A Source Book in Geography

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Author: Christopher Columbus  | Date: 1952

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Geography

Columbus Describes His First Voyage to America: The Formal Report to Ferdinand and Isabella

The letter of Christopher Columbus, to whom our age owes a great debt, on the recent discovery of the islands of India beyond theGanges, to look for which he had been sent eight months before under the auspices and at the expense of the most invincible Ferdinand and Isabella, sovereigns of the Spains; sent to the eminent lord Gabriel Sánchez, treasurer of the said most serene sovereigns; which the noble and learned gentleman, Leander di Cosco, translated from Spanish into Latin the third day before the Kalends of May,1 1493, in the first year of the pontificate of Alexander VI.

As I know that it will please you that I have carried to completion the duty which I assumed, I decided to write you this letter to advise you of every single event and discovery of this voyage of ours. On the thirty-third day after I left Cadiz;1 I reached the Indian Sea, there I found very many islands, inhabited by numberless people, of all of which I took possession without opposition in the name of our most fortunate king by making formal proclamation and raising standards; and to the first of them I gave the name of San Salvador,2 the blessed Savior, through dependence on whose aid we reached both this and the others. The Indians however call it Guanahani. I gave each one of the others too a new name; to wit, one Santa Maria de la Concepción,3 another Fernandina,4 another Isabella,5 another Juana,6 and I ordered similar names to be used for the rest.

When we first put in at the island which I have just said was named Juana, I proceeded along its shore westward a little way, and found it so large (for no end to it appeared) that I believed it to be no island but the continental province of Cathay; without seeing, however, any towns or cities situated in its coastal parts except a few villages and rustic farms, with whose inhabitants I could not talk because they took to flight as soon as they saw us.

I went on further, thinking that I would find a city or some farmhouses. Finally, seeing that nothing new turned up, though we had gone far enough, and that this course was carrying us off to the north (a thing which I myself wanted to avoid, for winter prevailed on those lands, and it was my hope to hasten to the south) and since the winds too were favorable to our desires, I concluded that no other means of accomplishment offered, and thus reversing my course I returned to a certain harbor which I had marked and from that point sent ashore two men of our number to find out whether there was a king in that province, or any cities. These men proceeded afoot for three days and found countless people and inhabited places, but all small and without any government; and therefore they returned.

In the meantime I had already learned from some Indians whom I had taken aboard at this same place that this province was in fact an island; and so I went on toward the east, always skirting close to its shores, for 322 miles, where is the extremity of the island. From this point I observed another island to eastward, 54 miles from this island Juana, which I immediately called Hispana.7 I withdrew to it, and set my course along its northern coast, as I had at Juana, to the east for 564 miles.

The before-mentioned island Juana and the other islands of the region, too, are as fertile as they can be. This one is surrounded by harbors, numerous, very safe and broad, and not to be compared with any others that I have seen anywhere; many large, wholesome rivers flow through this land; and there are also many very lofty mountains in it. All these islands are most beautiful and distinguished by various forms; one can travel through them, and they are full of trees of the greatest variety, which brush at the stars; and I believe they never lose their foliage. At any rate, I found them as green and beautiful as they usually are in the month of May in Spain; some of them were in bloom, some loaded with fruit, some flourished in one state, others in the other, each according to its kind; the nightingale was singing and there were countless other birds of many kinds in the month of November when I myself was making my way through them. There are furthermore, in the before-mentioned island Juana, seven or eight kinds of palm trees, which easily surpass ours in height and beauty, as do all the other trees, grasses, and fruits. There are also remarkable pines, vast fields and meadows, many kinds of birds, many kinds of honey, and many kinds of metals, except iron.

There are moreover in that island which I said above was called Hispaniola fine, high mountains, broad stretches of country, forests, and extremely fruitful fields excellently adapted for sowing, grazing, and building dwelling houses. The convenience and superiority of the harbors in this island and its wealth in rivers, joined with wholesomeness for man, is such as to surpass belief unless one has seen them. The trees, coverage, and fruits of this island are very different from those of Juana. Besides, this Hispaniola is rich in various kinds of spice and in gold and in mines, and its inhabitants (and those of all the others which I saw, and of which I have knowledge) of either sex always go as naked as when they were born, except some women who cover their private parts with a leaf or a branch of some sort, or with a skirt of cotton which they themselves prepare for the purpose.

They all of them lack, as I said above, iron of whatever kind, as well as arms, for these are unknown to them; nor are they fitted for weapons, not because of any bodily deformity, for they are well built, but in that they are timid and fearful. However, instead of arms they carry reeds baked in the sun, in the roots of which they fasten a sort of spearhead made of dry wood and sharpened to a point. And they do not dare to use these at close quarters; for it often happened that when I had sent two or three of my men to certain farmhouses to talk with their inhabitants a closely packed body of Indians would come out and when they saw our men approach they would quickly take flight, children deserted by father and vice versa; and that too not that any hurt or injury had been brought upon a single one of them; on the contrary, whenever I approached any of them and whenever I could talk with any of them I was generous in giving them whatever I had, cloth and very many other things, without any return being made to me; but they are naturally fearful and timid.

However when they see that they are safe and all fear has been dispelled they are exceedingly straightforward and trustworthy and most liberal with all that they have; none of them denies to the asker anything that he possesses; on the contrary they themselves invite us to ask for it. They exhibit great affection to all and always give much for little, content with very little or nothing in return. However I forbade such insignificant and valueless things to be given to them, as pieces of platters, dishes, and glass, or again nails and lace points;8 though if they could acquire such it seemed to them that they possessed the most beautiful trinkets in the world. For it happened that one sailor got in return for one lace point a weight of gold equivalent to three golden solidi,9 and similarly others in exchange for other things of slighter value; especially in exchange for brand-new blancas, certain gold coins, to secure which they would give whatever the seller asks, for example, an ounce and a half or two ounces of gold, or thirty or forty [pounds] of cotton by weight, which they themselves had spun;10 likewise they bought pieces of hoops,11 pots, pitchers, and jars for cotton and gold, like dumb beasts. I forbade this, because it was clearly unjust, and gave them free many pretty and acceptable objects that I had brought with me, in order more easily to win them over to me, and that they might become Christians, and be inclined to love our King and Queen and Prince and all the peoples of Spain, and to make them diligent to seek out and accumulate and exchange with us the articles in which they abound and which we greatly need.

They know nothing of idolatry; on the contrary, they confidently believe that all might, all power, all good things, in fact, are in the heavens; they thought that I too had descended thence with these ships and sailors, and in that opinion I was received everywhere after they had rid themselves of fear. Nor are they slow or ignorant; on the contrary, they are of the highest and keenest wit; and the men who navigate that sea give an admirable account of each detail; but they have never seen men wearing clothes, or ships of this sort. As soon as I came to that sea I forcibly seized some Indians from the first island, so that they might learn from us and similarly teach us the things of which they had knowledge in those parts; and it came out just as I had hoped; for we quickly taught them, and then they us, by gestures and signs; finally they understood by means of words, and it paid us well to have them. The ones who now go with me persist in the belief that I leaped down out of the skies, although they have associated with us for a long time and are still doing so today; and they were the first to announce that fact wherever we landed, some of them calling out loudly to the others, "Come, come, and you will see the men from heaven." And so women as well as men, children and grown people, youths and old men, laying aside the fear they had conceived shortly before, vied with each other in coming to look at us, the great crowd of them clogging the road, some bringing food, others drink, with the greatest manifestation of affection and unbelievable good will.

Each island possesses many canoes of solid wood, and though they are narrow, nevertheless in length and shape they are like our double-banked galleys, but faster. They are steered with oars alone. Some of these are large, some small, some of medium size; a considerable number however are larger than the galley which is rowed by eighteen benches. With these they cross to all the islands, which are innumerable, and with them they ply their trade, and commerce is carried out between them. I saw some of these galleys or canoes which carried seventy or eighty oarsmen.

In all the islands there is no difference in the appearance of the people, nor in their habits or language; on the contrary, they all understand each other, which circumstance is most useful to that end which I think our most serene sovereigns especially desire, namely, their conversion to the holy faith of Christ, to which indeed as far as I could see they are readily submissive and inclined.

I have told how I sailed along the island of Juana on a straight course from west to east 322 miles; from this voyage and the length of the course I can say that this Juana is larger than England and Scotland together; for beyond the aforesaid 322 miles, in the western part, there are two more provinces which I did not visit, one of which the Indians call Anan, whose inhabitants are born with tails. These provinces extend to a length of 180 miles, as I have found out from these Indians whom I am bringing with me, who are well acquainted with all these islands.

The circumference of Hispaniola, indeed, is more than all Spain from Catalonia to Fuenterrabia. And this is easily proved by this fact, that the one of its four sides which I myself traversed on a straight course from west to east measures 540 miles. We should seek possession of this island and once gained it is not to be thrown away; for although, as I said, I formally took possession of all the others in the name of our invincible King and their sovereignty is entirely committed to that said King, nevertheless in this island I took possession in a special way of a certain large village in a more favorable situation, suitable for all sorts of gain and trade, to which I gave the name Navidad del Señor; and I gave orders to erect a fort there at once. This should by now be built, and in it I left behind the men who seemed necessary with all kinds of arms and suitable food for more than a year, furthermore, one caravel,12 and for the construction of others men skilled in this art as well as in others; and, besides, an unbelievable goodwill and friendship on the part of the king of that island toward the men. For all those peoples are so gentle and kind that the aforesaid king took pride in my being called his brother. Even if they should change their minds and want to injure the men who stayed in the fort they cannot, since they have no arms, go naked, and are extremely timid; and so if our men only hold the said fort they can hold the whole island, with no hazard on the part of the people to threaten them as long as they do not depart from the laws and government which I gave them.13

In all those islands, as I understood it, each man is content with only one wife, except the princes or kings, who may have twenty. The women seem to do more work than the men. I could not clearly make out whether they have private property, for I noted that what an individual had he shared with others, especially food, meats, and the like. I did not find any monsters among them, as many expected, but men of great dignity and kindliness. Nor are they black, like the Negroes; they have long, straight hair; they do not live where the heat of the sun’s rays shines forth; for the strength of the sun is very great here, since apparently it is only twenty-six degrees from the equator.14 On the mountain peaks extreme cold reigns, but this the Indians mitigate both by being used to the region and by the aid of very hot foods upon which they dine often and luxuriously.

And so I did not see any monsters, nor do I have knowledge of them anywhere with the exception of a certain island called Charis,15 which is the second as you sail from Spain toward India and which a tribe inhabits that is held by its neighbors to be extremely savage. These feed on human flesh. The aforesaid have many kinds of galleys in which they cross to all the Indian islands, rob, and steal all they can. They differ in no respect from the others, except that in feminine fashion they wear their hair long; and they use bows and arrows with shafts of reeds fitted as we said at the thicker end with sharpened arrowheads. On that account they are held to be savage, and the other Indians are afflicted with constant fear of them, but I do not rate them any more highly than the rest. These are the ones who cohabit with certain women who are the only inhabitants of the island of Mateunin,16 which is the first encountered in the passage from Spain toward India. These women moreover, do not occupy themselves with any of the work that properly belongs to their sex, for they use bows and arrows just as I related of their husbands; they protect themselves with copper plates of which there is an ample supply in their land. They assure me that there is another island larger than the above-mentioned Hispaniola; its inhabitants are hairless, and it abounds in gold more than all the others. I am bringing with me men from this island and the others that I saw who bear testimony to what I have said.

Finally, to compress into a few words the advantage and profit of our journey hence and our speedy return, I make this promise, that supported by only small aid from them I will give our invincible sovereigns as much gold as they need, as much spices, cotton, and the mastic, which is found only in Chios,17 as much of the wood of the aloe, as many slaves to serve as sailors as their Majesties wish to demand; furthermore, rhubarb and other kinds of spices which I suppose those whom I left in the before-mentioned fort have already discovered and will discover, since indeed I lingered nowhere longer than the winds compelled, except at the village of Navidad while I took care to establish the fort and to make all safe. Though these things are great and unheard of, nevertheless they would have been much greater if the ships had served me as they reasonably should.18

Indeed this outcome was manifold and marvelous, and fitting not to my own claims to merit, but rather to the holy Christian faith and the piety and religion of our sovereigns, for what the human mind could not comprehend, that the divine mind has granted to men. For God is accustomed to listen to his servants, and to those who love his commands, even in impossible circumstances, as has happened to us in the present instance, for we have succeeded in that to which hitherto mortal powers have in no wise attained. For if others have written or spoken of these islands, they have all done so by indirection and guesses; no one claims to have seen them, whence it seemed to be almost a fable. Therefore let the King and Queen, the Prince, their happy realms, and all other provinces of Christendom give thanks to the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, who has granted us so great a victory and reward; let processions be celebrated; let solemn holy rites be performed; and let the churches be decked with festival branches; let Christ rejoice on earth as He does in heaven when He foresees that so many souls of peoples hitherto lost are to be saved. Let us too rejoice, both for the exaltation of our faith and for the increase in temporal goods in which not only Spain but all Christendom together are to share. As these things were done, so have they been briefly narrated. Farewell.

Lisbon, the day before the Ides of March.19

CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS

Admiral of the Ocean Fleet

The Columbus Letter of 1493, a new translation in English by Frank E. Robbins (Ann Arbor: The Clements Library Associates, 1952). By permission of the Clements Library.

1. April 29.

1. Translator’s error for "the Canaries," where Columbus put in on his westward voyage. He did not touch at Cadiz at all.

2. Watling’s Island in the Bahamas.

3. Rum Cay.

4. Long Island.

5. Crooked Island.

6. Cuba. Columbus called it Juana in honor of the Infant Don Juan.

7. Hispaniola (San Domingo and Haiti). Columbus greatly overestimated the dimensions of these islands.

8. The tips of the laces used to secure the hose to the upper garment.

9.Castellanos in the Spanish version.

10.Nouerant, "had known," which stands in the text, is a mistake for neuerant, "had spun."

11. The Spanish text has here "hoops of winecasks," which Leander probably intends by the word arcuum, "bows."

12. The Santa Maria, which was wrecked off this coast.

13. But the Spaniards did not behave themselves and the whole colony was destroyed before Columbus returned to it on his Second Voyage.

14. The text is corrupt and the translation follows the obvious sense. Probably ubi videntur is a mistake for ut videtur; the punctuation is wrong, too.

15. Probably Puerto Rico. The name Chaffs is derived from that of the savage tribe here mentioned, the Caribs, who were much feared by the Tainos found by Columbus in the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola.

16. Martinique. Columbus was prepared to find an island inhabited by men and another inhabited by women in the Indian Ocean (where he thought he was), because he had read about them in his copy of Marco Polo’s travels.

17. Columbus probably visited Chios in a Genoese trading ship in 1474 and 1475 (Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, I, 31).

18. This may refer to the conduct of Martíin Alonso Pinzón and to the carelessness that permitted Santa Maria to run aground. Pinzón, never too cooperative, took Pinta on an exploring and gold-hunting trip (November 22, 1492-January 6, 1493) without the Admiral’s permission. Columbus made Santa Maria his flagship, but Juan de la Cosa was her master and part owner, and officer of the watch at the time of the disaster. He seems to have been not only negligent but also cowardly and insubordinate (see Morison, op. cit., I, 388–389).

19. March 14.

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Chicago: Christopher Columbus, "Columbus Describes His First Voyage to America: The Formal Report to Ferdinand and Isabella," A Source Book in Geography, trans. Frank E. Robbins in A Source Book in Geography, ed. George Kish (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 311–318. Original Sources, accessed October 13, 2019, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RTVQVRADUDTBSBQ.

MLA: Columbus, Christopher. "Columbus Describes His First Voyage to America: The Formal Report to Ferdinand and Isabella." A Source Book in Geography, translted by Frank E. Robbins, in A Source Book in Geography, edited by George Kish, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1978, pp. 311–318. Original Sources. 13 Oct. 2019. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RTVQVRADUDTBSBQ.

Harvard: Columbus, C, 'Columbus Describes His First Voyage to America: The Formal Report to Ferdinand and Isabella' in A Source Book in Geography, trans. . cited in 1978, A Source Book in Geography, ed. , Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp.311–318. Original Sources, retrieved 13 October 2019, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RTVQVRADUDTBSBQ.