had a system). Libraries in the Middle Ages had very few books and the books were usually quite large and chained to a desk. Hernando invented an ingenious system still used today. The multi leveled library shelf. He also dispensed with the chain and instead one would enter a metal cage with hand holes. Librarians would bring the books and put them on a tables surrounding the cage. The library was a bucket list destination for intellectuals from all over Europe.

Much of this history I read in one of my favorite books The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books from 2018. It tells Hernando’s life story and is named for the fact that a ship sailing from Italy with hundreds or perhaps thousands of books destined for the library in Seville floundered and was lost.

A truly inspiring book

On Hernando’s death the library was mostly dispersed though 25% of it remains. It became the foundation of the Biblioteca Nacional de España (National Library of Spain). 

In March of 2019 a book was discovered in a library in Copenhagen in a collection of books from an 18th century donation from an Icelandic book collector so it was mislabeled under: subject, Iceland. It turned out to be the master catalogue of Hernando’s collection from 500 years ago. It’s in Latin and has 2,000 pages of concise descriptions of the collection. The book itself doesn’t even have a name exactly and is referred to as The Book of Books. A transcription will be available in 5-7 years. Fast, folks, faster!

Some say that this could be the most important single book in the world.


  • I can’t wait to see what books were cataloged. How incredible to have a list of original books. Can’t they run that thing through Google translate? haha.

  • Tom Dodd says:

    A friend pointed out that the Christians couldn’t have burned the library of Alexandria because the burning occurred in 48 BCE, meaning Christians didn’t exist yet. One of those subtle slanders of popular history.
    “Despite the widespread modern belief that the Library of Alexandria was burned once and cataclysmically destroyed, the Library actually declined gradually over the course of several centuries. This decline began with the purging of intellectuals from Alexandria in 145 BC during the reign of Ptolemy VIII Physcon, which resulted in Aristarchus of Samothrace, the head librarian, resigning from his position and exiling himself to Cyprus. Many other scholars, including Dionysius Thrax and Apollodorus of Athens, fled to other cities, where they continued teaching and conducting scholarship. The Library, or part of its collection, was accidentally burned by Julius Caesar during his civil war in 48 BC, but it is unclear how much was actually destroyed and it seems to have either survived or been rebuilt shortly thereafter.” (Wikipedia)

  • Thanks Tom. I miss recalled the sequence of events. It seems a pope closed the final library but by then it just a meeting place. Amazing the Romans would burn a library that they owned but this seems to be the case. I have amended the article to more clearly reflect the facts as they seem to be.


  • Sean Burns says:

    I would like to point out that Christians are no slouches in slandering other religions, races, and cultures (often not subtly) throughout history and to this day. And often guilty of far more than slandering- totally wiping out entire civilizations that didn’t meet their standard of belief.
    They may not have burned the library at Alexandria but they certainly destroyed the entire cultures of the Aztecs, Maya and Incas, just for a few.
    Those same persecuted Christians of ancient Rome immediately began persecuting the pagans after their belief system became sanctioned by Constantine and the approved state religion.
    This holier than thou attitude seems prevalent in most religions, unfortunately.
    “Ah, religion! The answer to- and the cause of- all of our problems!” To misquote Homer Simpson.

  • I used to think that conquest ‘under the banner of heaven’ was the driving force behind subjugation but now I’m more persuaded that religious conquest was really a way to disguise the simple conquest for the money. Genghis Khan subjugated most of the people in the world and he left religion out of it and simply declared “what’s yours is mine.”

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