Introduction to the Letters from America
The purpose of this edition is to make available for the first time, in a convenient format, two of the letters which Columbus
is known to have dispatched immediately upon his return from the first voyage to the New World in March 1493. The two letters
in question were addressed to Their Majesties King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs, and to a court official,
Luis de Santángel, who played a key role in arranging the finance for the voyage. The letter to Santángel has been a seminal
document in Columbus studies for some time, and is often referred to simply as 'the Columbus letter'; but the letter to the
Catholic Monarchs has only recently come to light. This edition provides a reliable Spanish text of both letters, with facing
translation, and a parallel edition of the two texts to facilitate detailed comparative study.
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Accounts of the 1492 Voyage
Almost everything we know about the 1492 voyage to the New World has come down to us directly or indirectly from Columbus's
own hand. This presents the historian - and the cultural and literary historians who are increasingly drawn to the importance
of Columbus's writings - with a unique body of first-hand source material, and some formidable problems of interpretation.
For a man of action, Columbus was uncommonly aware of the importance of making written records of everything he did. When
he set sail for the Far East in August 1492 he decided, in view of the significance of what he was about to attempt, to record
the findings 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.1
However, it would be a mistake to attribute this decision entirely to bureaucratic motives. Columbus had an almost uncanny
sense that, whatever happened to him on his great voyage, it would have no substance until or unless it took a tangible form,
either as booty or the balance of trade, or as a written account through which his readers could reconstruct the reality of
the events. The log-book and other written documents serve as verbal testimony of the truth of the voyage; they lend authority
to Columbus's legal and personal claims, and act as touchstones of his achievement.2
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The most detailed account of the voyage was the day-to-day record or log-book which Columbus presented to Queen Isabella on
his return to Spain in the spring of 1493. 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 disappeared within the Queen's lifetime and what survives
is not the copy that Columbus took back with him to the New World, but a lengthy summary with extensive verbatim extracts
made by Bartolomé de las Casas at some time around the 1520s. This document, called variously the Diario or Journal, has been for over 150 years the major source of information about the first voyage, and the problematic form in which it
survives has made it the object of intense scrutiny and lively debate.3
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Columbus's own summaries
After the initial euphoria of finding land more or less exactly where he said it would be, the months following the landfall
were a period of some difficulty for Columbus. The expedition was at first nonplussed, and then increasingly frustrated, at
the refusal of the new-found lands to conform to the discoverers' cultural expectations and to yield the expected economic
rewards. Dissent, compounded by the tragic loss of the Santa María which ran aground and broke up on Christmas day, forced
Columbus to return to Spain before he had been able to carry out the detailed surveys and gather the tangible evidence of
great oriental wealth which would have ensured him a rapturous reception.
Columbus frequently comments in the Diario on the difficulty of communicating a new and unimagined reality to an absent audience, and during the return journey he was
obviously exercised by the question of how he was going to break the news about the success of the voyage and his findings.
The Catholic Monarchs themselves were not the real problem: he would obviously have to report to them in person and would
have ample opportunity to impress them with first-hand accounts, and to show them how the discoveries could best be exploited.
What is more, he would leave with them the detailed log-book through which the voyage could be re-created in their imaginations.
More difficult was the problem of managing the public response, which, if he were not careful, could become coloured by garbled
accounts from disaffected crew-members. The worst outcome would be for the Monarchs to get wind of the news through these
unofficial and undoctored channels.
Columbus's problems of information management became particularly acute around the middle of February 1493, when he was experiencing
very heavy seas in the Atlantic off the Azores during the return voyage. He had long since lost the Santa María, and he had
become separated from the Pinta during the bad weather in mid Atlantic. He was left with the Niña, the smallest ship of the
three, and faced the very real prospect of going to the bottom of the Ocean and taking the news with him, or, worse still,
of Martín Alonso Pinzón getting home first. On February 14, he decided to summarise the main points of the voyage in writing:
...and so that, if he were to perish in that storm, the Monarchs would have 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 wrapped the parchment tightly in a waxed cloth and called for a large wooden barrel and put it in the barrel without anyone
knowing what it was, for they all thought it was some act of devotion, and then ordered it to be thrown into the sea.4
This incident illustrates, if proof were needed, the almost painful fragility of communications at that period. In Columbus's
perilous situation, there was literally only one thing that he could do - resort to writing. The summary which he produced
- which has naturally not survived - almost certainly resembled very closely the reports which he subsequently sent to the
Catholic Monarchs and to Luis de Santángel, and which may already have existed in draft at that time.
Columbus survived the storms in the Atlantic that February, and lived to tell the tale. The letters which he dispatched on
his arrival in Lisbon became the model for hundreds of similar reports from future generations of conquistadores, and in the hands of such a consummate salesman as Columbus was, the carta-relación turned out to be an extremely effective way of managing information. In modern terms, the brief accounts he sent to the Crown
and their officers were the 'executive summaries' to which the later, more detailed reports became, in effect, appendices.
The brevity and narrow focus of the carta-relación allowed Columbus to concentrate the attention of his addressees on precisely those issues which he wished to emphasise, and
to ensure that his was the version of events which first caught their attention.
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The 'Letter to Santángel'
The news of the first voyage spread throughout Europe with enormous speed, largely by means of the so-called 'letter to Santángel'.
This letter was published twelve times, in six cities, in five countries, and in three languages, all within a few months
of Columbus's return. The rapid diffusion of this letter bears testimony not just to contemporary perceptions of the importance
of the voyage in itself, but also to the way in which new printing technology created, almost simultaneously throughout Europe,
a sense that a new age was beginning.5
The Santángel letter was first published in Castilian, by Pedro Posa in Barcelona, in April of 1493. It was immediately translated
into Latin by Leandro Cosco and published in Rome (twice), Antwerp, Basle and Paris (three times). It also circulated in an
Italian verse translation, and in German, and was printed again in Spanish in Valladolid in 1497.
The Santángel letter poses a number of problems, not the least of which is the fact that Santángel's name does not appear
anywhere on the document. The opening salutation is simply "Señor", and the printer's colophon
merely states that the letter was sent by Columbus "to the Controller of the Household" and that it was "enclosed in another
to Their Majesties".6 The Latin version interprets the holder of this post as Gabriel (or, in one case,
Rafael) Sánchez, who was in fact Treasurer. It has usually been assumed that Columbus must have sent two letters, one to Santángel
and another to Sánchez. However, the texts are virtually identical, allowing for the translation, and whereas Columbus was
deeply indebted to Santángel he is not otherwise known to have had any contact with Sánchez. It could be, therefore, that
the attribution to Sánchez resulted from confusion about who held the post of Controller.
The dating of the Sántangel letter is also problematic. The letter itself is dated "on board the caravel, off the islands
of the Canaries, 15 February in the year 1493". If this date is correct, it means that Columbus wrote the letter at sea before
or during those storm-tossed days around the middle of February, about the time when he was reduced to putting messages in
barrels. But Columbus was nowhere near the Canaries on 15 February. He was off the island of Santa Maria in the Azores, as
he well knew, and as the Diario makes clear.7
This curious detail has its counterpart in other errors in the letter. The opening sentence states that the newly discovered
islands lie at a distance of twenty days' sail,8 and their latitude is given later as 26°N (pp. 58, 59). That is, the new discoveries are much further north and not as far
west as Columbus knew them to be. There appears to be clear evidence here of deliberate disinformation by an administration
which was acutely sensitive to the political and diplomatic implications of the discoveries. The Santángel letter attempts
to associate in the mind of the reader the islands of the Indies with the archipelago of the Canaries - Spain's only Atlantic
possession -, and tries to avoid a public admission that on 15 February 1493 Columbus had been in Portuguese territorial waters.
It is not clear whether these falsifications are attributable to Columbus himself or to the spin doctors in the court of the
Catholic Monarchs.9 But it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Santángel letter was published in part to create the impression, in
the context of territorial negotiations with Portugal taking place in Rome, that the new discoveries were Spanish possessions
by right. The almost simultaneous publication of the Santángel letter in some of the major commercial and political centres
of Europe - Barcelona, Rome, Antwerp, Basle and Paris - is clearly an attempt at blanket press coverage of an important event
on the world stage, and it shows an early appreciation of the advantages of media manipulation on a grand scale.
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The 'Letter to the Monarchs'
It has long been known that the Santángel letter was not the only report Columbus sent on his return in March 1493. For one
thing, it is extremely unlikely that he would break the news to a private individual, albeit an officer of the Crown and a
valuable ally in the original financing of the voyage, without first or at least simultaneously reporting to Their Majesties.
Secondly, the colophon of the Santángel letter says that it was an enclosure to another letter, addressed to the Monarchs.
And thirdly, Columbus himself later recalled that he wrote to Their Majesties on 4 March that year.10 That would make sense, since 4 March was the date of his arrival in Lisbon.11
The recent discovery of an important new Columbus MS in Spain has led scholars to conclude that this missing letter to the
Monarchs has been found. The Libro copiador, acquired in the late 1980s by the Spanish government from a private vendor and lodged in the Archivo General de Indias,
contains nine Columbus documents of which seven are previously unknown. The first of these is a letter to the Catholic Monarchs
dated "on the Spanish sea, 4 March 1493".12
The letter to the Monarchs offers a clear and coherent structure which can be divided into six main sections (see Table 1).
The letter begins with a summary of the voyage as a whole, outlining the route taken, listing the main islands visited and
affirming the legitimacy of the acts of possession. He is careful to explain the reasons for the important change of course
on 31 October, when he decided to abandon the westerly route along Cuba and to turn east. He reports on attempts to reconnoitre
the interior of Cuba, the lack of any sign of a large town or city, and the eventual sighting of Española to the east. He
concludes this introductory section by giving reasons for his relatively early return (he was in the Caribbean for only a
little over three months): he had found most of what he was looking for, including the town of Navidad, and had been betrayed
by 'someone from Palos' - a dark reference to his ongoing disputes with Martín Alonso Pinzón.
Columbus then proceeds to give basic ethnographic information about the native inhabitants of the area as a whole, giving
everything a strongly paradisiac gloss. The people are 'the finest under the sun, without evil or deception'; naked, weaponless,
eschewing private property, without religion, and generous in the extreme. They insisted that the Spaniards came from heaven
(or, at least, from the sky) and they insisted on offering hefty pieces of gold in exchange for broken crockery.
Columbus next provides specific details about the two major islands, Juana (Cuba) and Española. These are by far the largest
of those he visited, and he compares them, not unreasonably, with Great Britain and the Iberian Peninsula in terms of size.
Cuba is impressively mountainous, but Española - the 'Spanish Isle' - is better; more lush, more fertile, and watered by copious
rivers 'of which the majority carry gold'.
Notwithstanding the richness of the lands he has encountered, the voyage itself was not without its difficulties, as Columbus
goes on to relate: contrary winds, problems of communication, unsuitable ships foisted on him before he left Castile and only
accepted with reluctance in order to get the enterprise under way. Nevertheless, the Almighty rewarded his steadfastness with
the gift of the town of Navidad and the first Christian settlement in Española.
The economic benefits of the discoveries receive extensive treatment. Having located the sources of supply of some of Europe's
most expensive imported goods - gold, pepper, mastic, aloe, rhubarb and cinnamon - opens up the prospect of great wealth and
the potential to fund another campaign to recapture Jerusalem. Columbus himself offers to underwrite the costs of ten thousand
cavalry and one hundred thousand infantry, and suggests not only that great celebrations should take place throughout Christendom,
but that they should remember the sacrifices he himself has made, and should reward him accordingly, together with his son
Diego and the faithful Villacorta.
Columbus ends, as all good writers of travellers' tales should end, with some exotica: reports of islands populated exclusively
by women, by cannibals, by people with tails and people without hair, and of lands yielding 'gold beyond measure'.
Columbus's summary of the first voyage offers something for everyone, combining accurate geographical and ethnographical detail
on the one hand with some wild speculation about economic and religious benefits on the other. All this is packaged with great
skill. What emerges is an account of the new discoveries which shows how right Columbus had been - the land was where he said
it would be, 2400 miles out into the Atlantic - and how wise the Catholic Monarchs had been to back him. In exchange, he offers
them prospects of vast riches based largely on misreadings of Arawak and Carib culture and too much reading of medieval travel
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The two letters compared
Reference to Table 1, in which the two letters are analysed under 38 thematic sub-heads, reveals both striking similarities
and obvious differences. In the early stages (nos 1-6) the letters are so close that it is difficult to be certain whether
we are dealing with a single text and a variant, or with two different texts. Detailed textual comparison of these early paragraphs
(pp. 68-70) shows, however, that even when Columbus is using identical syntax and lexis, the letters are not sufficiently
close to suggest that one was directly copied from the other. The impression is rather that Columbus is using language in
an almost formulaic
manner, as he does elsewhere, most notably in the Diario,13 or that he may conceivably be drawing on two separate occasions on the
phraseology of a common reference point, presumably the log itself.14
As the two letters proceed, however, they grow further apart, although the overall structure is similar. The letter to Santángel
is shorter by about 300 words and differs from that to the Monarchs in two major respects: it does not contain the petitions
(nos 24-26), which is reasonable given that there is no point in making petitions to someone who cannot grant them; and it
is markedly less messianic. The Santángel letter says nothing about the providential aspects of the voyage, or about the opportunities
which the new lands offer to fund a new crusade against Jerusalem. This omission is surprising in view of the importance which
is normally attached to messianic issues in accounts of Columbus's career,15 but shows, perhaps, how sensitive Columbus was to the enthusiasms of his readers. Crusades may well be of interest to the
Monarchs, but might cut less ice with merchants and financiers than would news about the riches of this world.
Consistent with his playing down of religion in the Santángel letter, Columbus gives many more ethnographical details than
he does in the letter to the Monarchs, and in general there is both a greater use of mercantile discourse and a greater sense
of 'scientific' rigour. The Santángel text gives the name of the landfall island Guanahaní - incorrectly, it is true, but
then that may be the fault of the compositors - and gives more details about such things as canoes, about the native diet,
and about the relative status of men and women, all of which are missing from the letter to the Catholic Monarchs. Also significant
in this respect is the way in which the Santángel text elaborates at some length on the generosity of the Indians (compare
pages 31 and 53).
The two texts differ significantly in the ways in which they treat the exotic. The Santángel letter admits quite frankly that
Columbus has found no monsters ('as many expected', he says), although he has heard tell of caribs and people with tails and
an island where 'they assure me' the inhabitants have no hair. Furthermore, the Santángel text ends with a surprisingly modest
observation given the arrogance which he so often affects: 'although these lands may have been spoken or written of, that
was all conjecture, without eye-witness, and those who heard the stories listened to them and judged them more as fables than
as having the least vestige of truth' (p. 63). Others may have speculated about the existence of lands to the west; his contribution
was to be the eye-witness, to supply scientific proof from empirical observation. Columbus seems curiously aware of the fabulous
nature of much medieval cosmography while being heavily dependent on it for his discourse of success; and, at the same time,
there emerges a strong sense of Columbus building on the work of others and acting as part of a team.
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Eloquent silence - the case of Navidad
Each letter has details and, more important, has a hidden agenda, which is missing from the other, but both letters are eloquent,
to different degrees, in what they omit to mention altogether. In this, Columbus shows his skill at manipulating the silences,
the gaps between the interstices of the text. Both letters betray an element of defensiveness about what he was actually able
to achieve on the first voyage, particularly in terms of tangible benefits, and Columbus has often been accused of exaggerations
and outright lies.16 Cuba is not quite as large as England and Scotland; Española is quite a bit smaller than the Iberian Peninsula; and the
mountains of Cuba are not as high as those of the Canaries. He did not find gold, or gold mines, as the letters say; he did
not even find rhubarb or cinnamon.
In particular, he did not find a large town. This last assertion comes about in response to what was probably the major disaster
of the voyage, the running aground and destruction of his flagship, the Santa María. It could not have happened at a worse
time. The Pinta had sailed off on its own initiative, and the loss of the flagship reduced him to a single caravel, the Niña,
the smallest of the three, and nowhere near big enough to get everyone home. Once Columbus had recovered from his shock, and
his freely admitted distress, he began to see the incident as providential. The loss of the Santa María gave him the opportunity
to found a town, which he called Navidad after the date on which the accident took place.
The disaster itself is all but ignored in both letters, and one can see why: financiers do not like to be told that they will
have to write off the costs of expensive pieces of hardware like ships. But returning home without his largest ship had to
be explained somehow, and that would best be done in person, when there would be plenty of opportunity to put the best face
on what happened after the news of the triumph had had time to sink in. Meanwhile he had say something, and he really had
to mention the founding of Navidad.
This incident is mentioned three times in the two letters, once in the Santángel text, and twice in the letter to the Monarchs:
...I had left my flagship with the men in Your Highnesses' town of Navidad, where they were establishing a fortress, as I
shall later report...(p. 27)
...He gave me a place with evident wonderment where I might build a fort, which must by now be completely finished.And it
was His wish that I should leave there, in possession of the town of Navidad, the men I had with me on the flagship and some
from the caravels, equipped with provisions for more than a year and a lot of artillery, free of any danger from anyone, and,
indeed, with the firm friendship of the king of the area, who took great pride in calling me his brother and treating me as
...I have taken possession of a large town to which I gave the name the town of Navidad and I have made a fortress, the building
of which should by now be finished and I have left there sufficient men for the purpose, together with arms and artillery
and supplies for more than a year, and a boat and a shipwright to build others, and with the firm friendship of the king of
that land, so much so that he took great pride in calling me his brother and treating me as such...(p. 57)
It is evident from these extracts that Columbus manages to convey with great skill a number of things which were not the case:
that Navidad already existed, and was a large town; that he had taken possession of this fortress; that he had left the crew
there by design; and that the absence of the flagship was due to the fact that he had left it there to assist the Spaniards
in the defence of the town. The reality was very different: Navidad was built from nothing, on the beach on the north coast
of Española using the timbers from the striken ship, destroyed by the elements and by carelessness; and the crew had to be
left behind because they could not fit into the Niña, the only ship left him by the ill-discipline of Martín Alonso Pinzón.
Nevertheless, he does his best, and builds towns on sand with as much facility as others build castles in Spain.
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Much anachronistic outrage is directed at Columbus for his cavalier approach to the truth. But there are two caveats to enter.
One is simply to remind ourselves that as far as the first voyage is concerned, we cannot know what the truth is. Indeed,
the historiography of this voyage illustrates perfectly the fact that history is always an account, a narrative, and a narrative
always has an author and an audience. All the narratives of the first voyage derive from a single author, Columbus himself.
How can we judge if any one is any more or less true than any other?
The other caveat is to remind ourselves that the rhetorical basis of all acts of communication relates to their purpose. Columbus
was a compulsive writer, but he never wrote in order to give posterity a comprehensive account of what happened. Most of the
time he wrote because he wanted something. What he wanted at the beginning of March 1493 was more time and more money. He
had made a tremendous scientific and cultural breakthrough, the importance of which not even he was equipped to appreciate,
but he had not quite delivered the goods in economic terms. He was sure that he could, given time and money.
The purpose of the letters both to the Monarchs and to Santángel was not just to break the news of the discoveries, but to
stoke the enthusiasm and commitment of the very people Columbus needed on his side: the authorities in the shape of the Monarchs,
and the financiers in the shape of Santángel. He told them what they wanted to hear, contouring the message to their lusts
and desires. He bent the truth, and sometimes he broke it; but he did it with skill, and with eloquence.
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