Online Texts for Craig White's Literature Courses

  • Not a critical or scholarly text but a reading text for a seminar

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Two Letters by

Christopher Columbus

concerning his

Voyages to America

posthumous portrait of Cristobal Colon
by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio

Columbus made four voyates to America. The first letter below is from Columbus's first voyage; the second is from his fourth & final voyage.

Discussion topics & questions:

1. How may or does Columbus's story serve as a creation / origin story for modern America? Compare and contrast the two letters as two stages of attitudes toward America by early European explorers—and possibly by later Americans. What presumptions or errors does he make, and how do these errors preview future relations between Europeans and Indians?

1a. How to judge Columbus's attitude toward American Indians, whom Columbus mis-names forever b/c he thinks he's in India or the East Indies (the Orient)?

2. How do Columbus's attitudes and actions correspond to the Judeo-Christian creation story of Genesis? If so, what conclusions about scripture, narrative, unconscious influence, etc.?

2a. How do the narratives described by Columbus's letters and by the Genesis-Eden story correspond to values or symbols of Romanticism, particularly American Romanticism? How may the two stories correspond to the romance narrative, particularly its desire-loss cycle?

2b. If Columbus acts as though he has rediscovered an Eden that has not fallen, how may this impulse conform to Romantic values or desires?

3. How may the narrative of rebirth-and-decline outlined by these letters also potentially correspond to the immigrant narrative, which largely figures the American Dream?

4. Our current style is to regard Indians as voiceless victims of Europeans, but what glimpses of Indians either as independent peoples or as standing and speaking for themselves? How can we speak fairly of the cultural differences without repeating Columbus's own errors of judgment?

(First Letter)

The Letter of Columbus to Luis De Santangel*
Announcing His Discovery


[*Luis de Santangel, finance minister to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel of Spain, had supported Columbus's voyage.]


[1.1] As I know you will be rejoiced at the glorious success that our Lord has given me in my voyage, I write this to tell you how in thirty-three days I sailed [from Spain] to the Indies [West Indies or Caribbean] with the fleet that the illustrious King and Queen, our Sovereigns, gave me, where I discovered a great many islands, inhabited by numberless people; and of all I have taken possession for their Highnesses by proclamation and display of the Royal Standard without opposition. To the first island I discovered [in the Bahamas] I gave the name of San Salvador, in commemoration of His Divine Majesty, who has wonderfully granted all this. The Indians call it Guanaham. The second I named the Island of Santa Maria de Concepcion; the third, Fernandina; the fourth, Isabella; the fifth, Juana; and thus to each one I gave a new name. When I came to Juana, I followed the coast of that isle toward the west, and found it so extensive that I thought it might be the mainland, the province of Cathay [Cathay = China—Columbus was seeking a route to Asia]; and as I found no towns nor villages on the sea-coast, except a few small settlements, where it was impossible to speak to the people, because they fled at once, I continued the said route, thinking I could not fail to see some great cities or towns; and finding at the end of many leagues that nothing new appeared, . . I determined not to wait there longer, and turned back to a certain harbor whence I sent two men to find out whether there was any king or large city. They explored for three days, and found countless small communities and people, without number, but with no kind of government, so they returned.

[1.2] I heard from other Indians I had already taken that this land was an island, and thus followed the eastern coast for one hundred and seven leagues, until I came to the end of it. From that point I saw another isle to the eastward, at eighteen leagues' distance, to which I gave the name of Hispaniola [Island of modern nations of Haiti and Dominican Republic]. I went thither and followed its northern coast to the east . . . .

Island of Hispaniola, now home to nations of Dominican Republic & Haiti

[1.3] This island, like all the others, is most extensive. It has many ports along the sea-coast excelling any in Christendom—and many fine, large, flowing rivers. The land there is elevated, with many mountains and peaks incomparably higher than in the center isle. They are most beautiful, of a thousand varied forms, accessible, and full of trees of endless varieties, so high that they seem to touch the sky, and I have been told that they never lose their foliage. I saw them as green and lovely as trees are in Spain in the month of May. Some of them were covered with blossoms, some with fruit, and some in other conditions, according to their kind. The nightingale [a bird native to Europe but not America] and other small birds of a thousand kinds were singing in the month of November when I was there. There were palm trees of six or eight varieties, the graceful peculiarities of each one of them being worthy of admiration as are the other trees, fruits and grasses. There are wonderful pine woods, and very extensive ranges of meadow land. There is honey, and there are many kinds of birds, and a great variety of fruits. Inland there are numerous mines of metals and innumerable people.

[1.4] Hispaniola* is a marvel. Its hills and mountains, fine plains and open country, are rich and fertile for planting and for pasturage, and for building towns and villages. The seaports there are incredibly fine, as also the magnificent rivers, most of which bear gold. . . . There are many spices and vast mines of gold and other metals in this island. They [the native peoples] have no iron, nor steel, nor weapons, nor are they fit for them, because although they are well-made men of commanding stature, they appear extraordinarily timid. The only arms [weapons] they have are sticks of cane, cut when in seed, with a sharpened stick at the end, and they are afraid to use these. Often I have sent two or three men ashore to some town to converse with them, and the natives came out in great numbers, and as soon as they saw our men arrive, fled without a moment's delay although I protected them from all injury. [*Hispaniola = island now governed by Haiti & Dominican Republic; see map above]

[1.5] At every point where I landed, and succeeded in talking to them, I gave them some of everything I had—cloth and many other things—without receiving anything in return, but they are a hopelessly timid people. It is true that since then they have gained more confidence and are losing this fear, they are so unsuspicious and so generous with what they possess, that no one who had not seen it would believe it. They never refuse anything that is asked for. They even offer it themselves, and show so much love that they would give their very hearts. Whether it be anything of great or small value, with any trifle of whatever kind, they are satisfied. I forbade worthless things being given to them, such as bits of broken bowls, pieces of glass, and old straps, although they were as much pleased to get them as if they were the finest jewels in the world. One sailor was found to have got for a leathern strap, gold of the weight of two and a half castellanos [gold coins], and others for even more worthless things much more; while for a few blancas [coins] they would give all they had, were it two or three castellanos [coins] of pure gold or an arroba or two [30-60 pounds] of spun cotton. Even bits of the broken hoops of wine casks they accepted, and gave in return what they had, like fools, and it seemed wrong to me. I forbade it, and gave a thousand good and pretty things that I had to win their love, and to induce them to become Christians, and to love and serve their Highnesses and the whole Castilian [Spanish] nation, and help to get for us things they have in abundance, which are necessary to us. They have no religion, nor idolatry, except that they all believe power and goodness to be in heaven. They firmly believed that I, with my ships and men, came from heaven, and with this idea I have been received everywhere, since they lost fear of me.

[1.6] They are, however, far from being ignorant. They are most ingenious men, and navigate these seas in a wonderful way, and describe everything well, but they never before saw people wearing clothes, nor vessels like ours. Directly I reached the Indies in the first isle I discovered, I took by force some of the natives, that from them we might gain some information of what there was in these parts; and so it was that we immediately understood each other, either by words or signs. They are still with me and still believe that I come from heaven. They were the first to declare this wherever I went, and the others ran from house to house, and to the towns around, crying out, "Come ! come! and see the man from heaven!" Then all, both men and women, as soon as they were reassured about us, came, both small and great, all bringing something to eat and to drink, which they presented with marvelous kindness.

[1.7] In these isles there are a great many canoes, something like rowing boats, of all sizes, and most of them are larger than an eighteen-oared galley. They are not so broad, as they are made of a single plank, but a galley could not keep up with them in rowing, because they go with incredible speed, and with these they row about among all these islands, which are innumerable, and carry on their commerce. I have seen some of these canoes with seventy and eighty men in them, and each had an oar.

[1.8] In all the islands I observed little difference in the appearance of the people, or in their habits and language, except that they understand each other, which is remarkable. Therefore I hope that their Highnesses will decide upon the conversion of these people to our holy faith, to which they seem much inclined. I have already stated how I sailed one hundred and seven leagues along the sea-coast of Juana, [hearing of] two provinces where I did not go, one of which they call Avan, the home of men with tails.

[1.9] This other [island], Hispaniola, is larger in circumference . . . . This is worth having, and must on no account be given up. I have taken possession of all these islands, for their Highnesses, . . . who can command them as absolutely as the kingdoms of Castile [Spain]. In Hispaniola, in the most convenient place, most accessible for the gold mines and all commerce with the mainland on this side or with that of the great Khan [ruler of China], on the other, with which there would be great trade and profit, I have taken possession of a large town, which I have named the City of Navidad [destroyed the next year]. I began fortifications there which should be completed by this time, and I have left in it men enough to hold it, with arms, artillery, and provisions for more than a year; and a boat with a master seaman skilled in the arts necessary to make others; I am so friendly with the king of that country that he was proud to call me his brother and hold me as such. . . .

[1.10] In all these islands the men seem to be satisfied with one wife except they allow as many as twenty to their chief or men. The women appear to me to work harder than the men*, and so far as I can hear they have nothing of their own, for I think I perceived that what one had others shared, especially food. In the islands so far, I have found no monsters, as some expected, but, on the contrary, they are people of very handsome appearance. They are not black as in Guinea [Africa], though their hair is straight and coarse, as it does not grow where the sun's rays are too ardent. And in truth the sun has extreme power here . . . . In these islands there are mountains where the cold this winter was very severe, but the people endure it from habit, and with the aid of the meat they eat with very hot spices. [*women work harder = common European observation concerning Native Americans (cf. Jefferson and Cabeza de Vaca); insight may derive from sexual division of labor, with men resting from hunting]

[1.11] As for monsters [humans with deformities], I have found no trace of them except at the point in the second isle as one enters the Indies, which is inhabited by a people considered in all the isles as most ferocious, who eat human flesh [enduring Euro fear of Native American cannibalism]. They possess many canoes, with which they overrun all the isles of India [i.e., the Caribbean islands], stealing and seizing all they can. They are not worse looking than the others, except that they wear their hair long like women, and use bows and arrows of the same cane, with a sharp stick at the end for want of iron, of which they have none. They are ferocious compared to these other races, who are extremely cowardly; but I only hear this from the others. . . .

[1.12] To speak, in conclusion, only of what has been done during this hurried voyage, their Highnesses will see that I can give them as much gold as they desire, if they will give me a little assistance, spices, cotton, as much as their Highnesses may command to be shipped, and mastic [aromatic gum or resin] as much as their Highnesses choose to send for, which until now has only been found in Greece, . . . and as many slaves as they choose to send for, all heathens. . . . Many other things of value will be discovered by the men I left behind me . . . .

[1.13] The eternal and almighty God, our Lord, it is Who gives to all who walk in His way, victory over things apparently impossible, and in this case signally so, because although these lands had been imagined and talked of before they were seen, most men listened incredulously to what was thought to be but an idle tale. But our Redeemer has given victory to our most illustrious King and Queen, and to their kingdoms rendered famous by this glorious event, at which all Christendom should rejoice, celebrating it with great festivities and solemn Thanksgivings to the Holy Trinity, with fervent prayers for the high distinction that will accrue to them from turning so many peoples to our holy faith; and also from the temporal benefits that not only Spain but all Christian nations will obtain. Thus I record what has happened in a brief note written on board the Caravel, off the Canary Isles, on the 15th of February, 1493.

Yours to command,

(Second Letter)



Early Americas Anthology:

Original Source: The Voyages of Christopher Columbus, Being the Journals of his First and Third, and the Letters Concerning his First and Last Voyages, to Which is Added the Account of his Second Voyage Written by Andres Bernaldez. Translated and Edited, with Introduction and Notes, by Cecil Jane. London: The Argonaut Press, 1930.

Most serene and very high and mighty princes, the king and queen, our sovereigns: . . .

[2.1] Two Indians brought me to Carambaru, where the people go naked and have a golden mirror hanging at the neck, but are unwilling to sell it or to give it in exchange.

[2.2] They named to me many places on the seacoast, where they said that there was gold and mines . . .

[2.3] On the sixth of February, while the rain continued, I sent seventy men ashore into the interior. At five leagues’ distance, they found many mines. The Indians, who went with them, led them to a very lofty hill and from it showed them the country all round as far as the eye could reach, saying that there was gold everywhere and that towards the west the mines extended for twenty days’ journey, and they named the towns and villages, saying where there were more or less of them. Afterwards I learned that the Quibian who had given these Indians, had commanded them to show distant mines which belonged to one who was his enemy . . . .

[2.4] In the month of January, the mouth of the river silted up. In April, the ships were all worm-eaten, and it was impossible to keep them above water. . . .

[2.5] I departed in the name of the Holy Trinity on Easter night, with ships rotten, worm-eaten, all full of holes. . . . There remained for me two only, in the condition of the others, and without boats and stores, with which to traverse seven thousand miles of sea and waves, or to die on the way with my son and brother and so many people. . . .

[2.6] I departed for Hispaniola [Caribbean island of modern Haiti and Dominican Republic]. For two days I navigated with good weather, and after that it was unfavourable. . . .

[2.7] While I wearily traversed that sea, a delusion came to some that we were bewitched and they still persist in that idea. I found another people who eat men [cannibalism]; their brutal appearance showed this. They say that there are great mines of copper; of it they make hatchets, other worked articles, cast and soldered, and forges with all the tools of a goldsmith, and crucibles. There they go clothed. . . .

[2.8] When I discovered the Indies, I said that they were the richest dominion that there is in the world. I was speaking of the gold, pearls, precious stones and spices, with the trade and markets in them, and because everything did not appear immediately, I was held up to abuse. This punishment leads me now to say only that which I have heard from the natives of the land. . . .

[2.9] Jerusalem and Mount Sion are to be rebuilt by the hand of a Christian*; who this is to be, God declares by the mouth of his prophet in the fourteenth Psalm. Abbot Joachin said that he was to come from Spain. St. Jerome showed the way to it to the holy lady. The emperor of Catayo, some time since, sent for wise men to instruct him in the faith of Christ. Who will offer himself for this work? If our Lord bring me back to Spain, I pledge myself, in the name of God, to bring him there in safety. [*American gold would finance a crusade to retake the Holy Lands from Muslim control.] . . .

[2.10] Of Hispaniola, Paria [Venezuelan province], and the other lands [discovered in the Americas], I never think without weeping. I believed that their example would have been to the profit of others; on the contrary, they are in a languid state although they are not dead; the infirmity is incurable or very extensive . . . . Those who left the Indies, flying from toils and speaking evil of the matter and of me, have returned with official employment. . . . It is an ill example and without profit for the business and for the justice in the world. . . .

[2.11] Seven years I was at your royal court, where all to whom this undertaking [of voyaging west] was mentioned, unanimously declared it to be a delusion. Now all, down to the very tailors, seek permission to make discoveries. It can be believed that they go forth to plunder, and it is granted to them to do so, so that they greatly prejudice my honour and do very great damage to the enterprise. . . . [I] was on the point of securing a very great revenue[;] suddenly, while I was waiting for ships that I might come to your high presence with victory and with great news of gold, being very secure and joyful, I was made a prisoner and with my two brothers was thrown into a ship, laden with fetters [chains], stripped to the skin, very ill-treated, and without being tried or condemned. . . .

[2.12] I came to serve at the age of twenty-eight years, and now I have not a hair on my body that is not grey, and my body is infirm, and whatever remained to me from those years of service has been spent and taken away from me and sold . . . to my great dishonour. It must be believed that this was not done by your royal command. . . .

[2.13] I pray your highnesses to pardon me. I am so ruined as I have said; hitherto I have wept for others; now, Heaven have mercy upon me, and may the earth weep for me. Of worldly goods, I have not even a blanca [coin] for an offering in spiritual things. Here in the Indies I have become careless of the prescribed forms of religion. Alone in my trouble, sick, in daily expectation of death, and encompassed about by a million savages, full of cruelty, and our foes, and so separated from the Blessed Sacraments of Holy Church, my soul will be forgotten if it here leaves my body. Weep for me, whoever has charity, truth and justice.

[2.14] I did not sail upon this voyage to gain honour or wealth; this is certain, for already all hope of that was dead. I came to your highnesses with true devotion and with ready zeal, and I do not lie. I humbly pray your highnesses that if it please God to bring me forth from this place, that you will be pleased to permit me to go to Rome and to other places of pilgrimage. May the Holy Trinity preserve your life and high estate, and grant you increase of prosperity.

Done in the Indies, in the island of Jamaica, on the seventh of July, in the year one thousand five hundred and three. [END]

Other Images of "Columbus in Chains"