Select Letters of Columbus

Author: Christopher Columbus  | Date: 1870

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R. H. Major Hakluyt Society London 1870

The Great Delusion

[1492]

Sir:

Believing that you will rejoice at the glorious success that our Lord has granted me in my voyage, I write this to tell you how in thirty-three days I reached the Indies with the fleet which the most illustrious King and Queen, our Sovereigns, gave me, where I discovered a great many thickly-populated islands. Without meeting resistance, I have taken possession of them all for their Highnesses by issuing proclamation and by unfurling the royal standard.

To the first island I discovered I gave the name of San Salvador1 in remembrance of His High Majesty, who has marvellously brought all this to pass. The Indians call it Guanahan. The second I named the Island of Santa Maria de Concepcion;2 the third, Fernandina;3 the fourth Isa-bella;4 the fifth, Juana;5 and thus to each I gave a new name. When I reached Juana, I followed its coast to the westward, and found it so large that I thought it must be the mainland—the province of Cathay; and, as I found neither towns nor villages on the seacoast, save for a few hamlets, where it was impossible to speak to the people because they all took flight instantly, I continued on the same route, thinking I could not fail to light upon some great cities or towns. At length, after traversing many leagues and finding nothing new, and observing that the coast was leading me northward (which I wished to avoid, because winter had already set in and it was my intention to head for the south; and because, moreover, the winds were contrary), I resolved not to wait for a change in the weather, but returned to a certain harbor whence I sent two men ashore to ascertain whether there was any king or large cities in that region. They explored for three days, and found countless small hamlets with numberless inhabitants, but with no kind of government. They therefore returned.

In the meantime I had learned from some other Indians I had already taken that this land war without question an island. Accordingly, I followed the coast eastward for a distance of one hundred and seven leagues, where it ended in a cape. From that point I saw another isle to the eastward at eighteen leagues distance, to which I gave the name of Hispaniola.6 Thither I went, and followed its northern coast to the eastward (just as I had done in Juana), one hundred and seventy-eight leagues7 due east.

This island, like all the others, is extraordinarily large. It has many ports excelling any in Christendom. The lands are high, with numerous mountains and peaks incomparably higher than on the island of Cetefrey. They are all most beautiful, of a thousand different shapes, accessible, and covered with an endless variety of trees of such great height that they seem to reach the sky. I am told that they never lose their foliage. They appeared as green and luxuriant as trees are in Spain in the month of May. Some were in bloom, others beating fruit, and still others varied according to their nature. The nightingale and other small birds of a thousand different kinds were singing; and that, in November, the month when I was there. There were palm trees of six or eight kinds, wonderful in their beautiful variety. The same holds for all the other trees and fruits and grasses. Trees, plants, or fruits failed us with admiration. There are wonderful pine groves, and very extensive plains. There is also honey, many kinds of birds, and a great variety of fruits. In the interior there are many mines of metals and innumerable people.

Hispaniola is, indeed, a wonder. Its mountains and plains, its meadows and fields, are so rich and fertile for planting and for pasturage, and for building towns and villages. Its harbors axe incredibly fine, and the number and size and magnificence of its rivers, most of which bear gold, surpass anything that could be believed by any who had not seen them. The trees, fruits, and grasses differ widely from those in Juana. In this island there are many spices and extensive mines of gold and other metals. The inhabitants, both men and women, of this and all the other islands I have discovered or gained intelligence of, go as naked as they were born, with the exception that some of the women cover one part only with a single leaf of grass or with a piece of cotton, made for that purpose. They have neither iron nor steel nor weapons, nor are they competent to use them, not that they are not well-formed and of handsome stature, but because they are extraordinarily timid. Their only arms are sticks of cane, cut in the seeding time, to which they fasten small sharpened sticks, and even these they dare not use. On several occasions I have sent two or three men ashore to some village to converse with them, and the natives have come out in countless numbers, but, as soon as they saw our men approach, would flee with such haste that a father would not even stop to protect his son; and this, not because any harm had been done to any of them, for, from the first, wherever I went and had speech with them, I gave them of all that I had, such as cloth and many other things, without receiving anything in return, but they are, as I have described, incurably timid.

It is true that, when they are reassured and have thrown off this fear, they are guileless and so generous of all they have that no one would believe it who had not seen it. They never refuse anything that is asked for. On the contrary, they even offer it themselves, and exhibit so much loving kindness that they would give their very hearts. Whether it be something of value or of little worth that is offered them, they are content. I forbade that worthless things, such as bits of broken bowls, pieces of glass, and ends of straps, be given to them; although, when they succeeded in obtaining them, they thought they possessed the finest jewel in the world. One sailor was found to have received for a leather strap a piece of gold weighing two and a half castellanos,9 and others much more for objects of far less value. For new blancas10 they would give all they had, were it two or three castellanos of gold or an arroba11 or two of spun cotton. Even bits of broken hoops of wine casks they accepted, and gave, like fools, all that they possessed in return. This seemed wrong to me, and I forbade it. I gave away a thousand good and pretty articles which I had brought with me in order to win their affection, to induce them to become Christians, and to love and serve their Highnesses and the whole Spanish nation, and to help us by giving us things of which we stand in need, but which they possess in abundance.

They have no religion, and are not idolators, but believe that all power and goodness are in heaven. They are firmly convinced that I, with my ships and men, came from heaven, and, in this belief, received me at every place at which I touched, after they had overcome their apprehension. This does not spring from ignorance, for they are very intelligent, and navigate all these seas and relate everything to us astonishingly well; but they have never seen men with clothes on, nor vessels like ours.

On my reaching the Indies, I took by force, in the first island I discovered, some of these natives, that they might learn our language and give me information in regard to what existed in these parts; and it so happened that they soon understood us and we them, either by words or signs, and they have been very serviceable to us. They are still with me, and, from repeated conversations that I have had with them, I find that they still believe that I come from heaven. They were the first to declare this wherever I went, and the others ran from house to house and to the neighboring villages, crying out,

"Come! Come! and see the man from heaven!"

Then all, both men and women, once reassured about us, came, both small and great, and brought us something to eat and drink, which they gave us with extraordinary kindness.

They have in all these islands very many canoes like our rowboats: some larger, some smaller, but most of them larger than a barge of eighteen seats. They are not so wide, because they are made of one single piece of timber, but a barge could not keep up with them in rowing, because they go with incredible speed, and with these canoes they navigate among these islands

THE ENIGMATIC DISCOVERER, CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, AND HIS MYSTERIOUS SIGNATUREThe orthodox interpretation of the signature is: Serrus Supplex Altissimi Salvatoris. Another version is: Sanctum. Sanctus. Sanctus Adondi—"Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord."
ST. BARTHOLOMEW’S NIGHT—THE MORNING AFTERCatherine de Medici sees the results
(which are innumerable) and carry on their commerce. I have seen some of these canoes with seventy and eighty men, each with his oar.

In all these islands I observed little difference in the appearance of the inhabitants, nor in their manners nor language, except that they all understood each other, which is very singular, and leads me to hope that their Highnesses will take means for their conversion to our holy faith, toward which they are very well disposed.

I have already said how I had gone one hundred and seven leagues in following the seacoast of Juana in a straight line from west to east: and from that survey I can state that the island is larger than England and Scotland together, because, beyond these one hundred and seven leagues, there lie to the west two provinces which I have not yet visited, one of which is called Avan, where the people are born with a tail. These two provinces cannot be less in length than from fifty to sixty leagues, from what can be learned from the Indians that I have with me, and who are acquainted with all these islands. The other, Hispaniola, has a greater circumference than all Spain, from Catalonia by the seacoast to Fuenterabia in Biscay, since on one of its four sides I made one hundred and eighty-eight great leagues in a straight line from west to east. This is something to covet, and when found not to be lost sight of.

There was one large town in Hispaniola of which especially I took possession, situated in a locality well adapted for the working of the gold mines, and for all kinds of commerce, either with the mainland on this side, or with that beyond which is the land of the Great Khan, with which there will be vast commerce and great profit. To that city I gave the name of Villa de Navidad, and fortified it with a fortress, which by this time will be quite completed, and I have left in it a sufficient number of men with arms, artillery, and provisions to hold it for more than a year, as well as a barge and a master seaman skilful in the arts necessary for building others. I have struck up such friendly relations with the king of that country that he was proud to call me his brother and hold me as such. Even should he change his mind and wish to quarrel with my men, neither he nor his subjects know what arms are, but go naked, and are the most timid people in the world. The men I have left there could, unassisted, destroy the whole country, and will run no risk if they only know how to behave properly.

In all these islands the men seem to be satisfied with one wife, save for their chief or king, whom they allow twenty. The women appear to me to work harder than the men. I have not been able to ascertain whether they have any property of their own. It seemed to me that what one had was shared with the rest, particularly food. I have not found in those islands any monsters, as some expected; but, on the contrary, the people are very well formed, nor are they black, as in Guinea, but their hair is flowing, for they do not dwell where the sun’s rays are too potent. It is true that the sun has very great power here, for the country is distant only twenty-six degrees from the equinoctial line. In the islands where there are high mountains, the cold this winter was very severe, but the people endure it, not only from being habituated to it, but with the aid of meat eaten with excessively hot spices.

As for savages, I found no trace of them, except at the second island as one approaches the Indies.12 This is inhabited by a people regarded throughout these islands as extremely ferocious and eaters of human flesh. They possess many canoes, in which they visit all the Indian islands, and rob and plunder whatever they can. They are no worse looking than the others, except that they wear their hair long, like women, and use bows and arrows of the same cane, with a sharp stick at the end for want of iron, which they do not possess. Compared to these exceedingly cowardly people, they are truly ferocious. They are said to marry with the women of Mate-nino,13 the first island one comes to en route from Spain to the Indies, and in which there are no men. These women employ themselves in no labor suitable to their sex; but use bows and arrows of cane like those previously described, and arm and cover themselves with plates of copper, of which they have a great quantity. Another island, I am told (larger than Hispaniola) boasts natives who have no hair and countless gold. I bring with me Indians taken from these different islands to testify to all these points.

Finally, and speaking only of what has taken place in this hurried voyage, their Highnesses will see that I can give them all the gold they require, if they, in turn, will give me a little assistance, spices, cotton (as much as their Highnesses shall command to be shipped), and mastic, which until now has only been found in Greece, in the island of Chios, and which the Sig-noria sells at its own price; as much lign aloes as their Highnesses shall command to be shipped, and as many slaves—all heathen—as they choose to send. I think I have found rhubarb and cinnamon. A thousand other things of value will be found by the men I have left behind, for I tarried at no Point so long as the wind allowed me to proceed, except in the town of Navidad, which I left fortified and safe. Indeed, I might have accomplished much more had my vessels been in as good a condition as by rights they ought to have been.

Praised be the eternal almighty God, our Lord, Who gives to all who walk in His way victory over the seeming impossible; of which this voyage is signally an example, for, although others may have spoken or written about these countries, it was mere conjecture, as no one could say that he had seen them. As a result, those who heard listened the more, but regarded the matter more as a fable than anything else. But our Redeemer hath granted this victory to our most illustrious King and Queen and to their kingdoms rendered famous by this glorious event. In this all Christendom should rejoice, celebrating the event with great festivities and solemn thanksgivings to the Holy Trinity, with fervent prayers for the high distinction that will accrue to them in turning so many nations to our holy faith, and for the temporal benefits, not only to Spain, but to all Christians. Therefore, I have set down briefly these happenings. Farewell.

Written on board the caravel, off the Canary Isles, on the 15th of February, 1493.

Yours to command,

THE ADMIRAL

1Watling’s Island.

2Long Island.

3Great Exuma.

4Saometo or Crooked Island.

5Cuba.

6Or San Domingo.

7Actually 188 leagues.

9An old Spanish coin, equal to the fiftieth part of a mark of gold.

10Small copper coins, equal to about a quarter of a farthing.

11One arroba weighs 25 1bs.

12Dorninica.

13Martinique.

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Chicago: Christopher Columbus, Select Letters of Columbus, trans. R. H. Major in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed October 19, 2019, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=ASLG2QL4XMSTHLN.

MLA: Columbus, Christopher. Select Letters of Columbus, translted by R. H. Major, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 19 Oct. 2019. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=ASLG2QL4XMSTHLN.

Harvard: Columbus, C, Select Letters of Columbus, trans. . cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 19 October 2019, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=ASLG2QL4XMSTHLN.