Christopher Columbus

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How did Columbus describe the landscape of the New World and its inhabitants?

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Columbus spent five months exploring islands in the Caribbean before returning to Spain. Because of the lengthy time he spent exploring the area, he was able to paint quite a picture of the landscape and people who lived in this area, which he reported to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who had financed the exploration.

Overall, the letter paints a portrait of this land as rich in resources and ripe for claim—and without resistance. Instead of seeing the calm demeanor of the land's inhabitants as a strength, Columbus viewed it as a weakness which allowed them to be easily conquered and ruled by Spain:

The inhabitants...are all, as I said before, unprovided with any sort of iron, and they are destitute of arms, which are entirely unknown to them, and for which they are not adapted; not on account of any bodily deformity, for they are well made, but because they are timid and full of terror.

Columbus describes the people as "honest" and generous, as they share their resources with him and ask for nothing in return. Columbus captured some of these people as slaves and took them back to Spain as a testament to their character.

The land was described as being lush and abundant in resources, which could also benefit Spain.

The island called Juana, as well as the others in its neighborhood, is exceedingly fertile. It has numerous harbors on all sides, very safe and wide, above comparison with any I have ever seen. Through it flow many very broad and health-giving rivers; and there are in it numerous very lofty mountains.

Columbus goes on to comment on the fruits that are available on this island which are not available in Spain and notes the spices and metals which are also in plentiful supply and which could benefit Spain's people.

The letter portrays this island, full of inhabitants with their own distinct (and peaceful) culture, as simply an easily conquerable and diverse land which could benefit Spain. And since King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella would have been looking for a return on their investment of approximately a million US dollars in today's currency, this news would have been favorable to Columbus.

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Christopher Columbus ’s 1493 letter to Luis de St. Angel, the Treasurer of Aragon, about his initial, 1492 voyage, is one of the first substantial first-person European accounts with many descriptions of the islands of the Indies and their “numberless people.” About the first island where he landed, which he named Hispaniola, he writes extensively. His comments on this “marvel” emphasize both its natural beauty and the potential uses of its resources, among which he includes the people. Of the mountains in the center of Hispaniola, he writes: “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. . . . I saw them as green and lovely as trees are in Spain in the month of...

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May.” Not only are the seaports and rivers “incredibly fine,” but he believes the rivers bear gold, a metal that is in ample supply throughout the island, and talks of using the ports that provide best access to those metals.

The letter also contains Columbus’s impressions of the indigenous people, whom he initially calls timid. He notes that they shared their food with “marvelous kindness” and says they believed the Spaniards were “men from heaven.” Columbus found it difficult to distinguish among various groups but noted that they understood each other’s languages. With some notable exceptions, he mentions their humanity. “In the islands so far I have found no monsters, as some expected, but, on the contrary, they are people of very handsome appearance.” On the second island where he landed, however, he claims that the people are cannibals and that on another island that he did not visit, the people have tails. Overall, he suggests they are good subjects for conversion to Christianity. “I hope that their Highnesses will decide upon the conversion of these people to our holy faith, to which they seem much inclined.”

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After his first voyage and upon arriving in Spain, Columbus penned a letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who had financed his trip. He called the Caribbean sea the Indian sea and said that there were many islands inhabited by native Indians. One island  called Juana was said to be extremely fertile with many rivers, lofty mountains and very tall trees. Another island called Hispana had many harbors and was suitable for both farming and the construction of buildings and abounded in precious metals and various kinds of animals.

He described the culture of the natives saying that they were well built but were poorly armed. He said they were innocent and could be converted to Christianity as a result of their timidity and naivety.

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