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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 5 - Renaissance Literature 


Christopher Columbus Reports from the New World

The motive for most medieval travel was religious, as seen in the pilgrimage or the crusade, the hajj or the holy war. The transition from the medieval to the Renaissance world becomes apparent in the changing nature of the traveler, as pilgrims gave way to explorers and the quest for the Holy Grail yielded to the quest for gold. The great goal was no longer the Holy Land, but the New World.

When Christopher Columbus (or Cristóbal Colón) sailed across the Atlantic from Spain in August 1492, he thought he was heading for India. On October 12, 1492, he landed in the Bahamas and claimed the territory for Spain. On this, the first of his three trips to the Americas, he also explored Cuba and Haiti before returning to Spain in early 1493.

Like most of the explorers and travelers who succeeded him, Columbus was instructed to keep careful notes of his observations. The resulting travel narratives were a source of amazement to their European audiences, and as purveyors of the "new," had an important influence on the development of the extended pieces of prose fiction that we call novels, or "news."

Word of Columbus's landing first reached Europe in a letter he wrote to Luis de Santangel, the royal treasurer of Castile, the kingdom ruled by Ferdinand and Isabella. This letter to Santangel was published and reprinted as demand grew; by 1500, the document was in its twentieth edition. Yet the letter itself reveals some of the same confusion that led Columbus to America rather than India; his ambivalence toward the people and the land that he encountered set the pattern for the exploitation of America in the name of European culture that was to follow.(1)

Excerpt From The Letter Of Christopher Columbus To Luis De Santangel (2)

On this island, indeed, and on all the others which I have seen, and of which I have knowledge, the inhabitants of both sexes go always naked, just as they came into the world, except some of the women, who use a covering of a leaf or some foliage, or a cotton cloth, which they make themselves for that purpose.

All these people lack, as I said above, every kind of iron; they are also without weapons, which indeed are unknown; nor are they competent to use them, not on account of deformity of body, for they are well formed, but because they are timid and full of fear.

They carry for weapons, however, reeds baked in the sun, on the lower ends of which they fasten some shafts of dried wood rubbed down to a point; and indeed they do not venture to use these always; for it frequently happened when I sent two or three of my men to some of the villages, that they might speak with the natives, a compact troop of the Indians would march out, and as soon as they saw our men approaching, they would quickly take flight, children being pushed aside by their fathers, and fathers by their children.

And this was not because any hurt or injury had been inflicted on any one of them, for to every one whom I visited and with whom I was able to converse, I distributed whatever I had, cloth and many other things, no return being made to me; but they are by nature fearful and timid. Yet when they perceive that they are safe, putting aside all fear, they are of simple manners and trustworthy, and very liberal with everything they have, refusing no one who asks for anything they may possess, and even themselves inviting us to ask for things.

They show greater love for all others than for themselves; they give valuable things for trifles, being satisfied even with a very small return, or with nothing; however, I forbade that things so small and of no value should be given to them such as pieces of plates, dishes and glass, likewise keys and shoe-straps; although if they were able to obtain these, it seemed to them like getting the most beautiful jewels in the world.

It happened, indeed, that a certain sailor obtained in exchange for a shoe-strap as much worth of gold as would equal three golden coins; and likewise other things for articles of very little value, especially for new silver coins, and for some gold coins, to obtain which they gave whatever the seller desired, as for instance an ounce and a half and two ounces of gold, or thirty and forty pounds of cotton, with which they were already acquainted.

They also traded cotton and gold for pieces of bows, bottles, jugs and jars, like persons without reason, which I forbade because it was very wrong; and I gave to them many beautiful and pleasing things that I had brought with me, that they might be made worshippers of Christ, and that they might be full of love towards our king, queen, and prince, and the whole Spanish nation; also that they might be zealous to search out and collect, and which we greatly needed.

These people practice no kind of idolatry; on the contrary they firmly believe that all strength and power, and in fact all good things are in heaven, and that I had come down from thence with these ships and sailors; and in this belief I was received there after they had put aside fear. Nor are they slow or unskilled, but of excellent and acute understanding; and the men who have navigated that sea give an account of everything in an admirable manner; but they never saw people clothed, nor these kind of ships.

As soon as I reached that sea, I seized by force several Indians on the first island, in order that they might learn form us, and in like manner tell us about those things in these lands of which they themselves had knowledge; and the plan succeeded, for in a short time we understood them and they us, sometimes by gestures and signs, sometimes by words; and it was a great advantage to us.

They are coming with me now, yet always believing that I descended from heaven , although they have been living with us for a long time, and are living with us to-day. And these men were the first who announced it wherever we landed, continually proclaiming to the others in a loud voice, "Come, come, and you will see the celestial people." Whereupon both women and men, both children and adults, both young men and old men, laying aside the fear caused a little before, visited us eagerly, filling the road with a great crowd, some bringing food, and some drink, with great love and extraordinary goodwill.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

In all these islands, as I have understood, each man is content with only one wife, except the princes or kings, who are permitted to have twenty. The women appear to work more than the men. I was not able to find out surely whether they have individual property, for I saw that one man had the duty of distributing to the others, especially refreshments, food, and things of that kind.

I found no monstrosities among them, as very many supposed, but men of great reverence, and friendly. Nor are they black like the Ethiopians. They have straight hair, hanging down. They do not remain where the solar rays send out the heat, for the strength of the sun is very great here, because it is distant from the equinoctial line, as it seems, only twenty-six degrees. On the tops of the mountains too the cold is severe, but the Indians, however, moderate it, partly by being accustomed to the place, and partly by the help of very hot victuals, of which they eat frequently and immoderately.

And so I did not see any monstrosity, nor did I have knowledge of them any where, excepting a certain island named Charis, which is the second in passing from Hispana to India. This island is inhabited by a certain people who are considered very warlike by their neighbors. These eat human flesh. The said people have many kinds of row-boats, in which they cross over to all the other Indian islands, and seize and carry away every thing that they can. They differ in no way from the others, only that they wear long hair like the women. They use bows and darts made of reeds, with sharpened shafts fastened to the larger end, as we have described.

On this account they are considered warlike, wherefore the other Indians are afflicted with continual fear, but I regard them as of no more account than the others. These are the people who visit certain women, who alone inhabit the island Mateunin, which is the first in passing from Hispana to India. These women, moreover, perform no kind of work of their sex, for they use bows and darts, like those I have described of their husbands; they protect themselves with sheets of copper, of which there is great abundance among them.

They tell me of another island greater than the aforesaid Hispana, whose inhabitants are without hair, and which abounds in gold above all the others. I am bringing with me men of this island and of the others that I have seen, who give proof of the things that I have described.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Why was Columbus so surprised to see naked people? Of whom might these unarmed and beautiful men and women remind an observer familiar with the Bible?
  2. What were Columbus's motives in giving the natives beautiful gifts? Why did he try to prevent his sailors from trading with them?
  3. On the second island mentioned in the letter, Columbus says that the people were very warlike. Into what categories does he divide the natives? What does this division suggest?
  4. The letter to Santangel reminds us that asking any observer to record facts impartially is an impossible task. Can you cite any cases where Columbus's interpretations of the facts he describes betray the human habit of seeing what our cultural backgrounds prepare us to see?


(1) Cristóbal Colón was well named: he was indeed the Christ-bearing colonizer. Bartolomé de Las Casas makes this point in the first volume of his History of the Indies, as cited by Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, trans. Richard Howard [New York: Harper & Row, 1984], pp.25-26.

(2) The letter printed below is cited in a translation of the original document now in the Rare Books and manuscript Division of The New York Public Library. This edition was published in 1892, in honor of the quartercentennial of Columbus' voyage.