"Christopher Columbus Reports to Ferdinand and Isabella"
Reprinted in Major Problems of American Colonial History
Published in 1993
Edited by Karen Ordahl Kupperman
"...I promise, that with a little assistance afforded me by our most invincible sovereigns, I will procure them as much gold as they need, as great a quantity of spices, of cotton,...and as many men for the service of the navy as their Majesties may require."
Exploration and settlement of the United States began in the late fifteenth century as a direct outcome of events in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. One of the most significant reasons was the Crusades (1099–1272), an unsuccessful Christian campaign to recapture the Holy Land (a region in the Middle East comprising parts of modern Israel, Jordan, and Egypt; today known as Palestine) from the Muslims (followers of the Islamic religion).
During four hundred years of interaction with Middle Eastern cultures Europeans were able to make significant advances in exploration based on information the Muslims provided. For instance, European civilizations drafted more accurate maps of the known world, built swifter ships, and charted sea routes by observing the Sun. Another important development was the discovery of luxury goods such as silks and spices that came from China and the East Indies (India and adjacent lands and islands in the Far East), which created a thriving market in Europe.
Motivated by greed, adventurers were willing to take risks to search for trade routes to previously unknown lands. At that time the only way for Europeans to reach the Far East was to sail south along the western coast of Africa and then east into the Indian Ocean. The most direct route was through the Mediterranean Sea, but the eastern end of that waterway was controlled by Turkey, a Muslim foe of the Europeans. Portugal was the first country to send explorers eastward. Financed by merchants, they traveled down the African coast in search of gold and ivory. The Portuguese also became involved in the small but lucrative business of buying African slaves from Muslim traders. Soon Spain entered into competition with Portugal to find the best trade routes. The Spanish were the principal defenders of Roman Catholicism throughout the world, and they seized the opportunity to gain converts to Christianity in the newly conquered lands. (Roman Catholicism is a branch of Christianity that is based in Rome, Italy, and headed by a pope who is considered infallible.) Thus the stage was set for the discovery of the New World (the European term for North America and South America) by Italian explorer Christopher Columbus (1451–1506).
Born in Genoa, Italy, Columbus began his career as a sailor on merchant and war ships in the Mediterranean. In 1476 he went to Lisbon, Portugal, where he learned mathematics and astronomy (study of the stars), subjects that were vital for navigation. He made several voyages, including one to Iceland (an island between the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans) with other explorers. In the early 1480s Columbus sought a sponsor for his own voyage of exploration. He wanted to prove his theory that China and the East Indies could be reached more easily by sailing west across the Atlantic Ocean than by going around Africa to the Indian Ocean. If he succeeded, he would also confirm a long-held European belief that the world was round. Educated Europeans of the fifteenth century knew the Earth was a sphere, but no one had yet determined its size. Columbus also contended that by taking the Atlantic route, he could make an accurate measurement of the distance between Europe and China.
For several years Columbus had failed in his attempts to enlist the king of Portugal in this quest, primarily because Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias (c.1450–1500) had found the sea passage from Europe to India, which was considered the best route at the time. Not to be discouraged, Columbus decided to try his luck in Spain. He first met with Queen Isabella I (1451–1504) in 1486, but it wasn't until April 1492, that Isabella and her husband, King Ferdinand V (1452–1516) agreed to finance an expedition. As part of the deal, Columbus would be named admiral, become governor of any territory he discovered, and receive a share of any riches he found.
On August 3, 1492, Columbus set sail from Cadiz, Spain, with three ships—the Santa Maria (with Columbus as captain), the Niña, and the Pinta. Initially, the expedition made rapid progress. By October 10, however, the crew had turned mutinous (rebellious) because they had not seen land for months. Luckily for Columbus, two days later they spotted a small island in the present-day Bahamas (a group of islands south of Florida). After going ashore Columbus spent several weeks meeting the native peoples and exploring the islands. On December 25, 1492, he established the first European settlement in the Americas. Called La Navidad ("the birth"; in commemoration of being founded on Christmas Day), it stood on the site of present-day Limonade-Bord-de-Mer, Haiti. Columbus returned to Spain in early 1493, leaving twenty-two men at La Navidad. He wrote the report on his triumphant voyage on March 14, 1493.
Things to Remember While Reading "Christopher Columbus Reports to Ferdinand and Isabella":
- When Columbus went ashore in the Bahamas, he mistakenly assumed he had reached the East Indies. For instance, in his report he mentioned "a certain island called Charis, which is the second from Española [now Haiti] on the side towards India." Columbus therefore gave the name "Indians" to the Native Americans—members of the Taino tribe—who greeted him. When the Tainos directed Columbus southward to a larger island, which he named Juana, he assumed it must be part of Cathay (the European term for China). In fact, the island is today known as Cuba.
- The Tainos thought Columbus and his crew were gods, or "beings of a celestial [heavenly] race." This was a common reaction among native peoples upon meeting Europeans for the first time (see "The Coming of the First White Man.") They usually made elaborate preparations to greet these supreme beings. During the early years of exploration and settlement, Native Americans welcomed Europeans to their land, even after they learned that white men were also ordinary humans and not gods.
- Columbus's voyage was tremendously expensive, and he was expected to find riches that would bring great profits for the Spanish monarchs and merchants. In his report he took every advantage to make a case for returning immediately to Hispaniola. For instance, he made extravagant promises of bringing back gold, cotton, spices, drugs, and even navy recruits from future voyages to the New World.
- Columbus mentioned that the Native Americans, "like idiots," traded valuable commodities such as gold and cotton for ordinary European-made items. Keep in mind that although Columbus quickly prohibited "unjust" trading between his men and the Native Americans, he was not motivated by good will toward the "Indians." Instead he wanted to cast the Spanish in the best light and encourage friendly relations that would work to Spain's advantage. He was also preparing the way for Roman Catholic missionaries, making it easier for them to convert the native peoples to Christianity.
"Christopher Columbus Reports to Ferdinand and Isabella"
First Voyage, 1492–1493
Knowing that it will afford you pleasure to learn that I have brought in undertaking to a successful termination, I have decided upon writing you this letter to acquaint you with all the events which have occurred in my voyage, and the discoveries which have resulted from it. Thirty-three days after my departure from Cadiz I reached the Indian sea, where I discovered many islands, thickly peopled, of which I took possession without resistance in the name of our most illustrious Monarch, by public proclamation and with unfurled banners. To the first of these islands, which is called by the Indians Guanahani, I gave the name of the blessed Saviour (San Salvador), relying upon whose protection I had reached this as well as the other islands; to each of these I also gave a name, ordering that one should be called Santa Maria de la Concepcion, another Fernandina, the third Isabella, the fourth Juana, and so with all the rest respectively. As soon as we arrived at that, which as I have said was named Juana, I proceeded along its coast a short distance westward, and found it to be so large and apparently without termination, that I could not suppose it to be an island, but the continental province of Cathay [China]. Seeing, however, no towns or populous places on the sea coast, but only a few detached houses and cottages, with whose inhabitants I was unable to communicate, because they fled as soon as they saw us, I went further on, thinking that in my progress I should certainly find some city or village. . . . I afterwards dispatched two of our men to ascertain whether there were a king or any cities in that province. These men reconnoitred the country for three days, and found a most numerous population, and great numbers of houses, though small, and built without any regard to order: with which information they returned to us. In the mean time I had learned from some Indians whom I had seized, that that country was certainly an island: and therefore I sailed towards the east, coasting to the distance of three hundred and twenty-two miles, which brought us to the extremity of it; from this point I saw lying eastwards another island, fifty-four miles distant from Juana, to which I gave the name of Española [Hispaniola]: . . . In that island also which I have before said we named Española, there are mountains of very great size and beauty, vast plains, groves, and very fruitful fields, admirably adapted for tillage, pasture, and habitation. The convenience and excellence of the harbours in this island, and the abundance of the rivers, so indispensable to the health of man, surpass anything that would be believed by one who had not seen it. The trees, herbage, and fruits of Española are very different from those of Juana, and moreover it abounds in various kinds of spices, gold, and other metals. The inhabitants of both sexes in this island, and in all the others which I have seen, or of which I have received information, go always naked as they were born, with the exception of some of the women, who use the covering of a leaf, or small bough, or an apron of cotton which they prepare for that purpose. None of them, as I have
already said, are possessed of any iron, neither have they weapons, being unacquainted with, and indeed incompetent to use them, not from any deformity of body (for they are well-formed), but because they are timid and full of fear. They carry however in lieu of arms, canes dried in the sun, on the ends of which they fix heads of dried wood sharpened to a point, and even these they dare not use habitually; for it has often occurred when I have sent two or three of my men to any of the villages to speak with the natives, that they have come out in a disorderly troop, and have fled in such haste at the approach of our men, that the fathers forsook their children and the children their fathers. This timidity did not arise from any loss or injury that they had received from us; for, on the contrary, I gave to all I approached whatever articles I had about me, such as cloth and many other things, taking nothing of theirs in return: but they are naturally timid and fearful. As soon however as they see that they are safe, and have laid aside all fear, they are very simple and honest, and exceedingly liberal with all they have; none of them refusing any thing he may possess when he is asked for it, but on the contrary inviting us to ask them. They exhibit great love towards all others in preference to themselves: they also give objects of great value for trifles, and content themselves with very little or nothing in return. I however forbad that these trifles and articles of no value (such as pieces of dishes, plates, and glass, keys, and leather straps) should be given to them, although if they could obtain them, they imagined themselves to be possessed of the most beautiful trinkets in the world. It even happened that a sailor received for a leather strap as much gold as was worth three golden nobles, and for things of more trifling value offered by our men, especially newly coined blancas, or any gold coins, the Indians would give whatever the seller required; as, for instance, an ounce and a half or two ounces of gold, or thirty or forty pounds of cotton, with which commodity they were already acquainted.
Thus they bartered,
heaven, and that I had descended from thence with these ships and sailors, and under this impression was I received after they had thrown aside their fears. Nor are they slow or stupid, but of very clear understanding; and those men who have crossed to the neighbouring islands give an admirable description of everything they observed; but they never saw any people clothed, nor any ships like ours. On my arrival at that sea, I had taken some Indians by force from the first island that I came to, in order that they might learn our language, and communicate to us what they knew respecting the country; which plan succeeded excellently, and was a great advantage to us, for in a short time, either by gestures and signs, or by words, we were enabled to understand each other. These men are still travelling with me, and although they have been with us now a long time, they continue to entertain the idea that I have descended from heaven; and on our arrival at any new place they published this, crying out immediately with a loud voice to the other Indians, "Come, come and look upon beings of a celestial race": upon which both women and men, children and adults, young men and old, when they got rid of the fear they at first entertained, would come out in throngs, crowding the roads to see us, some bringing food, others drink, with astonishing affection and kindness. . . . I could not clearly understand whether the people possess any private property, for I observed that one man had the charge of distributing various things to the rest, but especially meat and provisions and the like. I did not find, as some of us had expected, any cannibals amongst them, but on the contrary men of great deference and kindness. Neither are they black, like the Ethiopians their hair is smooth and straight: for they do not dwell where the rays of the sun strike most vividly,—and the sun has intense power there, the distance from the equinoctial line being, it appears, but six-and-twenty degrees. On the tops of the mountains the cold is very great, but the effect of this upon the Indians is lessened by their being accustomed to the climate, and by their frequently indulging in the use of very hot meats and drinks.
Thus, as I have already said, I saw no cannibals, nor did I hear of any, except in a certain island called Charis, which is the second from Española on the side towards India, where dwell a people who are considered by the neighbouring islanders as most ferocious and these feed upon human flesh. The same people have many kinds of canoes, in which they cross to all the surrounding islands and rob and plunder wherever they can; they are not different from the other islanders, except that they wear their hair long, like women, and make use of the bows and javelins of cane, with sharpened spear-points fixed on the thickest end, which I have before described, and therefore they are looked upon as ferocious, and regarded by the other Indians with unbounded fear; but I think no more of them than of the rest. . . . Finally, to compress into few words the entire summary of my voyage and speedy return, and of the advantages derivable therefrom, I promise, that with a little assistance afforded me by our most invincible sovereigns, I will procure them as much gold as they need, as great a quantity of spices, of cotton, and of mastic (which is only found in Chios), and as many men for the service of the navy as their Majesties may require. I promise also rhubarb and other sorts of drugs, which I am persuaded the men whom I have left in the aforesaid fortress have found already and will continue to find; for I myself have tarried no where longer than I was compelled to do by the winds, except in the city of Navidad, while I provided for the building of the fortress, and took the necessary precautions for the perfect security of the men I left there. Although all I have related may appear to be wonderful and unheard of, yet the results of my voyage would have been more astonishing if I had had at my disposal such ships as I required. But these great and marvellous results are not to be attributed to any merit of mine, but to the holy Christian faith, and to the piety and religion of our Sovereigns; for that which the unaided intellect of men could not compass, the spirit of God has granted to human exertions, for God is wont to hear the prayers of his servants who love his precepts even to the performance of apparent impossibilities. Thus it has happened to me in the present instance, who have accomplished a task to which the powers of mortal men had never hitherto attained; for if there have been those who have anywhere written or spoken of these islands, they have done so with doubts and conjectures, and no one has ever asserted that he has seen them, on which account their writings have been looked upon as little else than fables. Therefore let the king and queen, our princes and their most happy kingdoms, and all the other provinces of Christendom, render
thanks to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who has granted us so great a victory and such prosperity. Let processions be made, and sacred feasts be held, and the temples be adorned with festive boughs. Let Christ rejoice on earth, as he rejoices in heaven in the prospect of the salvation of the souls of so many nations hitherto lost. Let us also rejoice, as well on account of the exaltation of our faith, as on account of the increase of our temporal prosperity, of which not only Spain, but all Christendom will be partakers.
Such are the events which I have briefly described. Farewell.
Lisbon, the 14th of March.
Admiral of the Fleet of the Ocean
What happened next . . .
With promises of untold riches, Columbus had no difficulty persuading Ferdinand and Isabella to sponsor a second voyage. This time the monarchs rewarded the admiral with seventeen ships and sent along a thousand colonists to live in the new Spanish settlement. When the expedition reached La Navidad in November 1493, however, they found the settlement in ruins. Unburied Spaniard corpses were scattered everywhere. Either the Native Americans had turned against the Europeans, or the Spaniards had fought among themselves—no one had survived to tell the story. Columbus decided to move seventy-five miles east, where he started building a settlement called Isabela. Immediately he sent a party of men in search of gold while he explored the nearby islands.
When Columbus returned to Isabela in late September 1494, he learned that his men had found very little gold. He also encountered mounting tensions between the Native Americans and the Spaniards. Having been mistreated by the colonists, the Native Americans were organizing an army to try to drive the Europeans off the island. The Spanish took drastic measures, which led to the near extermination of the inhabitants of Hispaniola. During the next three years Columbus ruled harshly, imposing heavy taxes on the Native Americans and forcing them into slavery. Native American offenses against the Spanish were often punished with death, using such methods as burning at the stake or beheading. Colonists often attacked or killed native men, women, and children on a whim. Native Americans also died of diseases the Europeans brought with them.
Soon shocking reports about conditions on Hispaniola were reaching Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella were already displeased because they were receiving little gold from the New World, and very few Native Americans had been converted to Catholicism. No longer confident of Columbus's ability to govern the colony, the monarchs recalled him to Spain in 1496. Within two years, however, he had persuaded the king and queen to send him back to Hispaniola. On this third voyage Columbus sailed along the coast of Venezuela, thus becoming the first European to view the continent of South America.
When Columbus returned to Spain he left his brother Bartholomeo in charge at Isabela. In the meantime, Bartholomeo had moved the settlement to the south side of the island to a place called Santo Domingo. Upon reaching Santo Domingo in August 1498, Columbus was beset by numerous problems. The Spaniards found gold only in small quantities, and there weren't enough native workers. Friction had also continued between the surviving Native Americans and the colonists. Death and sickness were rampant, supplies were scarce, and living conditions were poor. It was not long before the Spanish colonists were openly challenging Columbus.
Finally Ferdinand and Isabella sent Francisco de Bobadilla (d. 1502) to replace Columbus as governor. When de Bobadilla arrived in Santo Domingo in 1500, he found the colony in chaos. The bodies of seven rebel Spaniards were hanging in the town square, and Columbus's brother Diego was planning to hang five others. Columbus himself was trying to put down a rebellion on another part of the island, and Bartholomeo was making similar efforts elsewhere. After arresting all three men, Bobadilla ordered that they be put in chains and sent back to Spain for trial. Although Columbus subsequently lost all of his titles except admiral, during his years in Hispaniola he had become a wealthy man. In 1502 he set out on a fourth voyage to the Caribbean, but the trip ended
in humiliation: He actually had to be rescued after spending a year marooned (stranded) on the island of Jamaica. Ferdinand refused to send Columbus on another expedition, so the defeated explorer spent the last three years of his life in splendid retirement at Valladolid, Spain.
Did you know . . .
- While Columbus was exploring the islands around Isabela in 1496, he assembled his men and made them take an oath that they had been sailing along the mainland of Asia, not the coast of an island. Apparently he was still convinced—or was trying to convince himself—that he had found the "Indies." If he suspected he had made a geographical error, he did not want the news to come from his men.
- From 1496 to 1498 Columbus tried to persuade Ferdinand and Isabella to send him on a third voyage to Hispaniola. During that time he wore the coarse dress of a Franciscan friar (member of the Roman Catholic monastic order of Saint Francis). His strange attire has never been completely understood. Some historians speculate that he may have adopted it to express regret for wrongdoing, to show humility, or to use as a disguise.
- The Portuguese introduced African slavery to North America. Soon after the Spanish arrived in the Caribbean, the Native Americans began to die of European diseases. Consequently the Spanish did not have enough slave workers. They found an alternative labor supply in 1510, however, when the Portuguese sent the first shipment of African slaves to Hispaniola.
For more information
Columbus and the Age of Discovery. Available September 30, 1999.
Columbus, Christopher. The Voyage of Christopher Columbus: Columbus's Own Journal of Discovery. John Cummins, translator. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.
Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, ed. Major Problems in American Colonial History. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1993, pp. 4–7.
Sale, Kirkpatrick. The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy. New York: Knopf, 1990.
Wilford, John Noble. The Mysterious History of Columbus: An Exploration of the Man, the Myth, the Legacy. New York: Knopf, distributed by Random House, 1991.
Yewell, John, and others, eds. Confronting Columbus: An Anthology. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Company, 1992.