The letter from Christopher Columbus, in which he reported his findings in the New World, ignited my interest and stimulated my imagination.
I am unable to explain why I have been so engrossed in this letter. This letter was intended to describe an unknown land, a land that only natives have seen. However, it appears that there is more to it. In elementary schools, Columbus is celebrated as the man who discovered the New World and is viewed as a hero. Nevertheless, historians who have conducted extensive research on Columbus disagree. They argue that he was driven by fame and wealth, and cruel to the indigenous peoples he encountered. The contradictory tones employed by Columbus in this letter give it a disturbing feel, casting doubt on his reliability as an unbiased and accurate witness. Columbus opens the letter to Luis De Sant Angel by expressing his fortunate discovery of these magnificent islands.
Right off the bat, Columbus expresses gratitude to the king and queen, even before delving into his discoveries. He proceeds to elucidate how he chose to name the islands he found. It is common knowledge that Columbus received those ships from the king and queen, yet for some reason, he felt compelled to acknowledge them. In my opinion, perhaps Columbus aimed to instill in the king and queen a sense of ownership over the islands, making it seem as if they themselves were the ones who made the discoveries. Whether influenced by fear or respect, Columbus genuinely attributed their involvement.
Columbus named the first island they discovered San Salvador, giving tribute to the king. He wanted to credit everyone involved in the voyage, particularly the financially supportive king and queen. Despite historians’ beliefs about Columbus, he displayed humbleness and generosity in naming the islands. He followed the Spanish monarchial society’s tone and named the islands after the wisdom and greatness of the monarchs.
Columbus proceeded to characterize the indigenous people, whom he referred to as “Indians”. He emphasized the abundance of individuals, going so far as to employ the term “innumerable” multiple times. One phrase that particularly unsettles me appears at the beginning of the letter: “I have heard from other Indians I have already taken that this land was an island”. Columbus proceeds to detail his exploration of the island based on the advice received from these natives. This line deeply disturbs me because of the way Columbus casually states, “I have already taken”. It gives me insight into the true nature of Columbus as an individual and sheds light on the true intentions of the Spanish mission. What does “I have already taken” signify? It signifies to me that Columbus now claims possession of these “Indians” and their autonomy was likely seized through coercion or force.
The text suggests that the author has successfully enslaved a group of people without much resistance. The author briefly mentions the “Indians” in a letter to the monarchs of Spain, without providing details on how they were taken or what transpired during the process. The author’s main objective seems to be informing the monarchs about the capture of these individuals. After discussing the conquest, the author proceeds to mention the naming of their newfound island, Hispaniola. This excerpt serves as a foreshadowing of the greater acts of barbarism that will follow. Columbus praises the environment of the land they have discovered when describing it.
Columbus describes Hispaniola as a place with beautiful mountains and trees, comparing them to those in Spain. He admires the accessible mountains with their various forms and the endless variety of trees. He notes how the trees never lose their foliage and sees them as green and lovely, similar to trees in Spain in May. This line stands out to me, as I initially thought it was meant to help the people in Spain imagine the vibrant colors and beauty of the new world by relating it to what they are familiar with. However, I also see deeper meaning in these words.
Despite being fascinated by what he saw, Columbus was cautious not to give the impression that he believed the new world surpassed the beauty of Spain. He feared that acknowledging the superiority of the New World over Spain would be considered treasonous. However, he couldn’t describe this place to the monarchs without mentioning Spain’s beauty. Hence, he resorted to using poetic language to compare the two worlds and avoid appearing treasonous. In his quote, Columbus portrayed the described place as heavenly and majestic, but then associated all this beauty with Spain in the month of May. This raises the question of whether Spain is truly that beautiful in May or if Columbus was merely trying to convince the monarchs that Spain is equally divine and majestic.
Columbus’s depiction of the New World may have been influenced by a seemingly insignificant action taken to please a few monarchs. In the following paragraphs, he describes how timid and frightened the native peoples are of his men. To portray himself as noble and generous, Columbus bestows gifts upon them and forbids his men from exploiting them. While this paints him in a positive light, he also mentions their lack of iron, steel, and weapons, which suggests potential conflict between the two parties. Columbus claims to have taken control of a sizeable town, which he named the City of Navidad.
Columbus mentions that the king of these Indians considers Columbus as his brother. He then discusses the king, saying that even if the king changes his mind and desires to fight with Columbus’ men, neither he nor his subjects are familiar with weapons or clothing, as previously mentioned. Why would the king of this Indian city want to quarrel with Columbus, whom he regards as family? Well, if some individuals suddenly arrive and assume ownership of your entire country, attempt to impose Christianity upon you (whatever that may be), and then conquer your town using weapons and artillery, how would you react? Would you welcome this man and consider him your brother? I am fairly certain that the leader of this town will not embrace the man who has forcefully taken control of your people. I believe that the king calling Columbus his brother is either a fictional embellishment to the story or a result of the king’s fear for his people’s lives, causing him not to resist. Throughout the entire letter, Columbus evades direct communication about their true intentions for the voyage.
Despite mentioning gold and quarreling, Columbus quickly changes the subject to lighter matters whenever these topics arise. Although much of the fine print and between the lines of this letter reveal unintended revelations, I discovered much more than what was explicitly written. Columbus cunningly avoids acknowledging his tyrannical takeover of the indigenous peoples of this land, even though it is glaringly obvious that he is indeed responsible. With this knowledge of Columbus’s tyrannical actions, reading this letter challenges my belief in his integrity as a reliable eyewitness for describing the events in this New World.