Columbus, Original Letters

Letters between Christopher Columbus and Katherine of Aragon’s parents

Fernando_e_Isabel
The wedding portrait of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, 1469. The parents of Katherine of Aragon

Letter from Columbus to Luis Santangel giving a summary of his voyage:

Senor,

Knowing the pleasure you will receive in hearing of the great victory which Our Lord has granted me in my voyage, I hasten to inform you, that after a passage of seventy one days, I arrived at the Indies, with the fleet which the most illustrious King and Queen our sovereigns committed to my charge, where I discovered many islands inhabited by people without number, and of which I took possession for their Highness’s by proclamation with the royal banner displayed, no one offering any contradiction. The first which I discovered, I named San Salvador, in commemoration of our Holy Saviour, who has, in a wonderful manner, granted all our success. The Indians call it Guanahani. To the second, I gave the name of Santa Maria de Concepcion, to the third, that of Fernandina, to the fourth, that of Isabela, to the fifth, that of Juana, thus giving each island a new name. (Note all of these names represent Spain, the Spanish Royal family or their Catholic faith.)

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Juana the sister of Katherine of Aragon

I coasted along the island of Juana to the West, and found it of such extent, that I took it for a continent, and imagined it must be the country of Cathay. Villages were seen near the sea-coast, but as 1 discovered no large cities, and could not obtain any communication with the inhabitants, who all fled at our approach, I continued on West, thinking I should not fail in the end, to meet with great towns and cities, but having gone many leagues without such success, and finding that the coast carried me to the N., whither I disliked to proceed, on account of the impending winter, I resolved to return to the S., and accordingly put about, and arrived at an excellent harbour in the island, where I dispatched two men into the country to ascertain their the King, or any large cities were in the neighbourhood. They travelled three days, and met with innumerable settlements of the natives, of a small size, but did not succeed in finding any sovereign of the territory, and so returned. I made out to learn from some Indians which f had before taken, that this was an island, and proceeded along the coast to the East, an hundred and seven leagues, till I reached the extremity. I then discovered another island, E. of this, eighteen leagues distant, which I named Espanola, and followed its northern coast, as I did that of Juana, for the space of an hundred and seventy- eight leagues to the E. All these countries are of surpassing excellence, and in particular Juana, which contains abundance of fine harbours, excelling any in Christendom, as also many large and beautiful rivers. The land is high and exhibits chains of tall mountains which seem to reach to the skies, and surpass beyond comparison the isle of Cetrefrey. These display themselves in all manner of beautiful shapes. They are accessible in every part, and covered with a vast variety of lofty trees, which it appears to me, never lose their foliage, as we found them fair and verdant as in May in Spain. Some were covered with blossoms, some with fruit, and others in different stages, according to their nature.

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Modern place names in black, Columbus’s place names are in blue.

The nightingale and a thousand other sorts of birds were singing in the month of November wherever I went. There are palm- trees in these countries, of six or eight sorts, which are surprising to see, on account of their diversity from ours, but indeed, this is the case with respect to the other trees, as well as the fruits and weeds. Beautiful forests of pines are likewise found, and fields of vast extent. Here is also honey, and fruits of a thousand sorts, and birds of every variety. The lands contain mines of metals, and inhabitants without number.  The island of Espanola is pre-eminent in beauty and excellence, offering to the sight the most enchanting view of mountains, plains, rich fields for cultivation, and pastures for flocks of all sorts, with situations for towns and settlements. Its harbours are of such excellence, that their description would not gain belief, and the like may be said of its abundance of large and fine rivers, the most of which abound in gold. The trees, fruits and plants of this island differ considerably from those of Juana, and the place contains a great deal of spicery and extensive mines of gold and other metals. The people of this island, and of all the others which I have become acquainted with, go naked as they were born, although some of the women wear at the loins, a leaf, or bit of cotton cloth which they prepare for that purpose.

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They do not possess iron, steel, or weapons, and seem to have no inclination for the latter, being timorous to the last degree. They have an instrument consisting of a cane, taken while in seed, and headed with a sharp stick, but they never venture to use it. Many times I have sent two or three men to one of their villages, when whole multitudes have taken to flight at the sight of them, and this was not by reason of any injury we ever wrought them, for at every place where I have made any stay, and obtained communication with them, I have made them presents of cloth and such other things as I possessed, without demanding anything in return. After they have shaken off their fear of us, they display a frankness and liberality in their behaviour which no one would believe without witnessing it. No request of anything from them is ever refused, but they rather invite acceptance of what they possess, and manifest such a generosity that they would give away their own hearts. Let the article be of great or small value, they offer it readily, and receive anything which is tendered in return with perfect content. 1 forbade my men to purchase their goods with such worthless things as bits of platters and broken glass, or thongs of leather, although when they got possession of one of these, they estimated it as highly as though greatest jewel in the world. The sailors would buy of them for a scrap of leather, pieces of gold, weighing two castellanos and a half, and even more of this metal for something still less in value. The whole of an Indian’s property might be purchased of him for a few blancas, this would amount to two or three castellanos’ value of gold, or the same of cotton thread. Even the pieces of broken hoops from the casks they would receive in barter for their articles, with the greatest simplicity. I thought such traffic unjust, and therefore forbade it. I presented them with a variety of things, in order to secure their affection, and that they may become Christians, and enter into the service of their Highnesses and the Castilian nation, and also aid us in procuring such things as they possess, and we stand in need of.

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Columbus’s Tomb in Seville Cathedral Spain. The remains are borne by kings of Castile, Leon, Aragon and Navarre. DNA results show that Columbus or at least part of his remains are buried here.

They are not idolaters, nor have they any sort of religion, except believing that power and goodness are in heaven, from which place, they entertained a firm persuasion that I had come with my ships and men. On this account, wherever we met them, they showed us the greatest reverence after they had overcome their fear. Such conduct cannot be ascribed to their want of understanding, for they are a people of much ingenuity, and navigate all those seas, giving a remarkably good account of every part, but do not state that they have met with people in clothes, or ships like ours. On my arrival at the Indies I took by force from the first island I came to, a few of the inhabitants, in order that they might learn our language and assist us in our discoveries. We succeeded ere long, in understanding one another, by signs and words, and 1 have them now with me, still thinking we have come from heaven, as I learn by much conversation which I have had with them. This, they were the first to proclaim wherever we went, and the other natives would run from house to house, and from village to village, crying out ‘ come and see the men from heaven? So that all the inhabitants, both men and women, having gathered confidence, hastened towards us, bringing victuals and drink, which they presented to us with a surprising good will. In all the islands they possess a vast number of canoes, which are of various sizes, each one constructed of a single log, and shaped like a fusta. Some of these are as large as a fusta of eighteen oars, although narrow, on account of the material. I have seen sixty or eighty men in one of these canoes, and each man with his paddle. They are rowed with a swiftness which no boat can equal, and serve the purpose of transporting goods among these innumerable islands. I did not observe any great diversity in the appearance of the inhabitants in the different parts of these countries, nor in their customs nor language, for singularly enough in this last respect, they all understand one another; on which account I hope their Highnesses will exert themselves for the conversion of these people to our holy faith, in which undertaking they will be found very tractable. I have already related that I proceeded along the coast of Juana, for an hundred and seven leagues from W. to E., from which, I dare affirm this island to be larger than England and Scotland together; for besides the extent of it which I coasted, there are two unexplored provinces to the W., in one of which, called Cibau, are people with tails. These districts cannot be less than fifty or sixty leagues in ex tent, according as I learn from my Indians, who are acquainted with all these islands. The other island, called Espanola, is more extensive than the division of Spain from Corunna to Fontarabia, as I traversed one side of it for the distance of an hundred and thirty-eight leagues from W. to E.

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Tomb in Columbus Lighthouse, Santo Domingo Este, Dominican Republic. The authorities have never allowed the remains to be exhumed so no DNA tests are possible

This is a most beautiful island, and although I have taken possession of them all, in the name of their Highnesses, and every one remains in their power, and as much at their disposal as the kingdoms of Castile, and although they are all furnished with everything that can be desired, yet the preference must be given to Espanola, on account of the mines of gold which it possesses, and the facilities it offers for trade with the continent, and countries this side, and beyond that of the Great Can, which traffic will be great and profitable. I have accordingly taken possession of a place, which I named Villa de Navidad, and built there a fortress, which is at present complete, and furnished with a sufficiency of men for the enterprise; with, these I have left arms, ammunition and provisions for more than a year, a boat, and expert men in all necessary arts. The king of the country has shown great friendship toward us, and held himself a brother to me. Even should their friendly inclinations change, and become hostile, yet nothing can be feared from them as they are totally ignorant of weapons, and the most timorous people in the world. The small number of men whom I have left there would be sufficient to ravage the whole territory, and they may remain there with perfect safety, taking proper care of themselves. In all the islands, as far as 1 could observe, the men are content with a single wife each, except that a chief or king has as many as twenty. The women appear to do more work than the men, and as to their property, I have been unable to learn that they have any private possessions, but apparently all things are in common among them, especially provisions. In none of the islands hitherto visited, have I found any people of monstrous appearance, according to the expectation of some, but the inhabitants are all of very pleasing aspect, not resembling the blacks of Guinea, as their hair is straight, and their colour lighter. The rays of the sun are here very powerful, although the latitude is twenty-six degrees, but in the islands where there are high mountains, the winter is cold, which the inhabitants endure from habit, and the use of hot spices with their food. An island situated in the second strait at the entrance to the Indies, is peopled with inhabitants who eat live flesh, and are esteemed very ferocious in all the other parts. They possess many canoes with which they scour all the islands of India, robbing and capturing all they meet. They are not of a more deformed appearance than the others, except that they wear their hair long like women, and use bows and arrows, which last are made of cane and pointed with a stick, for want of iron, which they do not possess.

800px-Portrait_of_a_Man,_Said_to_be_Christopher_Columbus
Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo.

They exchange their wives, and although these are esteemed a fierce people among the neighbouring islands, yet I do not regard them more than the others, as the most of the inhabitants of these regions are very great cowards. One of these islands is peopled solely by women, who practise no feminine occupations, but exercise the bow and arrow, and cover themselves with plates of copper, which metal they have in abundance. There is another island, as I am assured, larger than Espanola, in which the inhabitants are without hair, and which contains a great abundance of gold. In confirmation of these, and other accounts I have brought the Indians along with me for testimonies. In conclusion, and to speak only of what I have performed; this voyage, so hastily dispatched, will, as their Highnesses may see, enable any desirable quantity of gold to be obtained, by a very small assistance afforded me on their part. At present there are within reach, spices and cotton to as great an amount as they can desire, aloe in as a great abundance, and equal store of mastick, a production nowhere else found except in Greece and the island of Scio, where it is sold at such a price as the possessors choose. To these may be added slaves, as numerous as may be wished for. Besides I have as I think, dis covered rhubarb and cinnamon, and expect countless other things of value will be found by the men whom I have left there, as I made it a point not to stay in any one place, while the wind enabled me to proceed upon the voyage, except at Villa de Navidad, where I left them, well established. I should have accomplished much more, had those in the other vessels done their duty. This is ever certain, that God grants to those that walk in his ways, the performance of things which seem impossible, and this enter- prize might in a signal manner have been considered so, for although many have talked of these countries, yet it has been nothing more than conjecture. Our Saviour having vouchsafed this victory to our most illustrious King and Queen and their kingdoms, famous for so eminent a deed, all Christendom should rejoice, and give solemn thanks to the holy Trinity for the addition of so many people to our holy faith, and also for the temporal profit accruing not only to Spain, but to all Christians. On board the Caravel, off the Azores, February 15/A, 1403.

PS. After writing the above, being at sea near Castile, the wind rose with such fury from the S. and SE., that I was obliged to bear away, and run into the port of Lisbon, where I escaped by the greatest miracle in the world. From this place I shall write to their Highnesses. Throughout the Indies I always found the weather like May. I made the passage thither in seventy-one days, and back in forty-eight, during thirteen of which number I was driven about by storms. The seamen here inform me that there was never known a winter, in which so many ships were lost. March 4th.

17th April 1492: The favours which Christopher Columbus asked from  Queen Isabella in recompense of the discoveries which he has made in the Ocean seas, and as recompense for the voyage above which he was about to undertake:

1, He wishes to be made Admiral of the seas and countries which he is about to discover. He desires to hold this dignity during his life, and that it should descend to his heirs. This request is granted by the King and Queen.

2, Christopher Columbus wishes to be made Viceroy of all the continents and islands. Granted by the King and Queen.

3, He wishes to have a share, amounting to a tenth part, of the profits of all merchandise, be it pearls, jewels, or any other things, that may be found, gained, bought, or ex ported from the countries which he is to discover. Granted by the King and Queen.

4, He wishes, in his quality of Admiral, to be made sole judge of all mercantile matters that may be the occasion of dispute in the countries which he is to discover. Granted by the King and Queen, on the condition, however, that this jurisdiction belonged to the office of Admiral, as held by Don Enriquez and other Admirals.

5, Christopher Columbus wishes to have the right to con tribute the eighth part of the expenses of all ships which traffic with the new countries, and in return to earn the eighth part of the profits. Granted by the King and Queen. — Santa Fe, in the Vega of Granada, 1 7th April 1492. The document is signed by Coloma, and written by Almazan.

17th April 1492: Ferdinand and Isabella to all Persons: Passport for Christopher Columbus, who is to undertake voyage of discovery. — Granada, in Latin.

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Source:

Calendar of Letters, Despatches, and State Papers, Relating to the Negotiations Between England and Spain, Preserved in the Archives at Simancas and Elsewhere.

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