Christopher Columbus’s Letter

Spain - Scott #422 (1930)
Spain – Scott #422 (1930)

On February 15, 1493, while at sea aboard the caravel Niña, Christopher Columbus wrote a letter while on the return leg of his first voyage of discovery. This is the first known document announcing the results of Columbus’ voyage that set out in 1492 and reached the Americas. A post-script was added upon his arrival in Lisbon on March 4, 1493, and it was probably from there that Columbus dispatched two copies of his letter to the Spanish court.

The letter was instrumental in spreading the news throughout Europe about Columbus’s voyage. Almost immediately after Columbus’s arrival in Spain, printed versions of the letter began to appear. A Spanish version of the letter (presumably addressed to Luis de Santángel), was printed in Barcelona by early April 1493, and a Latin translation (addressed to Gabriel Sanchez) was published in Rome around a month later (May 1493). The Latin version was swiftly disseminated and reprinted in many other locations — Basel, Paris, Antwerp, etc. — still within the first year of his arrival.

In his letter, Christopher Columbus claims to have discovered and taken possession of a series of islands on the edge of the Indian Ocean in Asia. He described the islands, particularly Hispaniola and Cuba, exaggerating their size and wealth, and suggested that mainland China probably lay nearby. He also gave a brief description of the native Arawaks (whom he called “Indians”), emphasizing their docility and amenability, and the prospects of their mass conversion to Catholic Christianity.

However, the letter also revealed local rumors about a fierce man-eating tribe of “monsters” in the area (probably Caribs), although Columbus himself disbelieved the stories, and dismissed them as myth. The letter provides very few details of the oceanic voyage itself, and covers up the loss of the flagship of his fleet, the Santa María, by suggesting Columbus left it behind with some colonists, in a fort he erected at La Navidad in Hispaniola. In the letter, Columbus urges the Catholic monarchs to sponsor a second, larger expedition to the Indies, promising to bring back immense riches.

A slightly different version of Columbus’s letter, in manuscript form, addressed to the Catholic monarchs of Spain, was found in 1985, part of the Libro Copiador collection, and has led to some revision of the history of the Columbus letter.

The first voyage of Christopher Columbus, 1492-1493.
The first voyage of Christopher Columbus, 1492-1493.

Christopher Columbus, a Genoese captain in the service of the Crown of Castile, set out on his first voyage in August 1492.. At a time when European kingdoms were beginning to establish new trade routes and colonies, motivated by imperialism and economic competition, Columbus proposed to reach the East Indies (South and Southeast Asia) by sailing westward across the Atlantic Ocean. This eventually received the support of the Spanish Crown, which saw a chance to enter the spice trade with Asia through this new route.

At 8:00 in the morning of August 3, 1492, Columbus departed from Castilian Palos de la Frontera (on the river Saltes, at the confluence of the rivers Rio Tinto and Rio Odiel). Columbus and his crew embarked on their voyage with three medium-sized ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María. The ships were the property of Juan de la Cosa and the Pinzón brothers (Martín Alonso Pinzón and Vicente Yáñez Pinzón), but the monarchs forced the Palos de la Frontera inhabitants to contribute to the expedition as well.

Columbus’s flagship, a large carrack named the Santa María, was always referred to by Columbus as La Capitana (“The Captain”). The two smaller caravels, La Pinta (“The Painted”) and La Niña (literally “The Girl”, but actually named after her owners, the Niño brothers of Moguer.) are today better known by their nicknames. The real name of the Pinta has been lost; the Niña was actually named Santa Clara, after the patron saint of Moguer.

Three days into the journey, on August 6, the rudder of the Pinta broke. The owners of the ship, Gomez Rascon and Christoval Quintero, were suspected of sabotage, as they and their ship had been pressed into service against their will. The crew was able to secure the rudder with ropes until they could reach the Canary Islands, where they arrived on August 9. Here the Pinta was repaired and the Niña‘s lateen sails were re-rigged to standard square sails. While securing provisions from the island of La Gomera, Columbus received word that three Portuguese caravels had been seen hovering near the island of El Hierro with the supposed intention of capturing him. However, on September 6, the westward voyage began without incident. The ships departed San Sebastián de la Gomera for what turned out to be a six-week long voyage across the terrible ocean.

The Pinta, the Santa María and the Niña.
The Pinta, the Santa María and the Niña.

As described in the abstract of his log made by Bartolome de Las Casas, on the outward bound voyage Columbus recorded two sets of distances. Las Casas originally interpreted that he reported the shorter distances to his crew so they would not worry about sailing too far from Spain. However, according to Oliver Dunn and James Kelley, this was a misunderstanding by Las Casas. Columbus did report two distances each day but one was in measurements he normally used, the other in the Portuguese maritime leagues used by his crew.

On September 13, 1492, Columbus observed that the needle of his compass no longer pointed to the North Star. The needle instead had varied a half point to the northwest, and continued to vary further as the journey progressed. Columbus at first made no mention of this, knowing his crew to be prone to panic with their destination unknown, but after several days his pilots took notice with much anxiety. Allegedly, the crew grew so homesick and fearful that they threatened to sail back to Spain. Columbus reasoned that the needle did not point to the North Star, but to some invisible point on the Earth. His reputation as an astronomer held weight with the crew, and his theory alleviated their alarm. It was once believed that Columbus had discovered magnetic declination, but it was later shown that the phenomenon was already known, both in Europe and in China.

After twenty-nine days out of sight of land, on October 7, the crew spotted “[i]mmense flocks of birds”, some of which his sailors trapped and determined to be “field” birds (probably Eskimo curlews and American golden plovers). Columbus changed course to follow their flight.

Land was first sighted at 2 a.m. on October 12, 1492, by a sailor named Rodrigo de Triana (also known as Juan Rodriguez Bermejo) aboard La Pinta. Columbus would later assert that he had first seen the land and, thus, earned the reward of 10,000 maravedís. Columbus had stumbled upon the Caribbean islands of the Americas instead of arriving in Japan as he had intended, landing on an island in the Bahamas archipelago that he named San Salvador, in the present-day Bahamas or Turks and Caicos; the indigenous residents had named it Guanahani. Exactly which island in the Bahamas or Turks and Caicos this corresponds to is an unresolved topic; prime candidates are Samana Cay, Plana Cays, Grand Turk, Cat Island or San Salvador Island (Watlings Island named San Salvador in 1925 in the belief that it was Columbus’s San Salvador).

Christopher Columbus is depicted landing in the West Indies, on an island that the natives called Guanahani and he named San Salvador, on October 12, 1492. He raises the royal banner, claiming the land for his Spanish patrons, and stands bareheaded, with his hat at his feet, in honor of the sacredness of the event. The captains of the Niña and Pinta follow, carrying the banner of Ferdinand and Isabella. The crew displays a range of emotions, some searching for gold in the sand. Natives watch from behind a tree. Artist John Vanderlyn (1775-1852) had studied with Gilbert Stuart and was the first American painter to be trained in Paris, where he worked on this canvas for ten years with the help of assistants. Oil on canvas, 1847.
Christopher Columbus is depicted landing in the West Indies, on an island that the natives called Guanahani and he named San Salvador, on October 12, 1492. He raises the royal banner, claiming the land for his Spanish patrons, and stands bareheaded, with his hat at his feet, in honor of the sacredness of the event. The captains of the Niña and Pinta follow, carrying the banner of Ferdinand and Isabella. The crew displays a range of emotions, some searching for gold in the sand. Natives watch from behind a tree. Artist John Vanderlyn (1775-1852) had studied with Gilbert Stuart and was the first American painter to be trained in Paris, where he worked on this canvas for ten years with the help of assistants. Oil on canvas, 1847.

The indigenous people Columbus encountered in their homelands were peaceful and friendly. At the time of the European discovery of most of the islands of the Caribbean, three major indigenous peoples lived on the islands: the Taíno in the Greater Antilles, the Bahamas, and the Leeward Islands; the Island Caribs (Kalina) and Galibi in the Windward Islands and Guadeloupe; and the Ciboney (a Taíno people) and Guanahatabey of central and western Cuba, respectively. The Taínos are subdivided into Classic Taínos, who occupied Hispaniola and Puerto Rico; Western Taínos, who occupied Cuba, Jamaica, and the Bahamian archipelago; and the Eastern Taínos, who occupied the Leeward Islands. Trinidad was inhabited by both Carib-speaking and Arawak-speaking groups. Most of modern Central America was part of the Mesoamerican civilization. The Native American societies of Mesoamerica occupied the land ranging from central Mexico in the north to Costa Rica in the south. The cultures of Panama traded with both Mesoamerica and South America and can be considered transitional between those two cultural areas.

Columbus proceeded to observe the people and their cultural lifestyle. He also explored the northeast coast of Cuba, landing on October 28, and the north-western coast of Hispaniola, present day Haiti, by December 5. Here, the Santa María ran aground on Christmas Day, December 25, 1492, and had to be abandoned. Columbus was received by the native cacique Guacanagari, who gave him permission to leave some of his men behind. Columbus founded the settlement, La Navidad, leaving behind 39 men.

Convinced he had discovered the edges of Asia, Columbus set sail back to Spain on January 15, 1493, aboard the caravel Niña. According to the journal of his voyage, the two ships were caught in the roughest storm of their journey, and, on the night of February 13, lost contact with each other. All hands on the Niña vowed, if they were spared, to make a pilgrimage to the nearest church of Our Lady wherever they first made land. On the morning of February 15, land was spotted. Columbus believed they were approaching the Azores, but other members of the crew felt that they were considerably north of the islands. Columbus turned out to be right.

On the night of February 17, the Niña laid anchor at Santa Maria Island, but the cable broke on sharp rocks, forcing Columbus to stay offshore until the morning, when a safer location was found to drop anchor nearby. A few sailors took a boat to the island, where they were told by several islanders of a still safer place to land, so the Niña moved once again. At this spot, Columbus took on board several islanders who had gathered onshore with food, and told them that his crew wished to come ashore to fulfill their vow. The islanders told him that a small shrine dedicated to Our Lady was nearby. Columbus sent half of the crew members to the island to fulfill their vow, but he and the rest of the crew stayed on the Niña, planning to send the other half to the island upon the return of the first crew members. While the first crew members were saying their prayers at the shrine, they were taken prisoner by the islanders, under orders from the island’s captain, João de Castanheira, ostensibly out of fear that the men were pirates.

Replica of the Niña operated by the Columbus Foundation in Morro Bay at San Luis Obisbo, California. Photo taken on November 4, 2008.
Replica of the Niña operated by the Columbus Foundation in Morro Bay at San Luis Obisbo, California. Photo taken on November 4, 2008.

The boat that the crew members had taken to the island was then commandeered by Castanheira, which he took with several armed men to the Niña, in an attempt to arrest Columbus. During a verbal battle across the bows of both craft, during which Columbus did not grant permission for him to come aboard, Castanheira announced that he did not believe or care who Columbus said that he was, especially if he was indeed from Spain. Castanheira returned to the island. However, after another two days, Castanheira released the prisoners, having been unable to get confessions from them, and having been unable to capture his real target, Columbus. There are later claims that Columbus was also captured, but this is not backed up by Columbus’s log book.

Leaving the island of Santa Maria in the Azores on February 23, Columbus headed for Castilian Spain, but another storm forced him into Portugal’s Lisbon. He anchored next to the King’s harbor patrol ship on March 4, 1493, where he was told a fleet of 100 caravels had been lost in the storm. Astoundingly, both the Niña and the Pinta had been spared. Not finding King John II in Lisbon, Columbus wrote a letter to him and waited for the king’s reply. The king requested that Columbus go to Vale do Paraíso north of Lisbon to meet him.

Relations between Portugal and Castile were poor at the time. Columbus went to meet with the king at Vale do Paraíso. Hearing of Columbus’s discoveries, the Portuguese king informed him that he believed the voyage to be in violation of the 1479 Treaty of Alcáçovas. After spending more than a week in Portugal, he set sail for Spain. Word of his finding new lands rapidly spread throughout Europe. He reached Palos de la Frontera on March 15, and the Monument a Colom in Barcelona commemorates his arrival.

Columbus and his remaining crew came home to a hero’s welcome when they returned to Spain. He showed off what he had brought back from his voyage to the monarchs, including a few small samples of gold, pearls, gold jewelry stolen from natives, a few natives he had kidnapped, flowers, and a hammock. He gave the monarchs a few of the gold nuggets, gold jewelry, and pearls, as well as the previously unknown tobacco plant, the pineapple fruit, the turkey, and the hammock. The monarchs invited Columbus to dine with them. A taster even tasted the food from each of his dishes before he ate to “make sure it was not poisoned.” He was given his own footmen to open doors for him and to serve him at the table. Columbus was even rewarded with his own coat of arms. He did not bring any of the coveted East Indies spices, such as the exceedingly expensive black pepper, ginger or cloves. In his log, he wrote “there is also plenty of ‘ají’, which is their pepper, which is more valuable than black pepper, and all the people eat nothing else, it being very wholesome”. The word “ají” is still used in South American Spanish for chili peppers.

Illustrative woodcut from the Latin edition of Columbus's letter printed in Basel in 1494 announcing his discoveries.
Illustrative woodcut from the Latin edition of Columbus’s letter printed in Basel in 1494 announcing his discoveries.

During the return journey, while aboard the ship, Columbus wrote a letter reporting the results of his voyage and announcing his discovery of the “islands of the Indies”. In a postscript added while he was idling in Lisbon, Columbus reports sending at least two copies of the letter to the Spanish court — one copy to the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, and a second copy to the Aragonese official Luis de Santángel, the principal supporter and financial backer of Columbus’s expedition.

Columbus’s letter to the royal court in Madrid was extravagant. He insisted he had reached Asia (it was Cuba) and an island off the coast of China (Hispaniola). His descriptions were part fact, part fiction: “Hispaniola is a miracle. Mountains and hills, plains and pastures, are both fertile and beautiful … the harbors are unbelievably good and there are many wide rivers of which the majority contain gold. … There are many spices, and great mines of gold and other metals…”

Copies of Columbus’s letter were somehow picked up by publishers, and printed editions of his letter began to appear throughout Europe within weeks of Columbus’s return to Spain. A Spanish version of the letter (based on the letter he sent to Luis de Santangel) was printed in Barcelona probably in late March or early April 1493. A Latin translation of the letter (addressed to Gabriel Sanchez) was printed in Rome about a month later. Within the first year of his arrival, eight more editions of the Latin version were printed in various European cities — two in Basel, three in Paris, another two in Rome and another in Antwerp. Already by June 1493, the letter had been translated by a poet into Italian verse, and that version went through multiple editions in the next couple of years. A German translation appeared in 1497. The rapid dissemination of Columbus’s letter was enabled by the printing press, a new invention that had established itself only recently.

Columbus’s letter (particularly the Latin edition) forged the initial public perception of the newly discovered lands. Indeed, until the discovery of Columbus’s on-board journal, first published in the 19th century, this letter was the only known direct testimony by Columbus of his experiences on the first voyage of 1492. It is estimated that, on the whole, between 1493 and 1500, some 3,000 copies of the Columbus letter were published, half of them in Italy, making it something of a best-seller for the times. By contrast, Columbus’s 1495 letter of his second voyage and his 1505 letter of his fourth voyage had only one printing each, probably not exceeding 200 copies.

Manuscript version of Christopher Columbus' letter, discovered in 1983.
Manuscript version of Christopher Columbus’ letter, discovered in 1983.

Original versions of Columbus’s letter, written by his hand, have never been found. Only the printed editions — Spanish and Latin — are known. However, a third version of the letter, contained in a 16th-century manuscript collection known as the Libro Copiador, was discovered in 1985. This manuscript version differs in several significant ways from the printed editions and, although its authenticity is still tentative, many believe the Copiador version to be a closer rendition of Columbus’s original missive.

The published Latin versions of the letter are almost all titled “Letter of Columbus, on the islands of India beyond the Ganges recently discovered”. The term “India beyond the Ganges” (India extra Gangem) was the archaic term frequently used by earlier geographers to refer vaguely to Southeast Asia (roughly from Burma down to the Malay peninsula); the Indian subcontinent proper was referred to as “India within the Ganges” (India intra Gangem). Thus, the islands of “India beyond the Ganges” claimed to have been reached would roughly correspond to modern Indonesia or thereabouts. The earlier printed Spanish edition bears no title, nor does the manuscript copy of the letter to the Catholic monarchs (Libro Copiador).

In the letter, Christopher Columbus does not describe the journey itself, saying only that he traveled thirty-three days and arrived at the islands of “the Indies” (las Indias), “all of which I took possession for our Highnesses, with proclaiming heralds and flying royal standards, and no one objecting”. He describes the islands as being inhabited by “Indians” (Indios).

In the printed letters, Columbus relates how he bestowed new names on six of the islands. Four are in the modern Bahamas: (1) Sant Salvador (for which he also gives the local name, Guanaham in the Spanish edition and Guanahanin in the Latin letter; modern English texts normally render it as Guanahani), (2) Santa Maria de Concepcion, (3) Ferrandina (Fernandinam in the Latin version, in modern texts Fernandina), and (4) la isla Bella (given as Hysabellam in the Latin version, and La Isabela in modern texts). He also names (5) La Isla Juana (Joanam in Latin, modern Cuba) and (6) the island of La Spañola (Hispana in the Latin letter, modern Hispaniola). In the letter, Columbus says that he believes Juana is actually part of the continental mainland (terra firme) of Cathay (Catayo, archaic for China), even though he also admits some of the Indians he encountered informed him that Juana was an island. Later in the letter, Columbus locates the islands at the latitude of 26°N, a fair bit north of their actual location (“es distinta de la linea equinocial veinte e seis grados“). In the Copiador version, Columbus makes no mention of the latitudes nor the native name Guanahanin.

The left page depicts the six islands of the Indies in a woodcut from the 1494 Basel edition of Columbus's letter
The left page depicts the six islands of the Indies in a woodcut from the 1494 Basel edition of Columbus’s letter.

In his letter, Columbus describes how he sailed along the northern coast of Juana (Cuba) for a spell, searching for cities and rulers, but found only small villages “without any sort of government” (“no cosa de regimiento“). He notes that the natives usually fled when approached. Finding this track fruitless, he decided to double-back and head southeast, eventually sighting the large island of Hispaniola, and explored along its northern coast. Columbus exaggerates the size of these lands, claiming Juana is greater in size than Great Britain (“maior que Inglaterra y Escocia juntas“) and Hispaniola larger than the Iberian peninsula (“en cierco tiene mas que la Espana toda“).

In his letter, Columbus seems to attempt to present the islands of the Indies as suitable for future colonization. Columbus’s descriptions of the natural habitat in his letters emphasize the rivers, woodlands, pastures, and fields “very suitable for planting and cultivating, for raising all sorts of livestock herds and erecting towns and farms” (“gruesas para plantar y senbrar, para criar ganados de todas suertes, para hedificios de villas e lugares“). He also proclaims that Hispaniola “abounds in many spices, and great mines of gold, and other metals” (“ay mucha especiarias y grandes minas de oros y otros metales“). He compares lush and well-watered Hispaniola as more favorable to settlement than mountainous Cuba.

Columbus characterizes the native inhabitants of the Indies islands as primitive, innocent, without reason (“like beasts”, “como bestias“), and unthreatening. He describes how they go about largely naked, that they lack iron and weapons, and are by nature fearful and timid (“son asi temerosos sin remedio“), even “excessively cowardly” (“en demasiado grado cobardes“).

According to Columbus, when persuaded to interact, the natives are quite generous and naïve, willing to exchange significant amounts of valuable gold and cotton for useless glass trinkets, broken crockery, and even shoelace tips (“cabos de agugetas“). In the printed editions (albeit not in the Copiador version) Columbus notes that he tried to prevent his own sailors from exploiting the Indians’ naïveté, and that he even gave away things of value, like cloth, to the natives as gifts, in order to make them well-disposed “so that they might be made Christians and incline full of love and service towards Our Highnesses and all the Castilian nation”.

 Columbus landing on Hispaniola, December 6, 1492, greeted by Arawak Indians offering Columbus's men piles of gold in exchange for their shoelaces. Illustration from Theodor de Bry, 1594.
Columbus landing on Hispaniola, December 6, 1492, greeted by Arawak Indians offering Columbus’s men piles of gold in exchange for their shoelaces. Illustration from Theodor de Bry, 1594.

Columbus makes particular note that the natives lack organized religion, not even idolatry (“no conocian ninguna seta nin idolatria“). He claims the natives believed the Spaniards and their ships had “come down from heaven” (“que yo…venia del cielo“). Columbus notes that the natives of different islands seem to all speak the same language (the Arawaks of the region all spoke Taíno), which he conjectures will facilitate “conversion to the holy religion of Christ, to which in truth, as far as I can perceive, they are very ready and favorably inclined”.

Possibly worried that his characterization might make it appear that the natives are unsuitable for useful labor, Columbus notes that the Indians are “not slow or unskilled, but of excellent and acute understanding”. He also notes that the “women appear to work more than the men”.

Columbus’s physical descriptions are brief, noting only that the natives have straight hair and are “nor are they black like those in Guinea”. They go around usually naked, although sometimes they wear a small cotton loincloth. They often carry a hollow cane, which they use to both till and fight. They eat their food “with many spices which are far too hot” (“comen con especias muchas y muy calientes en demasía“; in the Copiador version Columbus refers to a red hot chili pepper by its Taíno name, agís). Columbus claims the Indians practice monogamy (“each man is content with only one wife”), “except for the rulers and kings” (which can have as many as twenty wives). He confesses he is uncertain if they have a notion of private property (“Ni he podido entender si tenian bienes proprios“). In a more detailed passage, Columbus describes the Indian oar-driven canoe (canoa, the first known written appearance of this word, originally from the Taíno language). Columbus compares the Indian canoe to the European fusta (small galley).

Columbus lands in Hispaniola. Some natives flee, others trade. Woodcut from 1494 Basel edition of Columbus's letter. Notice the depiction of the oar-driven galley in the foreground – an early European interpretation of the Indian canoe, as per Columbus's description. This is actually a Venetian galley, with the Lion of Saint Mark on the awning, directly copied from an earlier 1486 woodcut by Erhard Reuwich showing the harbor of Rhodes.
Columbus lands in Hispaniola. Some natives flee, others trade. Woodcut from 1494 Basel edition of Columbus’s letter. Notice the depiction of the oar-driven galley in the foreground – an early European interpretation of the Indian canoe, as per Columbus’s description. This is actually a Venetian galley, with the Lion of Saint Mark on the awning, directly copied from an earlier 1486 woodcut by Erhard Reuwich showing the harbor of Rhodes.

Towards the end of the letter, Columbus reveals that local Indians told him about the possible existence of cannibals, which he refers to as “monsters” (“monstruos“). This is a probable reference to the Caribs from the Leeward Islands, although neither the word “cannibal” nor “Carib” appears in the printed editions (however, in the Copiador letter, he claims the “monsters” come from an island called “Caribo“, which might be present-day Dominica). Columbus says the monsters are reported to be long-haired, very ferocious, and “eat human flesh” (“los quales comen carne humana“). Columbus has not seen them himself, but says that local Indians claim the monsters have many canoes, and that they sail from island to island, raiding everywhere. However, Columbus proclaims disbelief in the existence of these “monsters”, or rather suggests this is likely just a local Indian myth pertaining to some distant Indian seafaring tribe who are probably not unlike themselves (“I regard them as of no more account than the others”, “yo no los tengo en nada mas que a los otros“).

Columbus connects the monsters story to another local legend about a tribe of female warriors, who are said to inhabit the island of “Matinino” east of Hispaniola (“first island of the Indies, closest to Spain”, perhaps present-day Guadalupe). Columbus speculates that the aforesaid canoe-borne monsters are merely the “husbands” of these warrior women, who visit the island intermittently for mating. The island of women reportedly abounds in copper, which the warrior-women forge into weapons and shields.

Lest his readers begin to get wary, Columbus rounds off with a more optimistic report, saying the local Indians of Hispaniola also told him about a very large island nearby which “abounds in countless gold” (“en esta ay oro sin cuenta“). He doesn’t give this gold island a name in the printed letters, but in the Copiador version, this island is identified and named as Jamaica. In the printed letters, Columbus claims to be bringing back some of the gold island’s “bald-headed” inhabitants with him. Earlier in the letter, Columbus had spoken also of the land of “Avan” (“Faba” in the Copiador letter), in the western parts of Juana, where men are said to be “born with tails” (“donde nacan la gente con cola“)—probably a reference to the Guanajatabey of western Cuba.

The Libro Copiador version of the letter contains more native names of islands than the printed editions. For instance, in the Copiador letter, Columbus notes that island of “monsters” is called “Caribo“, and explains how the warrior-women of Matinino send away their male children to be raised there. It also refers to an island called “Borinque” (Puerto Rico), unmentioned in the printed editions, that the natives report to lie between Hispaniola and Caribo. The Copiador letter notes Juana is called “Cuba” by the natives (“aquéllos llaman de Cuba“). He also gives more details about the gold island, saying it is “larger than Juana“, and lying on the other side of it, “which they call Jamaica”, where “all the people have no hair and there is gold without measure” (“que llaman Jamaica; adonde toda la gente della son si cabellos, en ésta ay oro sin medida“). In the Copiador letter, Columbus suggests that he is bringing normal (full-haired) Indians back to Spain who have been to Jamaica, who will report more about it (rather than bringing the island’s own bald-headed inhabitants, as claimed in the printed letters).

Facsimile of the first page of the folio edition of the Spanish text of Columbus's letter to Luis de Santangel, dated February 15, 1493, and printed in Barcelona. From the original unique copy currently held by the New York Public Library.
Facsimile of the first page of the folio edition of the Spanish text of Columbus’s letter to Luis de Santangel, dated February 15, 1493, and printed in Barcelona. From the original unique copy currently held by the New York Public Library.

Columbus also gives an account of some of his own activities in the letters. In the letter, he notes that he ordered the erection of the fort of La Navidad on the island of Hispaniola, leaving behind some Spanish colonists and traders. Columbus reports he also left behind a caravel — evidently covering up the loss of his flagship, the Santa María. He reports that La Navidad is located near reported gold mines, and is a well-placed entrepot for the commerce that will doubtlessly soon be opened with the Great Khan (“gran Can“) on the mainland. He speaks of a local king near Navidad whom he befriended and treated him as a brother (“y grand amistad con el Rey de aquella tierra en tanto grado que se preciava de me lhamar e tener por hermano“) — almost certainly a reference to Guacanagaríx, cacique of Marién.

In the Copiador version (but not the printed editions), Columbus alludes to the treachery of “one from Palos” (“uno de Palos“), who made off with one of the ships, evidently a complaint about Martín Alonso Pinzón, the captain of the Pinta (although this portion of the Copiador manuscript is damaged and hard to read). The Copiador version also mentions other points of personal friction not contained in the printed editions, e.g. references to the ridicule Columbus suffered in the Spanish court prior to his departure, his bowing to pressure to use large ships for ocean navigation, rather than the small caravels he preferred, which would have been more convenient for exploring.

At the end of his printed letter, Columbus promises that if the Catholic Monarchs back his bid to return with a larger fleet, he will bring back a lot of gold, spices, cotton (repeatedly referenced in the letter), mastic gum, aloe, slaves, and possibly rhubarb and cinnamon (“of which I heard about here”).

Columbus ends the letter urging their Majesties, the Church, and the people of Spain to give thanks to God for allowing him to find so many souls, hitherto lost, ready for conversion to Christianity and eternal salvation. He also urges them to give thanks in advance for all the temporal goods found in abundance in the Indies that shall soon be made available to Castile and the rest of Christendom.

The 1494 Basel edition of Columbus's letter.
The 1494 Basel edition of Columbus’s letter.

The Copiador version (but not the printed Spanish or Latin editions) also contains a somewhat bizarre detour into messianic fantasy, where Columbus suggests the monarchs should use the wealth of the Indies to finance a new crusade to conquer Jerusalem, Columbus himself offering to underwrite a large army of ten thousand cavalry and hundred thousand infantry to that end.

The sign off varies between editions. The printed Spanish letter is dated aboard the caravel “on the Canary Islands” on February 15, 1493. (“Fecha en la caravela sobra las yslas de Canaria a xv de Febrero, ano Mil.cccclxxxxiii“), and signed merely “El Almirante“, while the printed Latin editions are signed “Cristoforus Colom, oceanee classis prefectus” (“Prefect of the Ocean fleet”). However, it is doubtful Columbus actually signed the original letter that way. According to the Capitulations of Santa Fe negotiated prior to his departure (April 1492), Christopher Columbus was not entitled to use the title of “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” unless his voyage was successful. It would be highly presumptuous for Columbus to sign his name that way in February or March, when the original letter was drafted, before that success was confirmed by the royal court. Columbus only obtained confirmation of his title on March 30, 1493, when the Catholic monarchs, acknowledging the receipt of his letter, address Columbus for the first time as “our Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Vice-Roy and Governor of the islands which have been discovered in the Indies” (“nuestro Almirante del mar Océano e Visorrey y Gobernador de las Islas que se han descubierto en las Indias“). This suggests the signature in the printed editions was not in the original letter, but was an editorial choice by the copyists or printers.

In the Copiador version there are passages (omitted from the printed editions) petitioning the monarchs for the honors promised him at Santa Fe, and additionally asking for a cardinalate for his son and the appointment of his friend, Pedro de Villacorta, as paymaster of the Indies. The Copiador letter signs off as “made in the sea of Spain on March 4, 1493” (“Fecha en la mar de España, a quatro días de março“), a stark contrast to the February 15 given in the printed versions. There is no name or signature at the end of the Copiador letter; it ends abruptly “En la mar” (“At sea”).

In the printed Spanish editions (albeit not in the Latin editions nor the Copiador), there is a small postscript dated March 14, written in Lisbon, noting that the return journey took only 28 days (in contrast with the 33 days outward), but that unusual winter storms had kept him delayed for an additional 23 days. A codicil in the printed Spanish edition indicates that Columbus sent this letter to the “Escribano de Racion“, and another to their Highnesses. The Latin editions contain no postscript, but end with a verse epigram added by Leonardus de Cobraria, Bishop of Monte Peloso.

Woodcut on the title page of 'Lettera delle isole novamente trovata', an Italian translation into verse by Giuliano Dati, published in Florence, October 1493 (second ed.). Ferdinand II, King of Spain, is depicted pointing across the Atlantic to where Columbus is landing with three ships amid large group of Indians.
Woodcut on the title page of ‘Lettera delle isole novamente trovata’, an Italian translation into verse by Giuliano Dati, published in Florence, October 1493 (second ed.). Ferdinand II, King of Spain, is depicted pointing across the Atlantic to where Columbus is landing with three ships amid large group of Indians.

Christopher Columbus’s letter is often compared to the letters of other early explorers, notably his contemporary Amerigo Vespucci, whose letters of in 1504–1505 enjoyed even greater dissemination and popularity. The tone and focus of Columbus’s letter may have something to do with it. Columbus’s descriptions of the lands and peoples are not really as a detached observer, filled with sheer curiosity, but rather more as an invested entrepreneur with an eye for economic opportunities. It should be remembered that the Columbus expedition was commercial in purpose. Having failed to find the great markets and cities of China or India, he was returning with empty hulls. So it was unsurprising that in his letter, which has the purpose of reporting the results of his voyage to his investors, Columbus emphasized future economic prospects to make it appear a success.

Columbus’s letter introduced his name to European audiences, but did not quite immortalize it. In years to come, it was Amerigo Vespucci’s name that became associated with the new continent. Columbus’s reputation and achievement was cemented less by his own pen, and more by that of early Spanish chroniclers, like Peter Martyr d’Anghiera, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Bartolomé de las Casas, Francisco López de Gómara, Antonio Herrera and, of course, his own son, Ferdinand Columbus.

No original manuscript copy of Columbus’s letter is known to exist. Historians have had to rely on clues in the printed editions, many of them published without date or location, to reconstruct the history of the letter. It is assumed that Columbus wrote the original letter in Spanish. As a result, historians tend to agree that the Barcelona edition (which has no date or publisher name, and the appearance of being hurriedly printed) was probably the first to be published, and was the closest to the original manuscript. At the end of the Barcelona edition there is a codicil stating:

Esta carta enbió Colom al Escrivano de Ración, de las Islas halladas en las Indias, contenida á otra de sus Altezas.” (Trans: “This letter was sent by Columbus to the Escrivano de Racion. Of the islands found in the Indies. it contains (was contained in?) another (letter) for their Highnesses”)

This suggests that Columbus dispatched two letters — one to the Escrivano de Ración, Luis de Santángel, and another to the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. In the printed version of the Spanish letter, the post-script is dated March 14, rather than March 4; this could be just a printer’s error; the letter to the monarchs in the Libro Copiador gives the correct post-script date, March 4, 1493.

There are two known editions of the (Spanish) Letter to Santangel, and at least six editions of the (Latin) Letter to Gabriel Sanchez published in the first year (1493), plus an additional rendering of the narrative into Italian verse by Giuliano Dati (which went through five editions). Other than the Italian verse, the first foreign language translation was into German in 1497. In all, seventeen editions of the letter were published between 1493 and 1497. A manuscript copy of the letter to the Catholic monarchs, found in 1985, remained unprinted until recently.

The existence of this manuscript letter was unknown until it was discovered in 1985. The manuscript letter was found as part of a collection known as the Libro Copiador, a book containing manuscript copies of nine letters written by Columbus to the Catholic monarchs, with dates ranging from March 4, 1493, to October 15, 1495, copied by the hand of a writer in the late 16th century. Seven of these nine letters were previously unknown. Its discovery was announced in 1985 by an antiquarian book dealer in Tarragona. It was acquired in 1987 by the Spanish government and is currently deposited at the Archivo General de Indias in Seville. A facsimile edition was published in Rumeu de Armas (1989). A transcription and English translation can be found in Reading Columbus by Margarita Zamora (1993).

Although scholars have tentatively embraced the Libro Copiador as probably authentic, it is still in the early stages of careful and critical scrutiny, and should be treated a bit cautiously. The first letter in the copybook purports to be a copy of the original letter sent by Christopher Columbus to the Catholic Monarchs from Lisbon announcing the discovery. If authentic, it is prior to the Barcelona edition, indeed it precedes all known versions of the letter. If authentic, this letter practically solves the “Sanchez problem”: it confirms that the Latin letter to Gabriel Sanchez is not a translation of the letter that the Spanish codicil said Columbus sent to the Monarchs, and strongly suggests that the Sanchez letter is just a Latin translation of the letter Columbus sent to Luis de Santangel.

An English translation of the manuscript letter to the Catholic Monarchs, from the Libro Copiador can be found online on the University of California Press website while King’s College in London hosts a copy of the Spanish letter of Columbus to Luis de Sant’ Angel, 1493 edition, There are many other versions and translations online as well.

Spain - Scott #419 (1930)
Spain – Scott #419 (1930)

On September 29, 1930, Spain released 15 postage stamps (Scott #418-432) and one Express service stamp (Scott #E8) in tribute to Christopher Columbus. The lower denomination stamps were lithographed while the higher values were engraved. They were designed by José Luis López Sánchez-Toda, A. Gisbert and D. Puebla with engraving done by Sánchez-Toda, except for the “Departure from Palos” stamps which were engraved by C. Delhom. Printing was done by Waterlow and Sons Ltd. of London, England. Amazingly, these were privately produced. Their promoters presented a certain quantity of their labels to the Spanish Postal Authorities who placed them on sale and allowed them to be used for three days, retaining the money obtained from their sale. Many so-called “errors” of color and perforation are known as well as imperforate copies of all sixteen stamps.

The same date as the Columbus postage stamps and Express service stamp were issued — September 29, 1930 — also saw the release of the Spanish-American issue of air mail stamps (Scott #C43-C49), the lowest value of which picturing La Rábida Monastery was covered on this blog last month. Christopher Columbus-themed stamps have also appeared on A Stamp A Day in articles featuring releases from Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, St. Kitts-Nevis (twice: one was an entity profile, the other details Columbus Day), Saint Lucia, and Trinidad, I must admit that the 1930 stamps from Spain are among my favorites, perhaps a close second to the Columbian issue released by the United States in 1893 (which have yet to be featured on ASAD).

Civil flag of SpainSpanish coat of armsFlag of the Cross of Burgundy (Spain) Pennant (Banner of Arms) of the Catholic Monarchs (Spain) from 1475 to 1492

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