A Source Book in Geography

Author: Christopher Columbus  | Date: 1960

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Columbus Describes the First Glimpse of the West Indies

Thursday, October 11th / He navigated to the west-south-west; they had a rougher sea than they had experienced during the whole voyage. They saw petrels and a green reed near the ship. Those in the caravel Pinta saw a cane and a stick, and they secured another small stick, carved, as it appeared, with iron, and a piece of cane, and other vegetation which grows on land, and a small board. Those in the caravel Niña also saw other indications of land and a stick loaded with barnacles. At these signs, all breathed again and rejoiced. On this day, to sunset, they went twenty-seven leagues. After sunset, he steered his former course to the west; they made twelve miles an hour, and up to two hours before midnight they had made ninety miles, which are twenty-two leagues and a half. And since the caravel Pinta was swifter and went ahead of the admiral, she found land and made the signals which the admiral had commanded. This land was first sighted by a sailor called Rodrigo de Triana, although the admiral, at ten o’clock in the night, being on the sterncastle, saw a light. It was, however, so obscured that he would not affirm that it was land, but called Pero Gutierrez, butler of the King’s dais, and told him that there seemed to be a light, and that he should watch for it. He did so, and saw it. He said the same also to Rodrigo Sanchez de Segovia, whom the King and Queen had sent in the fleet as veedor, and he saw nothing since he was not in a position from which it could be seen. After the admiral had so spoken, it was seen once or twice, and it was like a small wax candle, which was raised and lowered. Few thought that this was an indication of land, but the admiral was certain that they were near land. Accordingly, when they had said the Salve, which all sailors are accustomed to say and chant in their manner, and when they had all been gathered together, the admiral asked and urged them to keep a good look out from the forecastle and to watch carefully for land, and to him who should say first that he saw land, he would give at once a silk doublet apart from the other rewards which the Sovereigns had promised, which were ten thousand maravedis annually to him who first sighted it. Two hours after midnight land appeared, at a distance of about two leagues from them. They took in all sail, remaining with the mainsail, which is the great sail without bonnets, and kept jogging, waiting for day, a Friday, on which they reached a small island of the Lucayos, which is called in the language of the Indians "Guanahaní." Immediately they saw naked people, and the admiral went ashore in the armed boat, and Martin Alonso Pinzón and Vicente Yañez, his brother, who was captain of the Niña. The admiral brought out the royal standard, and the captains went with two banners of the Green Cross, which the admiral flew on all the ships as a flag, with an F and a Y, and over each letter their crown, one being on one side of the

and the other on the other. When they had landed, they saw very green trees and much water and fruit of various kinds. The admiral called the two captains and the others who had landed, and Rodrigo de Escobedo, secretary of the whole fleet, and Rodrigo Sanchez de Segovia, and said that they should bear witness and testimony how he, before them all, took possession of the island, as in fact he did, for the King and Queen, his Sovereigns, making the declarations which are required, as is contained more at length in the testimonies which were there made in writing. Soon many people of the island gathered there. What follows are the actual words of the admiral, in his book of his first voyage and discovery of these Indies.

"I," he says, "in order that they might feel great amity towards us, because I knew that they were a people to be delivered and converted to our holy faith rather by love than by force, gave to some among them some red caps and some glass beads, which they hung round their necks, and many other things of little value. At this they were greatly pleased and became so entirely our friends that it was a wonder to see. Afterwards they came swimming to the ships’ boats, where we were, and brought us parrots and cotton thread in balls, and spears and many other things, and we exchanged for them other things, such as small glass beads and hawks’ bells, which we gave to them. In fact, they took all and gave all, such as they had, with good will, but it seemed to me that they were a people very deficient in everything. They all go naked as their mothers bore them, and the women also, although I saw only one very young girl. And all those whom I did see were youths, so that I did not see one who was over thirty years of age; they were very well built, with very handsome bodies and very good faces. Their hair is coarse almost like the hairs of a horse’s tail and short; they wear their hair down over their eyebrows, except for a few strands behind, which they wear long and never cut. Some of them are painted black, and they are the colour of the people of the Canaries, neither black or white, and some of them are painted white and some red and some in any colour that they find. Some of them paint their faces, some their whole bodies, some only the eyes, and some only the nose. They do not bear arms or know them, for I showed to them swords and they took them by the blade and cut themselves through ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are certain reeds, without iron, and some of these have a fish tooth at the end, while others are pointed in various ways. They are all generally fairly tall, good looking and well proportioned. I saw some who bore marks of wounds on their bodies, and I made signs to them to ask how this came about, and they indicated to me that people came from other islands, which are near, and wished to capture them, and they defended themselves. And I believed and still believe that they come here from the mainland to take them for slaves. They should be good servants and of quick intelligence, since I see that they very soon say all that is said to them, and I believe that they would easily be made Christians, for it appeared to me that they had no creed. Our Lord willing, at the time of my departure I will bring back six of them to Your Highnesses, that they may learn to talk. I saw no beast of any kind in this island, except parrots." All these are the words of the admiral . . .

Sunday, November 25th / Before sunrise, he entered the boat and went to examine a cape or point of land to the south-east of the flat island, a matter of a league and a half, because it seemed to him that there should be a good river there. Directly at the beginning of the cape, on the southeastern side, having gone two crossbow shots, he saw a large stream of very fine water flowing; it came down from the mountain and made a great noise. He went to the river and saw some stones shining in it, on which were some veins of the colour of gold, and he remembered that in the river Tagus, at the mouth of it, near the sea, gold is found, and it seemed to him to be certain that there must be gold here, and he ordered some of those stones to be collected to take them to the Sovereigns. While they were there, the ships’ boys shouted that they saw pines. He looked towards the mountain and saw them, so tall and wonderful that he could not overstate their height and straightness, like spindles, thick and slender. From these he realised that ships could be built, and a vast quantity of planks secured and masts for the largest ships in Spain. He saw oaks and strawberry trees, and a good river, and means for constructing saw-mills. The land and the breezes were more temperate than any so far, owing to the height and beauty of the mountain ranges. He saw on the beach many other stones, the colour of iron, and others which some said came from silver mines. All these were brought down by the river . . .

They said also, concerning the beauty of the lands which they saw, that the best lands in Castile for beauty and fertility could not be compared with these. And the admiral saw that this was so from those lands which he had visited and from those which he had before him, and they told him that these could not be compared with those of that valley, which the plain of Cordoba did not equal, the two being as different as day and night. They said that all those lands were cultivated, and that through the middle of that valley there flowed a river, very wide and great, which could water all the lands. All the trees were green and full of fruit, and the plants all flowering and very tall, the roads very wide and good, the breezes like those of Castile in April. The nightingale and other small birds were singing as they do in that month in Spain, and he says that it was the greatest delight in the world. At night some small birds sang sweetly, and many crickets and frogs were heard. The fish were as those of Spain; they saw much mastic and aloe and cotton trees. They found no gold, nor is this surprising in the very short while that they were there. Here the admiral tested the length of the day and night, and from sunset to sunrise was twenty half-hour glasses, although he says that there may have been some error, either because they were not turned quickly enough or because the sand did not all pass through. He also says that he found by the quadrant that he was thirty-four degrees from the equinoctial line . . .

This land is very cool and the best that tongue can describe. It is very lofty and on the highest mountain oxen could plough and all could be made like the plains and valleys. In all Castile there is no land which could be compared to this for beauty and fertility; all this island and that of Tortuga is as cultivated as the plain of Cordoba. They have them sown with ajes, which are certain slips which they plant, and at the foot of them grow some roots like carrots, which serve as bread, and they grate them, knead them and make bread of them. Afterwards they again plant the same slip in another place and it again produces four or five of these roots, which are very savoury and have the exact taste of chestnuts. Those here are the largest and best that he had seen in any land, for he also says that they are found in Guinea; these here were as thick as a leg. He says of these people that they were all stout and valiant and not feeble like the others whom he had previously found, and with very pleasant voices; they have no creed. He says that the trees there grew so luxuriantly that their leaves were no longer green but dark coloured. It was a thing of wonder to behold those valleys and those rivers and fair springs of water, and the lands suited for growing bread, for raising stock of all kinds, of which they have none, for gardens, and for everything in the world that a man could desire.

From The Journal of Christopher Columbus, trans. Cecil Jane, rev. L. A. Vigneras (London: Hakluyt Society, 1960), pp. 22–24, 70, 96–97, 100–101. © The Hakluyt Society, London.


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Chicago: Christopher Columbus, "Columbus Describes the First Glimpse of the West Indies," A Source Book in Geography, trans. Cecil Jane in A Source Book in Geography, ed. George Kish (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 307–311. Original Sources, accessed July 4, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BSHES8LE4QDLYGC.

MLA: Columbus, Christopher. "Columbus Describes the First Glimpse of the West Indies." A Source Book in Geography, translted by Cecil Jane, in A Source Book in Geography, edited by George Kish, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1978, pp. 307–311. Original Sources. 4 Jul. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BSHES8LE4QDLYGC.

Harvard: Columbus, C, 'Columbus Describes the First Glimpse of the West Indies' in A Source Book in Geography, trans. . cited in 1978, A Source Book in Geography, ed. , Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp.307–311. Original Sources, retrieved 4 July 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BSHES8LE4QDLYGC.