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Columbus Letter to Gabriel Sanchez (1493)

 

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Context: In 1492, Christopher Columbus (1447–1506) convinced King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain that he could discover the shortest, and thus the most profitable, trade route to Asia by sailing west across the Atlantic ocean. They financed his voyage in hopes that he was right. Columbus wrote this letter to the king’s treasurer, reporting his discoveries in the Caribbean—all the time thinking he was off the coast of South Asia.

 

Because my undertakings have attained success, I know that it will be pleasing to you: these I have determined to relate, so that you may be made acquainted with everything done and discovered in this our voyage. On the thirty-third day after I departed from Cadiz, I came to the Indian sea, where I

found many islands inhabited by men without number, of all which I took possession for our most fortunate king, with proclaiming heralds and flying standards, no one objecting.

 

To the first of these I gave the name of the blessed Saviour, on whose aid relying I had reached this as well as the other islands. But the Indians called it Guanahany. I also called each one of the others by a new name. For I ordered one island to be called Santa Maria of the Conception, another Fernandina,

another Isabella, another Juana, and so on with the rest.…

 

This island [Juana] is surrounded by many very safe and wide harbors, not excelled by any others that I have ever seen. Many great and salubrious rivers flow through it. There are also many very high mountains there. All these islands are very beautiful, and distinguished by various qualities; they are

accessible, and full of a great variety of trees stretching up to the stars . . . some of them were blossoming, some were bearing fruit, some were in other conditions; each one was thriving in its own way. The nightingale and various other birds without number were singing, in the month of November, when I was exploring them. There are besides in the said island Juana seven or eight kinds of palm trees, which far excel ours in height and beauty, just as all the other trees, herbs, and fruits do. There are also excellent pine trees, vast plains and meadows, a variety of birds, a variety of honey, and a variety of metals, excepting iron. In the one which was called Hispana . . . there are great and beautiful mountains, vast fields, groves, fertile plains, very suitable for planting and cultivating, and for the building of houses.

 

The convenience of the harbors in this island, and the remarkable number of rivers contributing to the healthfulness of man, exceed belief, unless one has seen them. . . .

 

All these people lack, as I said above, every kind of iron; they are also without weapons, which indeed are unknown. . . .

 

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 plate, dishes and glass, likewise keys and shoestraps; although if they were able to obtain these, it seemed to them like getting the most beautiful jewels in the world.… In all these islands there is no difference in the appearance of the people, nor in the manners and language, but all understand each other mutually; a fact that is very important for the end which I suppose to be earnestly desired by our most illustrious king, that is, their conversion to the holy religion of Christ, to which in truth, as far as I can perceive, they are very ready and favorably inclined….

 

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. . . .

 

Truly great and wonderful is this, and not corresponding to our merits, but to the holy Christian religion, and to the piety and religion of our sovereigns, because what the human understanding could not attain, that the divine will has granted to human efforts. For God is wont to listen to his servants who love his precepts, even in impossibilities, as has happened to us on the present occasion, who have attained that which hitherto mortal men have never reached.

 

Edited by: Prof. Stephen Duncan

 

Primary Source Material: Columbus, Christopher. The Journal of Christopher Columbus (during his first voyage, 1492-93) and Documents Relating the Voyages of John Cabot and Gaspar Corte Real. Clements R. Markham, tr., London: Printed for the Hakluyt Society, 1893.

 

"Columbus Letter to Gabriel Sanchez" is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license by Prof. Stephen Duncan at Bronx Community College.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.