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New World Encounters
By Stephen J. Greenblatt
University of California PressCopyright © 1993 Stephen J. Greenblatt
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Christopher Columbus's "Letter to the Sovereigns": Announcing the Discovery
As the Diario of the first voyage tells it, on 14 February in the midst of a life-threatening storm, Christopher Columbus wrote to Ferdinand and Isabela announcing the Discovery. He sealed the letter inside a barrel, along with a note asking whoever might find the letter to deliver it to the sovereigns unopened and promising a substantial reward if the instructions were followed. He then tossed it overboard to the fate of wind and waves.1 On 4 March Columbus wrote to the king of Portugal and, again, to the Spanish sovereigns. Both letters were apparently posted overland, since on this day according to the Diario he was anchored near the mouth of the Tagus River by the Portuguese town of Cascais. Two other almost identical letters announcing the Discovery, and bearing the date of 15 February (undoubtedly false), have been attributed to Columbus.2 They were addressed to Luis de Santángel and Rafael [sic ] Sánchez,3 officials of the Crown of Aragón who had been instrumental in facilitating the enterprise of discovery.
Until very recently only one of the four versions of the announcement was known tohave survived—the "twin" letters addressed to Santángel and Sánchez, which were published in various editions and in three different languages throughout Europe within a few months of Columbus's triumphant return from "the Indies." The letters of 4 March, to João II of Portugal and to Isabela and Ferdinand, seemed to have fared no better than the one entrusted to the storm on 14 February; this last one apparently never made it to shore, probably falling victim to official suppression, however, rather than to the elements.4 Not so the letters dated 15 February, which, on the contrary, were so vigorously and widely circulated that it is not difficult to see in their promotion a concerted propaganda campaign. The publicizing of this version of the announcement was so successful in fact that for almost five centuries it has served as the original, indeed only, representation of Europe's first encounter with the New World. Until 1989, that is, when Antonio Rumeu de Armas published a transcription of an authenticated sixteenth-century copy of Columbus's Libro Copiador .5 The "copy book," the original of which consisted of Columbus's personal copies of documents he must have deemed especially worthy of preservation, contains various texts previouslythought lost and opens with the long-missing 4 March "Letter to the Sovereigns" announcing the Discovery, translated into English here for the first time.6
The publication of this text is probably the single most significant scholarly event of the quincentennial, making available for the first time since the nineteenth century a new Columbian source on the Discovery. Of more transcendental importance than the find itself, however, is the fact that the appearance of the "Letter to the Sovereigns" has in effect set up a dialogue on the Discovery from within its own sources, so that we no longer have only one Columbian version of it but two. Whether both can be considered authentically Columbus's has been a subject of considerable debate.7 The (probably unanswerable) question of authorship, however, seems to be less important than the fact that each version identifies the narrator as Columbus, thereby assuming the authority and privilege of eyewitness testimony by the protagonist of the events.
Even a cursory comparison of the two announcements suggests, however, that the image of the Discovery heralded by the Santángel-Sánchez version is not identical to the one contained in the royal missive, but a sanitized rendition of it.8 Not only did the Santángel-Sánchez letter undergo stylistic revision for the sake of economy and ease of reading, but the royal text was also purged on its way to becoming the public announcement of the Discovery. Whereas the descriptions of the land and peoples for which the Santángel-Sánchez version is famous are not significantly different in the 4 March "Letter to the Sovereigns," the interpretation that the latter assigns to the larger significance of the enterprise does differ, as does its much more candid, albeit discreet, discussion of some of the problems the expedition experienced. On comparison the targets of suppression begin to suggest a pattern corresponding to one or more of the following general categories:
B7 information that could serve competitors, such as the elaborate discussion on the advantages of the caravel over the larger nao for voyages of discovery;
B7 comments that could put the expedition in a bad light or suggest discord among the various parties involved—for example, the grounding of the Santa María , the insubordination of Martín Alonso Pinzón (captain of the Pinta ), or the ridicule to which Columbus was subjected in Spain before the first voyage;
B7 petitions that the Crown grant privileges and favors to Columbus in recompense for his services;
B7 plans that link the enterprise of discovery to a projected reconquest of the Holy Land, rendering the liberation of Jerusalem its ultimate goal.
The most readily perceptible effect of these suppressions is to expose in the Santángel-Sánchez version a bureaucratic blandness or flatness, a somewhat antiseptic aftertaste of the sanitation. The image of the Discovery conveyed by the royal missive is less guarded, more human, and consequently more vibrant than its public counterpart. It unabashedly speaks of Columbus's personal concerns, even self-interest, the lingering bitterness of his earlier humiliation, his pride inthe success of the endeavor, his rather arrogant demands for compensation, and so on. In contrast to the heroic but one-dimensional figure portrayed in the public version, the "Letter to the Sovereigns" reveals an undoubtedly less mythical yet more accessible Columbus. Moreover, it represents the Discovery unequivocally as a joint commercial venture between an individual who was driven by personal worldly and spiritual ambitions and the state that was contractually bound to compensate him for the initiative and would benefit from his efforts. This is not the image of the Discovery or the portrait of Columbus we are accustomed to, but in both we should be able to recognize our legacy.Letter to the Sovereigns of 4 March 1493 Announcing the Discovery
Most Christian and lofty and powerful sovereigns:
That eternal God who has given Your Highnesses so many victories now gave you the greatest one that to this day He has ever given any prince.9 I come from the Indies with the armada Your Highnesses gave me, to which [place] I traveled in thirty-three days after departing from your kingdoms; after fourteen of the thirty-three there were light winds in which I covered very little ground. I found innumerable people and very many islands, of which I took possession in Your Highnesses' name, by royal crier and with Your Highnesses' royal banner unfurled, and it was not contradicted.10 To the first [island] I gave the name of San Salvador, in memory of His Supreme Majesty [Jesus Christ], to the second Santa María de la Concepción, to the third Fernandina, to the fourth Isabela, to the fifth Juana, and to the others almost a new name.11 After I arrived at Juana I followed its coast to the west and found it to be so large that I thought it was probably not an island, but rather a mainland, and most likely the province of Cathay; but I could not verify this because everywhere I arrived the people fled and I could not speak with them. And because I was unable to find a notable settlement, I thought that by hugging the coast I could not fail to find some town or great city, such as those who have gone to that province overland tell it.12 And after following this land for a long while, I found that I was veering away from the west and it was leading me to the north and I found the wind came from that direction, with which I tried to contend until it passed and a different one arrived, because it was already winter and I had no other intention but to avoid the south wind,13 and so I turned back. In the meantime I already understood something of the speech and signs of certain Indians I had taken on the island of San Salvador, and I understood [from them] that this was still an island. And thus I came to a very good harbor, from which I sent two men inland, three days' journey, with one of the Indians I brought, who had become friendly with me, so that theycould see and determine if there were any cities or large settlements, and which land it was, and what there was in it. They found many settlements and innumerable people, but no government of any importance. And so they returned, and I departed and took certain Indians at the said harbor so that I could also hear or learn from them about said lands. And thus I followed the sea coast of this island toward the east one hundred and seven leagues to where it ended. And before leaving it, I saw another island to the east, eighteen leagues out from this one, which I later named Española. And then I went to it and followed its coast on the north side, just as in the case of Juana, due east for one hundred and eighty-eight very long leagues. And I continued to enter very many harbors, in each of which I placed a very large cross in the most appropriate spot, as I had done in all the other [harbors] of the other islands, and in many places I found promontories sufficient [for this purpose]. So I went on in this fashion until the sixteenth of January, when I determined to return to Your Highnesses, as much because I had already found most of what I sought as because I had only one caravel left, because the nao 14 that I brought I had left in Your Highnesses' village of La Navidad, with the men who were using it for fortification. There was another caravel, but one from Palos whom I had put in charge of her, expecting good service, made off with her, with the intention of taking much15 [damaged ] . . . of [from?] an island about which an Indian had given news, that with him I [damaged ] . . . after doing whatever. [damaged ] . . . and it is the sweetest [thing] to navigate and with the least danger for ships16 of all sorts. For discovering, however, small caravels are better suited, because going close to land or rivers, in order to discover much, [vessels] must require but little depth and be capable of being assisted with oars. Neither is there ever stormy weather, since in every place I have been I see the grass and trees growing into the sea.
Besides the above-mentioned islands, I have found many others in the Indies, of which I have not been able to tell in this letter. They, like these others, are so extremely fertile, that even if I were able to express it, it would not be a marvel were it to be disbelieved. The breezes [are] most temperate, the trees and fruits and grasses are extremely beautiful and very different from ours; the rivers and harbors are so abundant and of such extreme excellence when compared to those of Christian lands that it is a marvel. All these islands are densely populated with the best people under the sun; they have neither ill-will nor treachery. All of them, women and men alike, go about naked as their mothers bore them, although some of the women wear a small piece of cotton or a patch of grass with which they cover themselves. They have neither iron nor weapons, except for canes on the end of which they place a thin sharp stick. Everything they make is done with stones [stone tools]. And I have not learned that any of them have any private property, because while I was spending a few days with this king in the village of La Navidad, I saw that all of the people, and the women in particular,would bring him agís , which is the food they eat, and he would order them to be distributed; a very singular sustenance.17
Nowhere in these islands have I known the inhabitants to have a religion, or idolatry, or much diversity of language among them, but rather they all understand one another. I learned that they know that all powers reside in heaven. And, generally, in whatever lands I traveled, they believed and believe that I, together with these ships and people, came from heaven, and they greeted me with such veneration. And today, this very day, they are of the same mind, nor have they strayed from it, despite all the contact they [the Spaniards at La Navidad] may have had with them. And then, upon arriving at whatever settlement, the men, women, and children go from house to house calling out, "Come, come and see the people from heaven!"18 Everything they have or had they gave for whatever one gave them in exchange, even taking a piece of glass or broken crockery or some such thing, for gold or some other thing of whatever value. One sailor got more than two and a half castellanos [in gold] for the ends of leather latchets. There are ten thousand like occurrences to tell.
The islands are all very flat and low-lying, except for Juana and Española. These two are very high lands, and there are mountain chains and very high peaks, much higher than those of the island of Tenerife. The mountains are of a thousand different shapes and all [are] most beautiful, and fertile and walkable and full of trees; it seems they touch the sky. And both the one and the other of the said islands are very large, such that, as I have said, I traveled in a straight line . . . [damaged for the next three lines, not enough context to translate ]19 . . . is much larger than England and Scotland together; this other one [stained ] is certainly larger than the whole of Española such that, as I said above, I traveled in a straight line, from west to east, one hundred and eighty-eight large leagues that comprise that side [of the island].20 Juana has many rivers, and great mountains, and very large valleys and meadows and fields, and it is all full of trees and huge palms of a thousand varieties, such as to make one marvel. La Spañola21 has the advantage in every respect; the trees are not so tall or of the same kind, but rather very fruitful and broad; and [they are] delectable lands for all things, and for sowing and planting and raising livestock, of which I have not seen any kind on any of these islands. This island has marvelously temperate breezes, and marvelous meadows and fields incomparable to those of Castile; and the same can be said of the rivers of great and good waters, most of which are gold-bearing. There are so many and such good sea harbors that it has to be seen to be believed. I have not tarried in these islands or the others for many reasons, as I said above, but especially because it was winter when I sailed these coasts, which did not allow me to go south because I was on their north side and the [winds] were almost always easterly, which were contrary to continuing my navigation. Then I did not understand those people nor they me, except for what common sense dictated,although they were saddened and I much more so, because I wanted to have good information concerning everything. And what I did to remedy this was the Indians I had with me, for they learned our language and we theirs, and the next voyage will tell. So, there was no reason for me to tarry at any harbor wasting time when the opportunity came to set sail. Moreover, as I have said, these vessels I brought with me were too large and heavy for such a purpose, especially the nao I brought over, about which I was quite troubled before leaving Castile. I would much have preferred taking small caravels, but since this was the first voyage and the people I brought were afraid of running into high seas and uncertain about the voyage, and there was and has been so much opposition, and anybody dared to contradict this route and ascribe to it a thousand dangers without being able to give me any reasons, they caused me to act against my own judgment and do everything that those who were to go with me wanted, in order to get the voyage finally under way and find the land. But Our Lord, who is the light and strength of all those who seek to do good and makes them victorious in deeds that seem impossible, wished to ordain that I should find and was to find gold and mines and spicery and innumerable peoples . . . [the next four lines are damaged, not enough context to translate ] I left in it [Española], in possession of the village of La Navidad, the people I brought on the nao and some from the caravels, stocked with provisions to last over a year, [with] much artillery and quite without danger from anyone, but rather with much friendship from the king of that place, who prided himself in calling me and having me for a brother; who [also] appeared to accept everything as the greatest boon in the world, as I said. And the others [feel] just as the king does, so that the people I left there suffice to subjugate the entire island without danger. This island is in a place, as I have said, signaled by the hand of Our Lord, where I hope His Majesty will give Your Highnesses as much gold as you need, spicery of a certain pepper [to fill] as many ships as Your Highnesses may order to be loaded, and as much mastic as you may order to load, which today can be found only on the island of Chios, in Greece, and the government22 sells it as they see fit, and I believe they get more than 45,000 ducats for it each year. And as much lignum aloe as you may order to be loaded, and as much cotton as you may order to be loaded, and so many slaves that they are innumerable; and they will come from the idolaters. And I believe there are rhubarb and cinnamon. All this I found on this hasty trip, but I have faith in God that upon my return the people I left there will have found a thousand other things of importance, because that is the charge I left them with. And I left them a boat and its equipment and [the tools] to make boats and fustas ,23 and masters in all the nautical arts. And above all I consider all the above-mentioned islands as belonging to Your Highnesses and you may command them as you do the kingdoms of Castile, and even more completely, especially this one of Española.
I conclude here: that through the divine grace of Him who is the origin of all good and virtuous things, who favors and gives victory to all those who walk in His path, in seven years from today I will be able to pay Your Highnesses for five thousand cavalry and fifty thousand foot soldiers for the war and conquest of Jerusalem, for which purpose this enterprise was undertaken. And in another five years another five thousand cavalry and fifty thousand foot soldiers, which will total ten thousand cavalry and one hundred thousand foot soldiers; and all of this with very little investment now on Your Highnesses' part in this beginning of the taking of the Indies and all that they contain, as I will tell Your Highnesses in person later. And I have reason for this [claim] and do not speak uncertainly, and one should not delay in it, as was the case with the execution of this enterprise, may God forgive whoever has been the cause of it.
Most powerful sovereigns: all of Christendom should hold great celebrations, and especially God's Church, for the finding of such a multitude of such friendly peoples, which with very little effort will be converted to our Holy Faith, and so many lands filled with so many goods very necessary to us in which all Christians will have comfort and profits, all of which was unknown nor did anyone speak of it except in fables. Great rejoicing and celebrations in the churches [damaged ] . . . Your Highnesses should order that [many] praises should be given to the Holy Trinity [damaged ] your kingdoms and domains, because of the great love [the Holy Trinity?] has shown you, more than to any other prince.
Now, most serene sovereigns, remember that I left my woman and children behind and came from my homeland to serve you, in which [service] I spent what I had. And I spent seven years of my time and put up with a thousand indignities and disgrace and I suffered much hardship. I did not wish to deal with other princes who solicited me, although Your Highnesses' giving of your protection to this voyage has owed more to my importuning [you] than to anything else. And not only has no favor been shown to me, but moreover nothing of what was promised me has been fulfilled. I do not ask favors of Your Highnesses in order to amass treasure, for I have no purpose other than to serve God and Your Highnesses and to bring this business of the Indies to perfection, as time will be my witness. And therefore I beseech you that honor be bestowed upon me according to [the quality of] my service.
The Church of God should also work for this: providing prelates and devout and wise religious; and because the matter is so great and of such a character, there is reason for the Holy Father to provide prelates who are very free of greed for temporal possessions and very true to the service of God and of Your Highnesses. And therefore I beseech you to ask the Church, in the letter you write regarding this victory, for a cardinalate for my son, and that it be granted him although he may not yet be of sufficient age, for there is little difference in his age and that of the son of the Medicis of Florence, to whom a cardinals hat wasgranted without his having served or having had a purpose so honorable to Christianity, and that you give me the letter pertaining to this matter so that I [myself] may solicit it.
Furthermore, most serene sovereigns, because the sin of ungratefulness was the first one to be punished, I realize that since I am not guilty of it I must at all times try to gain from Your Highnesses the following [favor], because, without a doubt, were it not for Villacorta,24 who every time it was necessary persuaded and worked on [the enterprise's] behalf, because I was already sick of it and everyone who had been and was involved in the matter was tired, [the enterprise would not have succeeded]. Therefore, I beseech Your Highnesses that you do me the favor of making him paymaster of the Indies, for I vouch that he will do it well.
Wherefore Your Highnesses should know that the first island of the Indies, closest to Spain, is populated entirely by women, without a single man, and their comportment is not feminine, but rather they use weapons and other masculine practices. They carry bows and arrows and take their adornments from the copper mines, which metal they have in very large quantity. They call this island Matenino, the second Caribo, [blank ] leagues out from this one. Here are found those people which all those of the other islands of the Indies fear; they eat human flesh, are great bowmen, have many canoes almost as big as oar-powered futas in which they travel all over the islands of the Indies, and they are so feared that they have no equal. They go about naked like the others, except that they wear their hair very full, like women. I think the great cowardice . . . [damaged ] peoples of the other islands, for which there is no remedy, makes them say that these of Caribe are brave, but I think the same of them as of the rest. And when Your Highnesses give the order for me to send slaves, I hope to bring or send [you] these for the most part; these are the ones who have intercourse with the women of Matenino, who if they bear a female child they keep her with them, and if it is a male child, they raise him until he can feed himself and then they send him to Cardo. Between the islands of Cardo and Española there is another island they call Borinque,25 all of it is a short distance from the other region of the island of Juana that they call Cuba. In the westernmost part [of Cuba], in one of the two provinces I did not cover, which is called Faba, everyone is born with a tail. Beyond this island of Juana, still within sight, there is another that these Indians assured me was larger than Juana, which they call Jamaica, where all the people are bald. On this one there is gold in immeasurable quantities; and now I have Indians with me who have been on these [islands] as well as the others and they know the language and customs. Nothing further, except that may the Holy Trinity guard and make Your Highnesses' royal estate prosper in Its service. Written in the Sea of Spain,26 on the fourth day of March in the year fourteen ninety-three. At sea.
Excerpted from New World Encounters by Stephen J. Greenblatt Copyright © 1993 by Stephen J. Greenblatt. Excerpted by permission.
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