Introduction to Christopher Columbus, Journal of the first voyage
B.W. Ife

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Document Contents
Editorial note
The language of Christopher Columbus
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There was a time when the inclusion of a historical document such as Columbus's Journal in a series dedicated to Spanish Golden-Age prose fiction and drama might have required some comment. To put Columbus alongside Cervantes, Quevedo and Calderón might have been taken to imply that the contents of the Journal were just so much fiction or, conversely, that the editors were taking an essentially documentary view of the other works included in the series. Nowadays we have a much less compartmentalised approach to the notion of `text' - one which is more in tune with the expectations of Renaissance writers and readers -, and much has been gained by bringing the techniques of literary textual analysis and criticism to bear on a wide variety of texts, whether written, spoken or non-verbal forms of cultural expression.

The purpose of this new edition of the Spanish text of Columbus's Journal of the 1492 voyage, published together with a new translation, is to make available to the general reader as well as the specialist historiographer one of the most important texts ever written in Spanish. Columbus's 1492 Journal, even in the truncated and partially summarised form in which it has survived, gives an unrivalled insight into the events of the voyage, Columbus's first impressions of a people and a culture which failed in so many ways to live up to his expectations, and the creation of many of the myths surrounding the New World which have coloured its view of itself down to the present day.

Columbus's Spanish is not that of a native-speaker. Even after several transcriptions at the hands of Spanish-speaking copyists, it retains many features which have an important bearing on our understanding of Columbus's cultural and linguistic formation, and on such issues as the reliability of the Journal in the form in which we have it. I am grateful to my colleague Ralph Penny for agreeing to contribute a short study of the most important features of Columbus's language. Some of the material of the Introduction derives from my Inaugural Lecture, Writing and Conquest, given at King's College London on 1 May 1990.

This edition and translation is dedicated to Henry Maxwell.


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by B.W. Ife

Text history

When Columbus set sail for the Far East in August 1492 he decided, in view of the significance of what he was about to attempt, to make a documentary record of the voyage in the form of charts and a log book:

... I decided to write down the whole of this voyage in detail, day by day, everything that I should do and see and undergo, as will be seen in due course. (Prologue)1

Keeping such a Journal was by no means routine at the time and did not become a legal requirement for captains of vessels flying the Spanish flag until 1575. The importance which Columbus attached to the accurate day-to-day recording of the events of the first voyage cannot be underestimated. By setting the voyage down in writing he ensured a place for himself in history which others have disputed but from which no one has succeeded in displacing him. The written record has become the touchstone of his achievement.

On returning to Spain in the spring of 1493 Columbus presented his record of the voyage to Queen Isabel. She had it copied, retained the original, and gave the copy to Columbus before he set out on the second voyage in the autumn of 1493. The original has not been seen since 1504, the year in which the Queen died.

In 1506, on the Admiral's death, the copy passed to Columbus's eldest son Diego, and then in 1526 to Diego's son, Luis, the Third Admiral of the Indies. Luis was granted permission to publish the Journal in 1554, though it did not in fact appear. This is thought to indicate that he sold the manuscript, as he did that of his uncle Ferdinand's biography of the Admiral, in order to subsidise his legendary debauchery. Whatever the explanation, it is clear that both the original Journal, and the only copy known to have been made of it, have both disappeared.

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The role of Bartolomé de las Casas

We should have very little knowledge indeed about the conduct and events of the 1492 voyage had it not been for the intervention of the historian Bartolomé de las Casas. Las Casas, whose father and uncle had accompanied Columbus on the second voyage in 1493, began collecting material for a history of the Indies as early as 1502. After his conversion in 1514 he dedicated himself to exposing in writing and by personal advocacy the oppression of the Indians and the illegitimacy of the Spanish presence in the New World. In 1527 he began his great Historia de las Indias. Chapters 35 to 75 of the Historia rely heavily on the evidence of Columbus's Journal. It is not clear when Las Casas consulted it,2 though from remarks made in the Historia about scribal errors and confusions, we may be sure that what he consulted was a copy, possibly Columbus's own copy, and not the original. The access which Las Casas had to the Journal was evidently restricted. However he came by it, he was evidently not able to take it away with him or to keep it over a period of time. He therefore made an extensive digest for his own use, summarising the majority of the text, but copying out word-for-word those parts of the original which he thought were particularly interesting or worthy of quotation in full. Failing the discovery of the full text, Las Casas's summary, preserved in the National Library in Madrid, is the closest we are likely to get to Columbus's original.

The major textual and historiographical problem surrounding the Journal is therefore easily stated: how much of what we have is Columbus and how much Las Casas? On the face of it, the evidence is not encouraging. At best, the manuscript is at two removes from the original: a digest of a copy of the original, which may itself have been a fair copy rather than the actual log-book which Columbus wrote up from day to day on board ship. We can only assume that the copy from which Las Casas worked was reasonably faithful, although he was himself aware of inaccuracies and mistranscriptions. In the entry for 13 January, concerning Columbus's astrological observations, Las Casas writes in the margin:

... here it seems that the Admiral knew something about astrology, although these planets do not seem to be in their proper positions, due to bad transcription by the copyist ... (13.1)3

Other remarks made both in the text and in the margin suggest that Las Casas was less than confident in the accuracy of what he was reading:

He steered WSW and they made about 11 and a half or 12 leagues during the day and night and it seems that at times during the night they were making 15 miles an hour, if the text is to believed. (8.10)

The major doubts, however, must concern Las Casas's own working methods. Las Casas was a tendentious historian and the Historia de las Indias is a work of extreme political and moral commitment. Cecil Jane, for one, has accused Las Casas of `deliberate misstatement of fact' and reliance on `a memory which was either curiously defective or singularly convenient'.4 Can an avowed champion of the Indians' cause be relied upon to summarize accurately, without distortion and editorialising, the work of a pioneer colonist like Columbus?

Since virtually everything we know about the 1492 voyage has come down to us from Columbus via Las Casas's digest, it is perhaps surprising that a serious answer to such a fundamental question appears not so far to have been sought. Historians have not always shown a proper circumspection in their treatment of the text, and, until recently, successive generations of editors have failed to improve significantly on the text first published by Martín Fernández de Navarrete in 1825.

A more serious failing among scholars, however, has been the lack of any systematic attempt to evaluate the role of Las Casas as intermediary or to use the physical and linguistic evidence of the manuscript to establish how much of Columbus's original has survived the process of being copied and then summarized. Such a study is beyond the scope of this Introduction, but it is worthwhile to give some indication of the issues involved because they help to illuminate the nature of the Journal itself as well as the textual and interpretative problems which it poses. Broadly speaking, there are two main areas of interest: the evidence of Las Casas's working methods derived from the manuscript itself; and comparative analysis of linguistic and descriptive evidence in the summary and verbatim sections of the Journal.

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Las Casas's working methods

One of the most impressive features of Las Casas's digest is its length. The manuscript consists of 67 folios (133 pages) with a total text length of nearly 54,000 words. It is abstracted on a day-to-day basis and covers the period 3 August 1492 to 15 March 1493, that is, the full extent of the outward voyage, including the preparations, the progress through the Bahamas, to the north coast of Cuba and Hispaniola and the return voyage. There is an entry in the digest for the majority of the days covered by the period of the voyage. The main omissions are the period 9 August to 6 September while the fleet was fitting out and provisioning in the Canaries, but the intervening period is summarized. There is another omission for the period 6-12 November when Columbus was unable to sail through bad weather. 17 February also has no entry in the digest. Otherwise, there are only a couple of small lacunae in the text, probably attributable to damage to or the illegibility of the original. The day-to-day structure of the Journal imposed a similar constraint on the digest and seems to have prevented significant loss of coverage. This perhaps is an encouraging sign.

Also encouraging is the fact that the manuscript we have is clearly not a fair copy of a ready-made digest; Las Casas was making the summary as he wrote. There are many corrections in the text, and in the margins. Sometimes errors were detected immediately, sometimes later, when they had to be squeezed in between the lines or put in the margin. In all, there are just over 1,000 corrected errors in the manuscript, most of them quite legible, and a full analysis of them gives a vivid picture of Las Casas struggling to capture the essence of the original text as fully and as succinctly as possible, going back and correcting often quite trivial details where he senses that he has misrepresented the emphasis of the original text. Occasionally, however, as in the case of the correction of `dezía' to `fingía' on 25 September,5 Las Casas betrays some misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what he is reading.

Las Casas is also careful, as far as is possible, to separate fact from opinion. Overt comment is restricted to the margins of the text, and takes various forms:

  • Notes or short summaries to assist in locating the more important events, such as the marginal note marking the first landfall on 12 October.
  • Clarifications or explanations made with the benefit of hindsight. Las Casas had lived in the Caribbean for several years before he began abstracting the text of the Journal and is often able to correct Columbus's first impressions. When, on 17 October, Columbus describes the straw crowns on the roofs of the native houses as chimneys, Las Casas records the mistake in the text and notes the correct explanation in the margin (see Note 56, p. 247).
  • Criticism of the Admiral's actions and praise of the Indians. When Columbus says that 1,000 Indians live together in fifty huts, Las Casas comments in the margin that this is a sign that they are amicable (6.11), and when Columbus records that an Indian who had been released from captivity on the understanding that he would return the next day had failed to come back, Las Casas observes in the margin `What a fool!' (6.11)
  • The word `no[ta]', used to indicate a point of interest or one which will require explanation at some later date. Many of these instances are precisely those which Las Casas later expanded when writing up the digest into the finished version of the Historia de las Indias.

Las Casas's use of the margin of the manuscript as he proceeds seems, then, to indicate in general a feeling for the distinction between fact and comment and a willingness to keep the two apart as far as is possible.

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Verbatim transcription and summary

Las Casas began the digest by assuming that he would make a summary of the entire Journal. He writes at the top of the first page:

... This is the first voyage with the courses and route which the Admiral don Christopher Columbus took when he discovered the Indies, set down in an abbreviated form, except for the prologue to the Monarchs which is given in full and begins ...

That is, everything will be summarized, except the prologue, which will be given verbatim. Las Casas promptly forgot this distinction. The first entry immediately following the prologue, 3 August, is also written in the first person, and thereafter a substantial portion of the Journal is transcribed verbatim, or at least, in the first person. Usually this is indicated by words which introduce direct speech (`he says', `says the Admiral at this point') or which refer back (`those are his own words'). Very often small stretches of verbatim text are not introduced as such and are detectable only by changes in point of view and in the person of the verb. There are also many cases where the text is a mixture of direct and indirect speech:

Here the Admiral says that those indications came from the west, where I hope that Almighty God, in whose hands all victories are found, will soon grant us land. (17.9)

On arrival in the New World, whole entries are written in the first person. All the entries from 11-24 October are in what are ostensibly the Admiral's own words, as are the entries for 6, 12, 27 November, and several of the December entries, when Columbus was in Hispaniola, contain extensive verbatim sections. In all, about 20% of the digest is in the first person and appears to record the Admiral's own words.

The two parts of the Journal, first-person verbatim text and third-person summary, therefore provide a means of contrasting Columbus's contribution with that of Las Casas, and of judging how much of Columbus's original input is still detectable in the summary. Here the linguistic evidence, summarised by Ralph Penny at the end of this Introduction, is very important. There are many indications both in the summary and verbatim sections of non-standard usage in lexis, morphology and syntax which have survived at least two stages of transcription. As we might expect, the errors are those commonly committed by foreign learners of Spanish: pronouns, relatives, subjunctives. One of Columbus's most endearing errors is his mangling of the phrase `desnudos como sus madres los parió' (`naked as their mothers bore them') which he consistently uses with a singular verb, and which Las Casas respects in the digest but corrects in his own Historia to `como su madre los parió' or `como sus madres los parieron'.

It is also important to bear in mind that not only was Columbus's Spanish that of a non-native speaker, but there was also a lapse of anything up to 30 years between the time when Columbus wrote and the time when Las Casas summarized and transcribed him. If the transcription is accurate, features of the language which were undergoing change at this time should be reflected differentially in the verbatim and summary sections of the text. An investigation of initial f- against initial h-, for example, shows this to be the case.6

One particular feature of Columbus's written style which survives in Las Casas's summary is his use of repetitive and what one might call formulaic description. One of the striking features of the digest is the way it repeatedly supplies information which Las Casas certainly knew, and which he in any case did not need to repeat because at the time he was writing for his own eyes alone. Ten times, for example, he tells himself that a `canoa' is a boat made from a single piece of wood. Five times he reminds us that Martín Alonso Pinzón is the captain of the Pinta; indeed, the phrase becomes something of an epic epithet. Other small and relatively trivial examples of repetitive and formulaic description include his frequent comparison of the calm sea on the outward journey with the river at Seville:

All those days he had a very calm sea, like the river at Seville. (18.9)They had a sea like the river at Seville, thanks be to God, the Admiral says; the sweetest of breezes, like April in Seville, such that it is a pleasure to be in them, so fragrant are they. (8.10)He says that it seems to him that the whole of that sea must always be calm like the river at Seville ... (29.10)... the breezes he says are very gentle and sweet, as in Seville in April and May, and the sea, he says, is always calm, thanks be to God. (20.1)

The allusion to the pleasant climate of Andalusia in April and May is also a formula which appears several times:

Here the Admiral says that today and thenceforth they always encountered the most gentle breezes, that the enjoyment of the morning was a great pleasure, that all they needed was to hear nightingales, he says; and the weather was like April in Andalusia. (16.9)During this time I wandered among those trees which were more beautiful to look at than anything else that has ever been seen; I saw as much greenery as in May in Andalusia ... (17.10)Here and in all the island everything is green and the vegetation is like April in Andalusia. (21.10)

And there are many other examples. Compare, too, his account of the `niames', the sweet potatoes which were an important part of the Indians' diet, which on three separate occasions (4.11, 13.12, 16.12) he says look like carrots and taste like chestnuts. If Las Casas were not summarizing fairly closely, he would have undoubtedly spared himself the effort of writing out the same thing several times.

As for Columbus himself, there are many reasons why the ways in which he describes places, events and impressions tend to be stereotyped. Undoubtedly he suffered from the limitations of vocabulary or range of expression which someone writing in a foreign language might be excused. But Columbus was not naive where language was concerned; for all his imperfect command of Spanish, Columbus understood what any writer understands - the power of language to constitute reality. Many times in the Journal Columbus comments on the importance of language in conquest, and the disadvantages under which he labours because he cannot understand the Indians and they cannot understand him. Columbus's initial impression of the docility of the Indians is like a closed door which requires only to be unlocked by the power of language for them to carry out the designs of the Spanish Crown:

... he says that the only thing needed is to know the language and give them orders ... (21.12)This task would, he says, be much easier in the Caribbean than in Guinea, for example, because here `the language is one and the same in all these islands' whereas in Guinea `... there are a thousand different languages, with one not understanding the other.' (12.11)

Columbus understands, too, the power of naming. He gives the islands, the headlands, the bays `Christian' names, and he does so in the full knowledge of what the islands are `really' called in the language of the inhabitants. When he baptises them he `names' them, he does not `re-name' them.

This is not a picture of a linguistic novice, not least when he admits that language - or his poor command of it - cannot do justice to his achievement: `... a thousand tongues would not suffice to give the Monarchs an account of what they had seen, and his hand could not write it ...' (27.11) Rather, what it suggests is that the repetitive, somewhat formulaic language of the Journal is not just of use in evaluating the accuracy or otherwise of Las Casas's summary, but also gives us an important clue to the nature of Columbus's descriptive language and the way that he uses it. It also returns us to the key question of what Columbus's purpose was in writing his Journal.

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The aim of the Journal

We are used to thinking of Columbus and the later generations of conquistadores as free agents, pioneers, driven by ideals and lusts of their own devising beyond the margins of the society they left behind. But this was almost never the case. Wherever they went, the conquistadores were constrained by a far-reaching network of controls administered with varying degrees of success by the Crown and the Church. Although they were always in conflict with that bureaucracy, they could not ignore it. When Columbus went ashore on the morning of Friday 12 October 1492 he had with him four individuals who embodied these forces in tension. On the one hand he had the brothers Martín Alonso and Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, captains of the Pinta and the Niña, archetypal adventurers, fractious and disobedient, always on the lookout for private gain. On the other, he had two Crown officials, the secretary of the expedition, Rodrigo de Escobedo, and the accountant, Rodrigo Sánchez de Segovia.

The presence of the two officials hardly seems to fit the popular image of the 1492 voyage as a do-or-die mission led by a hare-brained visionary. But they were there because when Columbus sailed he did so under the auspices of what was fast becoming a very efficient, modern, bureaucratic state. The system of conciliar government which Ferdinand and Isabel were in the process of setting up would provide the newly-unified Spain with a powerful mechanism for administering a huge empire with a high degree of centralised control. The delegation of much of the work of discovery and conquest to private individuals like Columbus was not done without strict contractual obligations which were, in theory at least, closely monitored. The secretary and the accountant were there to keep tabs on progress, look after the Crown's interests and see that all the proper formalities were carried out. And when the first landing was made, it was they who officially witnessed the documents which formally constituted the act of possession.

The rate at which the central administration in Spain kept pace with territorial expansion in the New World is impressive indeed. By 1503, the enterprise of the Indies was being run by its own administrative unit in Seville, the Casa de Contratación. The head of this unit, Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, Isabel's chaplain and later Bishop of Burgos, kept a remarkable degree of control over activities which were going on at the furthest edge of the known world. In 1524, as the network of governorships and tribunals grew in the Caribbean and the mainland, the Empire of the Indies acquired its own Council of State.

As the extent of the newly-discovered territories grew ever greater, there sprang up alongside the conquistadores a shadowy army of clerks and secretaries, recording the events for posterity and maintaining a discreet surveillance in the process. There was, it seems, no conquest without writing. As John Elliott has put it, `Royal officials in the Indies, theoretically at large in the great open spaces of a great New World, in practice found themselves bound by chains of paper to the central government in Spain. Pen, ink and paper were the instruments with which the Spanish crown responded to the unprecedented challenges of distance implicit in the possession of a world-wide empire.'7

But the written records were not always created by civil servants and Crown officials. The conquistadores themselves often turned their own hands to writing, and between them they built up a huge volume of accounts of discovery and conquest which constitute an important chapter in Spanish and Latin-American literary history. In this they were following Columbus's own example. During the homeward journey, on Thursday 14 February, he records how, at the height of a terrible storm, fearing that if he were to perish Their Majesties would have no news of his voyage, he took a piece of parchment and wrote on it everything he could about everything he had found, beseeching whomsoever might find it to take it to the Monarchs. He then wrapped the parchment tightly in a waxed cloth and cast it afloat in a large wooden barrel.

Columbus's despair at the thought that everything he had achieved could easily go to the bottom of the ocean brought home to him how, in the end, words are much more important than deeds when one is working at the edge of the known world and the rewards are to be found at the centre. His writing, then, is characterised by two characteristic qualities which are often in tension in the Journal: the need to be accountable and the need to communicate effectively with the powerful people back in Spain. At times one feels a strong sense of the writer looking over his shoulder, fending off criticism and justifying his actions and decisions. At others he is desperately trying to get the people who hold the keys to reward and recognition to understand and re-live the problems he faces, the terrain, the culture, the sheer size of everything. And all this had to be done when the writer himself was often at a loss to understand the reality he was describing. Before attempting a comprehensive account of the city of Tenochtitlan, Cortés voices a characteristic complaint about the difficulties he faces as a narrator:

Most powerful Lord, in order to give an account to Your Royal Excellency of the magnificence, the strange and marvellous things of this great city of Temixtitan and of the dominion and wealth of this Mutezuma, its ruler, and of the rites and customs of the people, and of the order there is in the government of the capital as well as in the other cities of Mutezuma's dominions, I would need much time and many expert narrators. I cannot describe one hundreth part of all the things which could be mentioned, but, as best I can, I will describe some of those I have seen which, although badly described, will, I well know, be so remarkable as not to be believed, for we who saw them with our own eyes could not grasp them with our understanding.8

Columbus was the first of a line of shrewd conquerors who learned not just to live with but to harness the power of the document and the written record, and to turn it to their advantage. They learned quickly and effectively how to set the record straight, using the written word to gain political and financial support in the pursuit of their aims. And they used writing to try to stamp political, linguistic and conceptual authority on the unknown. But the reality all too often rebelled.

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The objectives of the 1492 voyage

In order to understand the problems Columbus faced in writing his Journal, it is important to understand his objectives. What was he trying to do, and to what extent did that first landfall confirm or confound his expectations? There are three main statements about Columbus's objectives in three different documents, and as one might expect, they all say different things. First there is the contract made between Columbus and the Crown and signed on 17 April 1492. This document, known as the Capitulaciones, is written in Spanish and sets out the terms of the agreement by which Columbus was to become viceroy and governor-general of any islands and mainland he might discover, the appointment to be hereditary in perpetuity; and, in exchange, the Crown would take 90% of all income from the territories under his jurisdiction.9

The second document is the passport issued to Columbus to ensure that he received maximum cooperation from any King, Prince, Duke, Marquis, Count, Viscount, Baron, Lord or Lady he might meet on his travels. This document, so that it might more readily be understood in the Far East, was written in Latin, and speaks of Columbus as engaged on matters concerning the service of God and the Catholic religion, `necnon benefficium et utilitatem nostram'.10

The third statement about objectives comes from the prologue to the Journal itself. This is the longest and most detailed statement and it aims to put the 1492 voyage into a broad religious and diplomatic context. With the ending of the Reconquest in Spain, and the expulsion of the Moors and the Jews, the time was ripe, it suggests, for a diplomatic mission to the lands of the Great Khan to promote the Catholic faith:

Your Highnesses, as Catholic Christians and princes devoted to the holy Christian faith and the furtherance of its cause, and enemies of the sect of Mohammed and of all idolatry and heresy, resolved to send me, Christopher Columbus, to the said regions of India to see the said princes and the peoples and lands and determine the nature of them and of all other things, and the measures to be taken to convert them to our holy faith; and you ordered that I should not go by land to the East, which is the customary route, but by way of the West, a route which to this day we cannot be certain has been taken by anyone else.

The idea of a religious alliance with the Far East directed against Islam was a very long-standing one in the European mind; so long-standing, in fact, that the last Mongol Emperor of China, the Great Khan to which Columbus refers, had been deposed in 1368.

Clearly, if we take each of these documents at face value and assume that Columbus was trying to do all of those things, we get a mishmash of strategic objectives - scientific, economic, diplomatic and religious - which is so diffuse as to guarantee disaster. Columbus's objectives undoubtedly were unclear, but there was also, I believe, a firm sense of priorities underlying them. While the Capitulations speak entirely in terms of discovery and conquest, the terms used - `descubrir' and `ganar' (literally `discover' and `gain' or `win') - are formulae which appear frequently in comparable documents licensing expeditions in the Atlantic. To that extent, the Capitulations need to be seen more as a pro-forma agreement drafted in very general terms to cover any eventuality than as a specific set of commands. For that reason, the more detailed statements of objectives which appear in the passport and the Journal appear to take priority. Columbus, then, was not primarily trying to discover anything at all. He was simply trying to get somewhere he had never been before, by a route no one had ever used, to make contact with a ruler who had been deposed 124 years earlier.

Now there is nothing inherently contradictory about each of the objectives as they have been stated - it is quite possible to be aiming for a known port of call, and to come across some previously unknown territory in the process; the Atlantic, everyone knew, was peppered with islands which Spain and Portugal had been busily identifying and colonising throughout the fifteenth century. But if one is prepared for both the expected and the unexpected there will come a point in the voyage when the commander will have to decide: is this new phenomenon something he knows about and is expecting, or is it something unforeseen?

No one can blame Columbus for failing in his main objective; in failing to reach China he was wholly the victim of circumstance. But Columbus went on to compound his failure. At the first landfall and in the weeks that followed, he was apparently unable to make that crucial distinction between something foreseen and something unforeseen. In this, he was also a victim, but this time, perhaps, he was a victim of his preparation.

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The preparations for the 1492 voyage

In terms of navigation, the preparation for the 1492 voyage was extraordinarily thorough. It had to be, for in aiming to reach a known destination by an unknown route, the very success of the enterprise depended on reducing unknown factors to a minimum. Planning was everything, not just because his life and those of his crews were at stake, but because Columbus had no means of his own, and if he was to obtain the funding for the expedition he had to convince his sponsors that there was a good chance of success, and a return on their investment. This was a particularly important consideration when the Portuguese voyages to Guinea were consistently self-financing and a much safer bet. The Catholic Monarchs were not in the business of funding disinterested research.

In planning his project Columbus did what anyone would do in the circumstances, that is, he tried to limit the number of unknown factors by thorough research. He made an extensive search of the available geographical literature, he consulted all the leading European geographers, and made sure that he got access to the best available maps, charts and guidebooks. His research told him what all the best geographers knew: that of course a western route to the east was a theoretical possibility and always had been. The difficulty was knowing if it was a practical proposition. There was a strong and growing body of opinion that the distances involved were not impossibly great, and as the true size of Africa became apparent throughout the 1480s, many were saying that the time had come to take a serious look at the western route. Columbus's reading and interpretation of the evidence of classical geographers was confirmed by a family of maps drawn by Henricus Martellus and Francesco Roselli in Florence, by Martin Behaim's globe made in Nuremberg, and by his own calculations based on first-hand observations made during extensive sailing experience in the Atlantic. All the evidence pointed to a transatlantic voyage from the Canaries to Japan of around 2,400 miles.

Columbus's presentation of his plan to the Portuguese coincided unhappily with the news of Bartolomeu Dias's rounding of Cape of Good Hope in 1488, a success which revived faith in the viability of the southern route to the East. When Columbus turned to Spain, he was met by a cool response from a government which was still too preoccupied by the Reconquest to show any great interest in the rather remote possibility of scoring a point off their long-standing rivals. Nevertheless, Columbus lobbied with great vigour, his Genoese friends in Seville came up with some financial backing and the Crown contributed two caravels, the Pinta and the Niña, whose participation came as the result of a fine imposed on the town of Palos. The expedition left Palos on 3 August 1492, and on the morning of 12 October, 2,400 miles out into the Atlantic, just where he said it would be, he found land.

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The landfall and its aftermath

The reality that confronted Columbus in the days following the landfall was, in some ways, a great disappointment, and the conflict between his expectations and the evidence of his eyes has been the object of a great deal of comment. Where he expected to find the sophisticated subjects of the Great Khan and the bustling ports of the Orient, he found naked innocents and little else. In a sense he was the victim of a cruel coincidence, but he was also unduly fixated by the written authority of charts and books, and for that he must take some of the blame. The days immediately following the landfall were therefore a period of crisis in Columbus's thinking, but he managed that crisis remarkably well. He was very resourceful, and he devised a number of strategies for coping with the mismatch between reality and expectation.

The most obvious one was closely tied in with his operational decision-making: what should he do now, where should he go next? While he could not admit that he was not in the Orient - to admit that was to admit the failed objective of the whole voyage - he could properly admit that he was not quite where he wanted to be. This strategy is a very effective one in terms of keeping spirits up, keeping the expedition going and giving it a sense of purpose. In explanatory terms it is even more effective because the real objective is always constituted elsewhere, and writing is the perfect medium for doing just that, giving the products of the imagination substance in the text. Large parts of the Journal are designed to construct an alternative reality beyond the horizon. So while the characteristic gesture of the voyage is an out-stretched arm and a pointing finger - what we seek is on the next island - that gesture has a number of rhetorical equivalents in the Journal. One of the most commonly-used nouns in the Journal is `gold' although no gold worth speaking of was found on the first voyage; and what was found is always referred to as `samples'. Simply talking about gold often enough helps to create a strong impression of substance, or holds out the strong likelihood of substance.

By the same token, one of the most commonly-used groups of words in the Journal used to describe Columbus's impressions is that related to `marvellous'. Columbus's use of this and related words is closely tied to another rhetorical strategy which also has a counterpart in operational terms. Operationally, if what he is looking for is not here, and is therefore somewhere else, he needs a means of deciding which way to go and whether he is making any progress. The first one is easy - just follow the signs marked `gold' - but the second one involves finding a substitute for gold to which an incremental rhetoric can reasonably be applied. The substitute he uses most often is landscape, and Columbus's growing sense of the marvellous is an important element in the success of this strategy.

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In the early pages of the Journal, Columbus is very keen to make everything seem familiar. There are constant references back to the Spanish experience; everything is just like Spain, like spring in Andalusia, like the river in Seville, like the hills behind Córdoba. But as the voyage progresses, and particularly off the coasts of Cuba and Hispaniola, Columbus shows a much greater willingness to concede difference, to make things exotic. One can appreciate why he might want to refer back to common experience with the absent addressee in mind, and why on the outward voyage especially, he might want to give a strong sense of predictability almost, of a sense that everything is just as he expected. But once arrived, and in view of his limited success, he has to adopt a different posture. No one, having sailed to the other end of the earth wants to have to write back that `it's just like Spain'.

Columbus's response to the natural beauty of the islands is undoubtedly genuine, but it is also strategic. Each island is the most beautiful that eyes have ever seen. The trees are green, straight and tall, fragrant, and full of singing birds. The rivers are deep, and the harbours wide, wide enough to embrace all the ships of Christendom. His eyes never tired of looking nor his ears of listening. `He praises all this very highly', Las Casas sums up at one point (25.11), evidently lacking Columbus's own stamina for hyperbole. On 25 November, Columbus assures Their Majesties that the reality is a hundred times greater than his description. By 5 January inflation had taken that to a thousand. And all the time Columbus's incremental rhetoric - this bay is more commodious than that, these people more intelligent than those, this island richer and more marvellous than that - is skilfully deployed to encourage the sense that he is getting warmer and warmer.

Morison has argued that Columbus's descriptions are not extravagant for the 1490s.11 Undoubtedly the islands were heavily wooded and rich in exotic flora and fauna. But what we have in the Journal is not really a description, and to judge it in those terms is to misunderstand the genre to which this text belongs. For all Columbus's empiricism in the execution of the voyage, his account of it has more in common with travellers' tales than with a ship's log. Travellers' tales are supposed to be marvellous, and what Columbus describes is not so much what he saw, as the sense of wonder with which he saw it.

That is all very well, say the Crown officials, but beautiful views cannot be turned into cash. Columbus's answer appears to be: cut the trees down and turn them into ships, develop the natural resources for economic ends, and, of course, where there are such wonderful things, who can doubt that there are many more things of value yet to be discovered? Columbus anticipates in the Journal many of the forms of exploitation of both human and natural resources which will lead in a very short time to the total destruction of a whole way of life in the Caribbean. But, in privileging the landscape, even if for want of anything of more tangible value, Columbus inevitably calls up associations in the European mind with rural worth versus urban decadence, and in doing so he raises important questions about the nature of the inhabitants which point to a fundamental contradiction in Columbus's mind. Underlying what appears to be a systematic search for the epicentre of this oriental civilisation there is a network of contradictory behaviour and discourse which allows us to glimpse his sense of failure which is never explicitly articulated.

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Native inhabitants

In an important and influential study of the origins of the cannibal mythology in the Journal, Peter Hulme has argued that it contains two conflicting discourses, of civilisation and savagery.12 As the absence of cities, and therefore of gold, becomes more apparent, an alternative discourse emerges in which gold in the form of artifacts, to be traded for or plundered, is replaced with the idea of gold as an element to be dug from the earth. Marco Polo gives way to Herodotus. At the same time the docility of the natives - on which Columbus frequently comments, particularly in the early stages - is superceded by a growing fascination with the possibility that there may be another more aggressive and therefore more civilised tribe on a neighbouring island who prey on the inhabitants of Hispaniola. However, this conflict, between the native as a thing of value and a thing of no value, is there from the outset and is maintained throughout the first and subsequent voyages.

I have suggested that Columbus evolved some effective strategies for making the best of the reality which presented itself to him, and that he implemented these in the writing of the Journal with considerable skill. Although the landscape presented him with many opportunities to write up reality, the native inhabitants of the islands were more difficult. The Indians wore no clothes, in contrast to the rich robes described by Marco Polo, and this was a truth which was too naked to be covered up. But Columbus did his best. On 18 December he was visited on board the Santa María by a young chieftain and his entourage of 200 men, of whom four carried him on a litter. `Your Highnesses would no doubt approve of the ceremony and respect with which they all treat him, although they all go naked', writes Columbus, and there follows a set-piece of savage nobility, an acting out by these two leaders of the kind of elaborate ceremonial which would be expected of men of their status in a sophisticated society.

When the cacique comes aboard, Columbus is at table in the sterncastle. The Indian will not allow him to interrupt his meal or rise to greet him. Some food is brought for the visitor and the entourage is ordered outside, with the exception of two men whom Columbus judged to be his advisers and who sat at his feet. Of the food and the drink which are brought, the cacique takes just enough to taste, sending the rest to his men `and all with an amazing gravity and with few words, and those he did speak, as far as I could understand, were very wise and considered, and those two men watched his mouth and spoke for him and with him and with great respect.'

Gifts and pleasantries are exchanged:

After he had eaten, a page brought a belt just like those from Castile in manufacture although the workmanship is different, which he took and gave to me, and two pieces of worked gold which were very thin, because I believe that they get very little of it here, although I hold that they are very close to its source and there is a great deal of it. I saw that he liked a tapestry which I had over my bed. I gave it to him with some very good amber beads which I had around my neck, and some red slippers, and a flask of orange-flower water with which he was so pleased that it was amazing. He and his advisers are very sad because they could not understand me nor I them. Nevertheless, I understood him to say that if I wanted anything from there, the whole island was at my disposal. (18.12)

It takes very little to see in this awesome, well-mannered, softly-spoken and above all generous Indian a not too distant reflection of the Great Khan himself, attended by 12,000 liegemen in token of his power, surrounded by elaborate ritual and held in universal fear.

But though Columbus must find his Great Khan, one way or another, so much of what he says and does on the first voyage gainsays his praise of the land and its people, and that contradiction is evident from the very moment Columbus first goes ashore. If this is a diplomatic mission, why is Columbus's first act one of possession? He has a Latin passport and men aboard who speak Hebrew and Arabic and Chaldean so that he can present his credentials to one of the greatest princes and richest men in the world. Why, then, does he take twopenny trinkets - glass beads and hawks' bells - instead of something to impress the man who has everything? And if he is intent on conquering the lands of the Great Khan, why does he take such a small expedition, no soldiers and minimal weapons?

The answer to this question may well lie in the ceremony which took place on Guanahaní at the first landfall on 12 October. The Journal reads:

... they saw some naked people and the Admiral went ashore in the armed boat with Martín Alonso Pinzón and Vicente Yáñez, his brother, who was the captain of the Niña. The Admiral brought out the royal standard, and the captains unfurled two banners of the green cross, which the Admiral flew as his standard on all the ships, with an F and a Y, and a crown over each letter, one on one side of the + and one on the other. When they landed they saw trees, very green, many streams and a large variety of fruits. The Admiral called the two captains and the others who landed, and Rodrigo de Escobedo, secretary of the expedition, and Rodrigo Sánchez de Segovia, and made them bear witness and testimony that he, in their presence, took possession, as in fact he did take possession, of the said island in the names of the King and Queen, His Sovereigns, making the requisite declarations, as is more fully recorded in the statutory instruments which were set down in writing. (12.10)

The ceremony they enacted had many precedents in Roman and Germanic law and had been often used during the reconquest and the colonisation of the Canaries.13 The act of possession always took a physical, symbolic form. Columbus would have taken a handful of earth, cut off the branch of a tree, drunk some water or eaten some fruit, or simply imprinted his footsteps on the soil. The mention of trees, water and fruit in the Journal may be an indication of the precise form the ceremony took. But that itself was not enough. Other elements had to be present for the act to be valid in law. There had to be witnesses (the Pinzón brothers); there had to be Crown representatives (the secretary and the accountant); and there had to be someone to give possession. Columbus knew about these formalities, because at the beginning of the prologue of the Journal he describes the handing over of the keys of the Alhambra to Their Majesties by the defeated Boabdil in a ceremony at which Columbus claims to have been present.

Now there were circumstances under which the third element could be dispensed with, that is when the lands being annexed were considered `res nullius', when they belonged to no one. But these, surely, were the lands of the Great Khan; how could they be considered `res nullius'? Clearly, the legal precedents put Columbus in some difficulty; either these lands belonged to someone, or they did not. Evidently, Columbus decided they did not. And if they did not, who were all these people who inhabited them?

Columbus's judgement in this legal matter clearly indicates that he had formed a view at a very early stage about the Taino inhabitants of the Caribbean. They were, it seems, nothing, a tabula rasa on which the Catholic faith and European civilisation had still to be inscribed. His chosen stylus was language, and the book in which this inscription would take place is the Journal. There is, however, an irony underlying Columbus's attempt at linguistic and cultural colonisation through language. We know that he made his first landfall on an island called Guanahaní, an island which he then (re)named `San Salvador'. But to this day no-one knows for certain which island Guanahaní was. In suppressing the Indian name, Columbus has erased the site of his greatest triumph.

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Editorial note

The purpose of this new edition of the Journal is to provide a clear, accurate and readable Spanish text which keeps faith as far as possible with the features of the original manuscript. Original orthography has been maintained, but all contractions have been resolved. Las Casas made over 1,000 corrections to the text as he was making the summary and no attempt has been made to document these, but all his marginal notes are retained, as footnotes tied to the nearest appropriate place in the Spanish text.

The punctuation of the original differs considerably from modern usage. Las Casas used three main punctuation marks, a slash and a point (/.), a colon (:), and a slash alone (/), in descending order of importance. An equivalent hierarchy has been used in the edition: a point (.), a semi-colon (;), and a comma (,). Very occasionally some punctuation has had to be added, but this is kept to a minimum.

Verbatim text is printed in italic on both the Spanish and the English pages. Explanatory notes are tied to the English text and follow it.

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The language of Christopher Columbus

by R.J. Penny

Columbus was born in Genoa in 1451, and lived there until 1473, when he was 22. Despite some opinions to the contrary, his family was in all probability Genoese,14 and it is therefore reasonable to assume that his native language was the Genoese vernacular. Through his involvement in the wool trade, he may have become familiar with the commercial Latin of the time, and it is possible that he came into contact with Spanish and/or Portuguese speakers in the busy port (although this is a notion for which there is no direct evidence). What familiarity Columbus had with Tuscan is unknown; the idea that he was a student at Pavia has been discarded as a myth, created by Columbus, and the little that Columbus later wrote in Italian is heavily contaminated by Spanish.

Between the ages of 22 and 25 (1473-6), Columbus was employed as a commercial agent by the great Genoese shipping houses of Paolo di Negro and Ludovico Centurione, for one of whom he undertook a journey to the Greek-speaking island of Chios. The house of Centurione maintained agencies in Seville, Cádiz, and other Spanish ports, but there is no evidence that Columbus worked in or visited such offices.

At the age of 25, Columbus was shipwrecked off the coast of Portugal, and for the next nine years (1476 to the end of 1485) he made his home in Lisbon. During this time, he made voyages to England and Iceland, and to West Africa, as well as visits to Genoa and other Mediterranean ports, but for most of the period Columbus found himself in a Portuguese-speaking environment. Even before marrying a Portuguese wife in 1480, it can be assumed that he learned to speak Portuguese; after his marriage, it is a near certainty. At least from 1480, Columbus became involved in the social and intellectual life of Portugal, and it is probable that at the same time as he was formulating his projects for discovery he was also learning to write Spanish, in accordance with the practice of many educated Portuguese of the time.15 In all probability, Spanish was the first language Columbus learned to write; there is no evidence that he ever learned to write Portuguese, and he could barely write Italian.

At the age of 34, Columbus moved to Spain and had his home there until his death. For most of this period (1485-1506) he was in the service of the Catholic Monarchs, and his various writings are almost exclusively in Spanish, even in the case of letters addressed to Italians. The few notes made by Columbus in Italian are, as we noted above, full of hispanisms.

Columbus's written Spanish

The evidence summarized in the previous section suggests that the only language Columbus learned to write was Spanish. He was at least 25 when he began this learning process, and it would be natural to assume that, as in the case of all adult language-learners, his native speech (i.e., Genoese, not Italian) would have interfered with and distorted his written Spanish. Furthermore, because of the fact that he was learning to write Spanish after learning to speak Portuguese and in a milieu where the native language was Portuguese, it would be unsurprising to find that the language he learned to speak in Portugal should have influenced the way he wrote Spanish. There are some instances where these two outside influences (Genoese and Portuguese) can be expected to conspire; that is, there are features of development which are common to Genoese and Portuguese which are not shared by Spanish. On other occasions, namely where Genoese and Portuguese differ in their development both from each other and from Spanish, it is in theory possible to identify which of the two vernaculars concerned is responsible for a given non-native feature in Columbus's Spanish.

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The language of the 1492 Journal

It should be noted at the outset that, since the journal only survives in Las Casas's summary (although with extensive verbatim quotation), it is to be expected that at least some non-native features of Columbus's Spanish would have been filtered out by copyists of the Journal and by Las Casas himself. Such modifications are most likely at the level of spelling, possible at the level of morphology and syntax, and perhaps least likely in the case of lexis and semantics.In order to minimize the effect of such standardization, the following discussion is based entirely on those sections of Las Casas's text in which it is evident that he is directly quoting Columbus's words.

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Influence exercised jointly by Genoese and Portuguese

  • The absence of diphthong /ue/, /ie/ in cases like al longo de (20.10; vs. luengo [13.10]), aviamento (26.12), pagamento (16.10), may be a case of joint Genoese-Portuguese influence on Columbus's Spanish. This is certainly claimed by Milani.16 However, Rohlfs claims that the graphs e, o are used in 13th-century Genoese texts to represent diphthongs, which have today receded to remoter parts of Liguria.17 It is possible (but not proven) that such diphthongs had already been lost from the Genoese vernacular of the 1450s, so that their occasional absence from Columbus's Spanish may indeed be due to Genoese as well as Portuguese influence.
  • The form gavilano (22.10) (for gavilán) may be due to awareness on Columbus's part that Genoese , -an, Portuguese -ªo often corresponded to Spanish -ano (e.g., Genoese ,18 Portuguese mªo, Spanish mano), although such cross-linguistic comparisons, if they are at work here, have led in this case to an erroneous result.
  • Use of the form non with final /n/ (20.10: una de limpio y otra de non), unusual at this stage in Spanish, may argue for combined Genoese and Portuguese influence, since in these varieties the negative particle ended in a nasal (e.g., Old Portuguese nom).
  • Columbus's preference for /r/ in the forms temperada (17.10, 12.11), temperadas (23.10), temperançia (27.11), rather than templar and its derivatives, which were becoming normal in Spanish at the end of the 15th century, perhaps reveals both Genoese and Portuguese influence, since both these varieties continued (and continue) to use forms with /r/. Additionally, absence of syncope may be due to Genoese, where syncope is less frequent than in Hispano-Romance.19
  • Columbus's use of monosyllabic nos, rare in late 15th-century Spanish, to the exclusion of nosotros (e.g. porque dé buenas nuevas de nos [15.10, 16.10]; vinieron a nos [17.10]) is perhaps due to the fact that contemporary Genoese and Portuguese used monosyllabic forms of the corresponding pronoun.
  • The sense `steal, seize' for the verb prender was probably obsolete in Spanish by the end of the 15th century. Its use by Columbus in this sense (12.11) is arguably due to the fact that in both Genoese and Portuguese, the verb prender continued to be used with this value.

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Influence exercised by Genoese alone

Such evidence is hard to come by, owing to the scarcity of sources of information on 15th-century Genoese, so that the following cases must be viewed with caution. Evidence is often available from medieval Italian (i.e., Tuscan) sources, but it goes without saying that such data by no means necessarily imply that a given form was used in contemporary Genoese. Caution is all the more necessary in that we have seen that it cannot be established that Columbus was a fluent user of `standard' Italian.

  • The otherwise unprecedented form símplice(s) `simple', used by Columbus in 14.10, may owe its form to interference from a Genoese cognate of Italian sémplice. Likewise, the final vowel of doblo (26.12) may be accounted for in similar manner (cf. Italian doppio). Doblo does not elsewhere appear in Spanish until 1640, and then only as a legal term.20
  • Columbus uses the words diforme and disforme in the sense `different' (muy diformes de los nuestros [16.10], disformes de los nuestros [16.10, 17.10], with the same meaning as in tan diversas de las nuestras [19.10]). Such a meaning is associated with late medieval and Renaissance Italian disforme21 and may conceivably have been attached to a cognate Genoese term, introduced unconsciously by Columbus into his Spanish. Similar arguments can be applied to Columbus's use of estimulados `excited, worried' (22.9), infra (infra la tierra `inland' [27.11]), and to temporejar `to delay, stand off (a coast)' (15.10, 20.10). For the latter verb Milani (pp. 155-6) quotes cases of late medieval and Renaissance Italian temporeggiare, `id.', a Genoese cognate of which Columbus may have introduced into his Spanish; the Spanish verb does not otherwise appear until the late 19th century, when it is borrowed from Catalan or Portuguese.
  • Columbus uses the verb ser in impersonal constructions, as the equivalent of impersonal haber. Thus: es [= hay] en estas tierras grandíssima suma de oro (12.11); adonde es [= hay] mill maneras de lenguas (12.11); es [= hay] tanto (29.12); que más mejor gente ni tierra puede ser [= haber] (24.12). Since such a construction does not occur in Spanish or Portuguese, we may be dealing with a case of interference from Genoese, if it can be shown that 15th-century Genoese was like Tuscan in using the verb `to be' in this way. It should be noted that Columbus also uses aver (modern haber) in this role.

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Influence exercised by Portuguese alone

Evidence of such interference in Columbus's Spanish is abundant and, in some instances, has long been known.22

  • The verb sufrir `suffer' appears spelt with ç- (çufriré [9.1]). It is not inconceivable that this spelling reveals that the Portuguese Columbus learned was subject to incipient merger of /s/ and /ts/ (since seseo had begun in Southern Portuguese in the 13th century, even if it did not become fully acceptable in educated usage until the mid-16th century.23 However, such a hypothesis is weakened by the fact that this verb is also spelt with ç- (five instances) in the non-verbatim sections of Las Casas's summary.
  • Raising of atonic /o/ to /u/, not unknown in non-standard varieties of Castilian, is regular in Portuguese, and may account for Columbus's use of cudiçia `greed' (25.12, 26.12).
  • The form convertería (11.10; vs. convertirán [6.11, 27.11]), as well as reflecting vocalic uncertainty similar to the preceding case, may reveal interference in Columbus's Spanish of the Portuguese infinitive converter.
  • Cogujos `buds (?)' (4.11) is conceivably a falsely castilianized form of a Portuguese word. Latin CUCULLIO, -ONIS `hood' might be expected to provide Portuguese *cogulhªo, or conceivably by back-formation *cogulho. The latter form may have been the one learned by Columbus, for which he invented a non-existent Castilian cognate.
  • Multidumbre `multitude' (12.11) appears to be a blend created by Columbus from separate components of Spanish muchedumbre and Portuguese multidªo `id.'.
  • Columbus confuses the pronouns el and lo, using lo as a masculine (lexos de lo uno y de lo otro [= del uno y del otro], with reference to geographical locations [1.11]). This confusion is likely to be due to the dual masculine and neuter function of the Portuguese pronoun o.
  • The masculine gender of nariz (11.10, 15.10 17.10 22.10; vs. fem. twice at 13.10) and of señal 18.12 (vs. fem. at 1.11 and 12.11) probably reveals Portuguese influence, since the Portuguese cognates of these words are masculine. However, in the second case, Genoese may have conspired with Portuguese, if the Genoese cognate was masc., as is the Italian segnale.
  • The verb tener is used as an auxiliary to form the perfect and other compound tenses with some frequency in Golden-Age Spanish. However, the consistency with which Columbus uses this auxiliary (rather than haber) argues for considerable Portuguese influence on his Spanish. E.g., aquellos hombres que yo tenía tomado (14.10), como tenía determinado (23.10); tengo determinado de la rodear (16.10); desnuda como dicho tengo (4.11); como hasta aquí tienen fecho (6.11); tengo hablado del sitio (27.11); menos de lo que yo tengo dicho (24.12).

It has long been known that Columbus's Spanish contains items of Portuguese vocabulary not elsewhere attested in Spanish, or not attested there until later. Among such items we find: angla `inlet of the sea' (19.10; probably Portuguese angra `id.', castilianised by Columbus; Castilian angra is attested only from 1573,24 arambel `bed-cover' (18.12) (< Portuguese alambel `id.', otherwise attested only from 1527, corredíos `straight, smooth (hair)' (13.10), fugir `to flee' (fugir, fugió, fugeron, se avía fugido [15.10], se avían fugido [21.10], fugir [21.10, 27.11]; vs. fuyen [12.11], huyr [16.12]).

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Other evidence of Columbus's imperfect learning of Spanish

In the following cases it can be argued that we are witnessing errors typical of those made by an adult learner of a second or subsequent language. In the absence of detailed information on 15th-century Genoese, these departures from the Castilian norm are not here assigned to interference from Columbus's native language (or from any previously learned language), although subsequent investigation may reveal that they are interference errors.

  • Columbus twice uses ningúnd (27.11), perhaps modifying ningún in imitation of según, which genuinely alternated with segúnd in medieval and early modern Spanish.25 Columbus uses the form segúnd at 12.12.
  • The verb-form andássemos (19.10), for standard andoviéssemos or anduviéssemos, although not totally unprecedented in the history of Spanish, is likely to be an adult language-learner's error, perhaps ultimately due to the regular nature (if this is indeed the case) of the cognate verb in Genoese.
  • The relative pronoun qui was ousted by quien in the 13th century.26 Columbus nevertheless uses this pronoun (un cabo a qui yo llamé el Cabo Hermoso [19.10]; este, a qui yo digo Cabo Fermoso [19.10]; uno se llegó a qui yo di unos cascaveles [21.10]); he must either have picked up this archaism from his reading of Spanish, or it is due to some (unidentified) outside interference.
  • Columbus's use of the Spanish personal pronouns is notoriously confused. Like some speakers (but few writers) of Spanish, he uses le with plural value (additionally confusing direct with indirect object function): y si se le [= los] trastorna, luego se echan todos a nadar (13.10); de siete que yo hize tomar para le [= los/les] llevar y deprender nuestra lengua (14.10); muchas vezes le [= les] entiendo una cosa por otra (27.11); porque ... le [= les] obedezcan (26.12); yo no le [= les] dexé tocar (21.10); como le [= les] amuestran (1.11). He also uses le (for standard lo) in reference to non-animate (including mass) nouns: yo no le falle [sc. oro] (15.10); sin le [sc. algodón] llevar a España (12.11); que todos le [sc. acatamiento] tienen (18.12). In the following case, le is used as a feminine direct object form (i.e., for standard la): nos le [sc. a la sierpe] seguimos dentro (21.10). Similarly, as in some of the phrases listed first in this paragraph, Columbus confuses plural los with les: los pareçe a ellos (19.10). Finally, his use of tonic ello to refer to mass nouns, although non-standard, is similar to the present-day usage of northern and north-western dialect areas:27 tenía grandes vasos de ello [sc. de oro] (13.10), topar en ello [sc. oro] (19.10). However, él and ella also appear in this role: aquí alcançan poco de él [sc. oro] (18.12), no e podido aver de ella [sc. resina], salvo muy poquita (sic) (12.11), while ello on one occasion has a count-noun as its referent: la entrada de ello [sc. del puerto] (14.10).
  • Like many non-standard speakers of Spanish today, Columbus sometimes pluralizes finite forms of the verb haber when they are used with impersonal value: an en ella 5 leguas (15.10), an en ella más de diez leguas (15.10). However, both ay and (h)a are also found with plural complements.
  • Unless we are dealing with an error of transcription by Las Casas, Columbus confuses indicative and subjunctive mood in the following case: no me pareçe que las puede aver (27.11).

One or two items of Columbus's vocabulary may be due to imperfect learning. I find no corroborative trace of the verb asensar (asensar la ánima [14.2]), which is conceivably an error for assentar `to calm'. Oppósito `(personal) opposition' (15.3) likewise appears to lack documentation in Spanish as a noun; on its rare appearances, it functions as a participle, alternating with opuesto. In the realm between lexis and syntax, Columbus entirely conflates Spanish salvo and sino, using only salvo (e.g., 23.10, 30.10 12.11, no falta salvo assiento [16.12]). Although other writers occasionally use salvo where the modern language prefers sino, Columbus stands out from his contemporaries by never using sino.

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Aspects of Columbus's language which are in keeping with late 15th-century practice

The language of Columbus's Journal is, in a majority of its features, typical, unsurprisingly, of the language used by other late 15th-century writers. Among such features, there are of course a good number which differ from those of the modern standard, and it is worthwhile to note here the most important.

We have noted above that the spelling used by Columbus is very likely to have been `standardized' either by the copyists of the original Journal or by Las Casas himself. However, it is interesting to observe one aspect of Spanish spelling which underwent substantial change between the time of the composition of the journal and its publication in summary form. In 1492, the letter f was still used with two values, that of /f/ (as in favor, fortaleza) and that of the aspirate /h/, then the normal educated pronunciation appropriate to words like fablar, fazer, fijo, etc. However, some writers, led by Antonio de Nebrija28 were beginning to use h to indicate /h/ (hablar, hazer, hijo, etc.). In those parts of Las Casas's text which are evidently verbatim quotations of Columbus's words, we find 88 cases in which f arguably represents Castilian /h/, and 144 cases in which this phoneme is written h. By contrast, in those parts of Las Casas's summary where he is not directly quoting, use of the letter f for the phoneme /h/ is rare. It is likely that Columbus used f spellings in all cases like fablar, fazer, etc., and that in the majority of cases his spelling was replaced by hablar, hazer, etc., but leaving a substantial number of original spellings intact.

Within the word, cases of /h/ were relatively rare in 15th-century Castilian. Columbus spells with f the verb refe[r]tar (rehertar `to dispute, haggle over' [16.10]), and we find both the spellings bofío and bohío for a word, borrowed from Arawak with sense `hut', which almost certainly contained /h/ in that language and therefore also in the receptor language, Castilian.

That these spellings cannot tell us is how Columbus pronounced such words. Had he learned the Castilian pronunciation /h-/, or, having learned his Spanish in Portugal, where the Portuguese words cognate with Spanish fazer/hazer, etc., were pronounced with /f/, did he pronounce some or all of the Spanish words with /f/? The latter pronunciation would have been foreign in his period, but cannot be entirely excluded, since we have independent testimony that Columbus spoke Spanish with a foreign accent.

The morphology of certain words (for verbs, see below) differs from that of their modern counterparts. As mentioned above, we find segúnd (12.12); similarly, one notes vidro `glass' (11.10, etc.), still common in the Golden Age beside vidrio, and peçe `fish' (11.10), the only form used by Nebrija.29

Verbal morphology still allowed considerable free variation in Columbus's time. In the stem of -ir verbs, variation between /o/ and /u/ continued to be common, irrespective of the structure of the verbal ending; thus Columbus uses forms like sorgí beside surgí, descobrir beside descubrir, descubrí, descubrirán, etc. Similarly, in the 1st pers. sing. pres. ind. and throughout the pres. subj. of inceptive verbs, forms in -sc- compete with those in -zc (e.g., cognosco [15.3], aclaresca [17.10], by contrast with five cases of cognozco and one each of cognozca and cognozcan), and the corresponding forms of the verbs caer, oír, traer may still lack analogical /g/ (thus oyo `I hear' [21.10], vs. traygo `I take' [21.10] and 14 other cases with /g/).

In the preterite of the verb ver `to see', the 1st and 3rd pers. sing. forms may appear with or without /d/. On 11 occasions Columbus uses vi, against 29 cases of vide; for the 3rd pers., he uses only vido (two cases). In the case of the verbs ser and ir, the 1st pers. sing. preterite form hesitated between fue (the only form recommended for both verbs by Nebrija30 and fui/fuy. However, in Columbus's use of these forms, he appears to use fue as the preterite of ser (e.g., 15.10, 17.10) and fui/fuy as that of ir (e.g., 17.10, 18.10). In the case of the verb traer, Columbus uses the commonest medieval preterite form, one which was still frequent in the Golden Age: truxeron (15.10, 12.12).

The imperfect of ver `to see' is given its more usual Golden Age form vía (15.10, 18.12), while, more unusually, the participle of ser appears in its medieval guise of seydo (14.1), rather than the by then usual form sido (Nebrija, Gramática, pp. 238-45).

The verb llevar `to take, carry' could, in the 15th century, appear with initial /l/ in those forms in which the word-stress did not fall on the first syllable. Thus Columbus is able to use levar (23.10), levaré (11.10) (against six cases with ll-: llevar, llevamos, llevasen, llevava, llevávamos, llevé).

In the field of syntax, it should be noted that until about the middle of the 16th century the auxiliary used to form the compound tenses of intransitive verbs (especially verbs of motion) was frequently ser, although haber was becoming dominant in this role. Columbus uses both constructions: si éramos venido (sic) del çielo (14.10), éramos venidos del çielo (22.10), todo es venido mucho a pelo (26.12), against nosotros avemos venido del çielo (12.11).

In normal medieval and frequent Golden Age usage, the `personal a' construction is only required where it is otherwise unclear whether a given noun functioned as the subject or object of its clause. Columbus can therefore write, in accordance with contemporary syntactical usage, así truxeron la muger (12.12).

Medieval partitive expressions, based on de + noun or pronoun, continued in use in the early Golden Age. We find cases like buscar del oro `search for some gold' (6.11) which exemplify this usage.

In the late 15th century, the semantic range of words was naturally sometimes different from their present range. Thus the verb ser could still indicate location, as in the following cases: que en ella era (15.10); adonde es el oro (17.10); fue acerca `I was nearby' (17.10); por ser en ella más presto `in order to arrive there' (17.10); aquí ... no es la poblaçión (19.10); adonde entendí ... que era la poblaçión (20.10); es ella en esta comarca (24.10); las otras que son entremedio (21.10). The same verb can be used to indicate non-permanent attributes, fulfilling a role currently fulfilled by the verb estar: [sus casas] eran de dentro muy barridas y limpias (17.10).

The verb aver (= modern Spanish haber) could still in the 15th century indicate `possession': aya lengua con este rey (19.10, 21.10), para aver lengua con este rey (23.10); y ver si puedo aver de él el oro (21.10); aquí se avría grande suma de algodón (12.11); avrán en dicha servir `they will consider themselves fortunate to serve' (12.11); aviendo mugeres (12.11); el benefiçio de que aquí se pueda aver (27.11). However, tener is already found with this value: teniendo sus mugeres (12.11).

The expression después que can mean `since', as in después que en estas Yndias estoy (17.10).

Some of the vocabulary used by Columbus represents the earliest attestation in Spanish of the words concerned. Corominas-Pascual list only later examples of restinga/restringa `(underwater) rock' (14.10, 19.10, 26.12), and the noun tomo (de tanto tomo `of such importance' [31.12]). Other words no longer current (or current only in modified form) were normal in Columbus's time: alfilel (21.10; cf. Nebrija: alhilel/alfilel), aviamento (for aviamiento) `supplies (of food, etc.)' (26.12), enxeridos (now injertados) `grafted' (16.10), estima `esteem' (15.10), mareantes `sailors' (21.10), refe[r]tar `to dispute, haggle over' (16.10, whence the noun refierta/rehierta, now spelt reyerta `quarrel'), roquedos (15.10, 24.10), now replaced by the infrequent roqueda `rocky ground', hazer la salva `to taste food, in case of poison (before a king, etc., eats)' (18.12), ventar (e.g., no ventavan... vientos [22.9], vienta [23.10], ventar muy amoroso [24.10]) `to blow', now ventear.

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Amerindian words borrowed by Columbus

It is hardly surprising that Columbus uses few amerindianisms, since his Journal is only intermittently concerned with description of the life and customs of the territories he discovered. He does make attempts at verbal communication with the islands' inhabitants (usually in an effort to gain information on the availability of gold and other commodities), but it appears from his account that such attempts had only limited success. Novel concepts are therefore labelled, for the most part, with the Spanish vocabulary available to Columbus. Thus, the dug-out canoes of the islanders are generally (on 16 occasions) referred to as almadías, while the borrowing canoa appears only four times (all at 17.12). The only other amerindianisms used by Columbus are cacique `Indian chieftain' (17.12), and the disputed ajes `yam' (21.12), which is described by Corominas-Pascual as a `voz de origen antillano', but which may be an arabism.31 The same plants are referred to as mames (4.11), a variant of (or perhaps a misreading of) niames, a form found in the non-verbatim part of Las Casas's digest of the Journal, later ñames, a word which is possibly of W. African origin.32

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Idiosyncrasies of Columbus's language

Columbus's Spanish sometimes suffers from overcomplexity of syntax, seen in its most opaque form in the prologue of the Journal. On other occasions, one identifies less acute infelicities of style, as in the entry where Columbus is describing the bargaining abilities of different groups of natives: cositas que saben mejor refe[r]tar el pagamento que no hazían los otros (16.10). Elsewhere it is difficult to distinguish clumsiness from imperfect learning of Spanish: es en esto mucho de aver gran diligencia (16.10), para otra isla grande mucho (21.10), en todos tres los navíos (27.11), yo he visto solos tres de estos marineros (16.12), más gente al doblo `twice the population' (26.12), no pudiera errar de ver alguna `I could not have failed to see one' (16.10), para pujar a rodear toda la ysla (16.10). The last case is a strange instance of the use of the verb pujar, which usually means `to raise'; the sentence is still odd even if pujar is an error for puxar `to push', since the writer's intended meaning seems to be `to try to sail around the whole island'.

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This study of Columbus's language has been based exclusively upon the sections of Las Casas's summary of the Journal in which he explicitly quotes Columbus's words. However, there is no reason to think that the observations made on this portion of Columbus's output are not relevant to his other writings. We have seen that Columbus's native language, Genoese, probably influenced the Spanish he later learned, but that it is easier to identify interference from Portuguese, the language he learned to speak in adulthood before learning to write (and speak) Castilian. Other non-standard features of his language can be put down to inadequate learning of Spanish, while in other ways his language does not depart from the late 15th-century norm. There are few cases of borrowing of Amerindian terms and we have noted certain infelicities of Columbus's style.

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There is a vast bibliography relating to Columbus and his age. The following list is restricted to important editions and translations of the Journal, and a small number of major studies of Columbus. The text of Las Casas's digest was unknown until 1790, when Martín Fernández de Navarrete discovered it in the library of the Duque del Infantado. Robert H. Fuson discusses the history of the Journal and its reliability in `The Diario de Colón: A legacy of poor transcription, translation, and interpretation', de Vorsey and Parker, 51-75.


  • Manuel Alvar, Cristóbal Colón, Diario del descubrimiento, 2 vols., Madrid: La Muralla, 1976.
  • Joaquín Arce and Manuel Gil Esteve, Diario de a bordo de Cristóbal Colón, Turin, 1971.
  • Luis Arranz Márquez, Cristóbal Colón, Diario de a bordo, Madrid, 1985.
  • Oliver Dunn [partial], `The Diario, or Journal, of Columbus's First Voyage: A New Transcription of the Las Casas Manuscript for the Period October 10 through December 6, 1492', in de Vorsey and Parker, 173-231.
  • Oliver Dunn and James E. Kelley, Jr., The `Diario' of Christopher Columbus's First Voyage to America 1492-1493, Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
  • Martín Fernández de Navarrete, Colección de los viajes y descubrimientos que hicieron por mar los españoles desde fines del siglo quince con varios documentos inéditos, 5 vols., (Madrid, 1825-37), 2, 1-197. [Edited by Carlos Seco Serrano in Obras de D. Martín Fernández de Navarrete, Biblioteca de Autores Españoles, Madrid, 1954, vol. 75.]
  • Julio F. Guillén y Tato, El primer viaje de Cristóbal Colón, Madrid, 1943.
  • Cesare de Lollis, Raccolta di documenti et studi, 14 vols., Rome, 1892-96.
  • Vicente Muñoz Puelles, ed., Cristóbal Colón, Diario de a bordo, Madrid: Anaya, 1985.
  • Carlos Sanz, Diario de Colón: Libro de la primera navegación y descubrimiento de las Indias, 2 vols., Madrid, 1962.
  • Consuelo Varela, Cristóbal Colón, Textos y documentos completos, Madrid: Alianza, 1982, 2nd edition, 1984.
  • Consuelo Varela, Diario del primer y tercer viaje de Cristóbal Colón, Madrid: Alianza, 1989 [vol. 14 of the Obras completas of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas].

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  • J.M. Cohen, The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus, Harmondsworth, 1952.
  • Robert H. Fuson, The Log of Christopher Columbus, Southampton: Ashford Press, 1987.
  • Cecil Jane, The Voyages of Christopher Columbus, London, 1930. [Revised and annotated by L.A. Vigneras with an appendix by R.A. Skelton, Hakluyt Society, Extra series, 38, London, 1960.]
  • Clements R. Markham, The Journal of Christopher Columbus (during his first voyage, 1492-93), and Documents Relating to the Voyages of John Cabot and Gaspar Corte Real, Hakluyt Society, London, 1893.
  • Samuel Eliot Morison, Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, New York, 1963.

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  • R.H. Major, trans. and ed., Select Letters of Christopher Columbus, with other Original Documents, Relating to his Four Voyages to the New World, 1st ed. Hakluyt Society 1st series, 2, London 1847; 2nd ed. Hakluyt Society, 1st series, 43, London, 1870. [Re-edited with additional material by Cecil Jane, 2 vols., Hakluyt Society, 2nd series, 65, 70, London, 1930, 1933; reprinted by Kraus Reprint Co., 1967]
  • Alain Milhou, Colón y su mentalidad mesiánica en el ambiente franciscanista español, Valladolid: Casa-Museo de Colón, 1983.
  • Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus, 2 vols, Boston, 1942.
  • John Boyd Thacher, Christopher Columbus: His Life, His Work, His Remains, 3 vols., New York, 1903-04, reprinted Kraus, 1962.
  • Tzvetan Todorov, La conquête de l'Amérique. La question de l'autre, Paris: Seuil, 1982.
  • Henry Vignaud, Toscanelli and Columbus, New York, 1902.
  • Louis de Vorsey, Jr. and John Parker, In the Wake of Columbus. Islands and Controversy, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1985.

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layout text
1. layout text Throughout this Introduction and the text of the Journal itself, Columbus's verbatim text is printed in italic.
2. layout text This must, however, have been between 1513, the date of the discovery of Florida, alluded to in the entry for 21 November, and 1527, the year Las Casas began the Historia.
3. layout text References to the Journal are made in the form of day.month, i.e. `15.10' is 15 October 1492, and `15.2' is 15 February 1493.
4. layout text The Voyages of Christopher Columbus, London, 1930, p. 63.
5. layout text See Note 23 on page 245.
6. layout text See page .
7. layout text J.H. Elliott, `Spain and America before 1700' in Colonial Spanish America, ed. Leslie Bethell, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, p. 63.
8. layout text Hernán Cortés, Letters from Mexico, trans. Anthony Pagden, London: Oxford University Press, 1972, pp. 101-2.
9. layout text Capitulaciones del Almirante don Cristóbal Colón y salvoconductos para el descubrimiento del nuevo mundo, Madrid: Ministerio de Educación y Ciencia, 1970.
10. layout text ibid., p. 23.
11. layout text
12. layout text Peter Hulme, `Columbus and the Cannibals' in Colonial Encounters, London and New York: Methuen, 1986, pp. 13-43.
13. layout text F. Morales Padrón, `Descubrimiento y toma de posesión', Anuario de Estudios Americanos, xii (1955), 321-80.
14. layout text Ramón Menéndez Pidal, La lengua de Cristóbal Colón, Buenos Aires: Austral, 1947, pp. 13-14.
15. layout text Menéndez Pidal, La lengua de Cristóbal Colón, p. 6.
16. layout text Virgil I. Milani, The Written Language of Christopher Columbus (supplement to Forum Italicum), Buffalo: State University of New York at Buffalo, 1973, p. 137.
17. layout text Gerhard Rohlfs, Grammatica Storica della Lingua Italiana e dei suoi Dialetti, (three vols., I Fonetica, II Morfologia, III Sintassi e Formazione delle Parole, Turin: Einaudi, 1966, 1968, 1969), I pp. 112, 139.
18. layout text Rohlfs, I, p. 427.
19. layout text Rohlfs, I, pp. 169-72.
20. layout text Juan Corominas and J.A. Pascual, Diccionario crítico etimológico castellano e hispánico, 6 vols., Madrid: Gredos, 1980-, s.v. dos.
21. layout text Milani, Written Language, pp. 49-50.
22. layout text Menéndez Pidal, La lengua de Cristóbal Colón, pp. 17-23.
23. layout text Serafim da Silva Neto, História da língua portugêsa, Rio de Janeiro: Livros de Portugal, 1952, pp. 484-7.
24. layout text Corominas-Pascual, s.v. angra.
25. layout text Corominas-Pascual, s.v. seguir.
26. layout text Corominas-Pascual, s.v. que.
27. layout text R.J. Penny, `Mass nouns and metaphony in the dialects of north-western Spain', Archivum Linguisticum, n.s., 1 (1970), 21-30.
28. layout text Antonio Nebrija, Gramática de la lengua castellana [1492], ed. Antonio Quilis, Madrid: Editora Nacional, 1980, p. 121.
29. layout text Antonio de Nebrija, Vocabulario de romance en latín [1516], ed. Gerald J. Macdonald, Madrid: Castalia, 1973, s.v.
30. layout text Gramática, p. 238.
31. layout text Professor L.P. Harvey, by personal communication.
32. layout text Corominas-Pascual, s.v. ñame.
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Document Contents
Editorial note
The language of Christopher Columbus
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