Early Modern Spain

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Monarchs letter

Most Christian and most high and most mighty princes:

That everlasting God who has given Your Highnesses so many victories has now given you the greatest ever given to any monarch. I have come with the fleet that Your Highnesses gave me from the Indies, to which I crossed in thirty-three days after departing from your kingdoms;1 for fourteen of those thirty-three, I was becalmed and made little progress. I found people without number and very many islands, of which I took possession in Your Highnesses' name by royal proclamation and by unfurling the royal standard, and without contradiction.2

To the first island I gave the name San Salvador, in memory of His High Majesty; to the second, Santa María de Concepción; to the third, Fernandina; to the fourth, Isabela; to the fifth, Juana, and so on, to each a new name.3

When I reached Juana4 I followed the coast to the west and I found it to be so large that I thought it could not be an island, but mainland, and that it could be the province of Cathay. I could get no information because, at every cape I reached, the people fled and I could not speak to them; and because I could not find a town worthy of note, I thought that if I hugged the coast I could not fail to find some town or great city, such as are described by those who have been ashore in that province.5

After following this coast for some way, I found that it was carrying me north rather than west, and I found that the wind was coming from that direction. I decided to ride it out until it changed, because winter was now drawing on, and my sole objective was to flee from there, to the south, and so I turned back.6

By this time I already understood something of the language and signs made by some Indians I had taken on the island of San Salvador, and I understood that this was still an island.7 And so I came to a very fine harbour,8 from where I sent two men inland for three days with one of those Indians I had with me, and who had become friendly towards me, to investigate and find out if there were any cities or large towns, what land this was and what there was there. They found many settlements and countless people but no sign of any authority, and so they turned back and I left and took some Indians from that harbour so that I could find out from them something about those lands. And so I followed the coast of this island eastward for one hundred and seven leagues to where it ended.

Before I left it, I sighted another island to the east, eighteen leagues distant, which I then called Española,9 and I went there and followed the north coast as I had done in Juana, due east for a good hundred and eighty-eight leagues. I pressed on and in the many harbours I found I set up a large cross in the most suitable place, as I had done in all the harbours on the other islands, and in many places I had lengthy talks.

And so I proceeded until 16 January, when I decided to return to Your Highnesses, both because I had found most of what I was looking for, and because I now had only one caravel, for I had left my flagship with the men in Your Highnesses' town of Navidad, where they were establishing a fortress, as I shall later report;10 and as to the other caravel, someone from Palos, whom I had put in charge of it, expecting loyal service, made off with it, thinking to help himself to great amounts of gold from an island about which an Indian had given information.11 I thought I would do with him later what seemed best.

This sea is the best in the world for sailing, and the least dangerous for any kind of ships; but for discovery, small caravels are the best, because you have to hug the coast and sail up-river to discover the most, and they do not require great depth and can be assisted by oars. There are never any storms, for on every cape I have visited I have seen trees and grass growing right into the sea.12

Apart from the islands already mentioned, I have found many others in the Indies about which I do not intend to speak in this letter. These, like the others, are so fertile that, even if I could describe it, I should not be surprised if you were doubtful whether to believe me. The breezes are very mild, the trees and fruits and vegetation are extremely beautiful and very different from ours, and there are so many rivers and harbours that are better than those in Christendom, that it is a wonder. All these islands are densely populated by the finest people under the sun, without evil or deception.

All of them, women and men alike, go naked as their mothers bore them, although some women wear some small cotton garment or a leaf with which they cover themselves.

They have no iron or weapons except some cane stalks on the end of which they put a thin, sharp stick; all their work is done with stones.

I have not been able to establish if any of them have private property, because on some days when I was with the king13 in the town of Navidad, I saw that all the people, and especially the women, would bring him manioc roots, which is the food they eat, and he ordered them to be shared out, a very unusual way of provisioning.14

Nowhere in these islands have I seen signs of religious observance or idolatry among the people, and there is little difference between one people's language and another's; rather, they all understand each other.15 I could see that they know that all power is in heaven,16 and generally wherever I have been, they have believed and do believe that I, along with these ships and men, came from heaven; and they received me with this respect, and still today they hold the same view and have not shaken it off, in spite of all the exchanges I have had with them;17 and whenever we approach any town, the men and women and children run from house to house crying: "Come and see the people from heaven".

They give whatever they have and had for anything that might be given in exchange, even taking a piece of glass or a broken bowl or some such thing for gold or anything else of value; one sailor got more than two and a half castellanos for the ends of his leather laces;18 there are ten thousand similar stories I could tell.19

All these islands are very flat and the land is low-lying, except for Juana and Española; these are very high lands, with ranges of high mountains beyond comparison with the island of Tenerife.20 The mountains are all of a thousand different shapes and all are very beautiful and fertile and accessible and covered in trees; they seem to reach to the sky.

And both these two islands are very large, for, as I have said, I sailed their length in a straight line one hundred and seven leagues along Juana, and two provinces lay in the direction of the northwest, which, as far as I could understand from these Indians I have with me, cannot be less than fifty or sixty leagues, so that ... is much greater than England and Scotland together;21 this other island of Española is certainly greater than all of Spain, for, as I said earlier, I sailed along it in a straight line from west to east for a good hundred and eighty-eight leagues which is its length in that direction. Juana has many rivers, and there are great mountains and very deep valleys and plains and fields, and all covered in trees and marvellous huge palms of a thousand different kinds.

Española is better than anywhere; the trees are not so tall, nor of the same kind, being broad and very fruitful; and the land is delightful, ideal for everything, for sowing and planting and raising cattle, of which I have seen no sight on any island. This island has marvellously temperate breezes, and marvellous plains and open country beyond comparison with those of Castile, and the same is true of the rivers, copious and with good water, of which the majority carry gold; the harbours are so numerous and so fine that they have to be seen to be believed.

I have not dallied on these or any other islands for many reasons, as I said before, especially as it happened to be winter when I was sailing these coasts; they did not give me the chance to sail south because I was on the northern shore, and the winds were almost always easterly, and against the course I was sailing; furthermore, I did not understand these people nor they me, beyond what native wit taught us, although they were very sorry about this and I much more so, because I very much wanted good information about everything; and the solution I came up with were the Indians I had with me, who were learning our language and we theirs, and we shall see later, on the next voyage, whether it worked; so there was no reason for me to waste time in any harbour, as soon as I had the conditions for sailing; and also, as I have said, these ships which I had with me were very large and heavy for such an undertaking, especially the flagship, about which I was very anxious before I left Castile; I should very much have liked to take small caravels, but since this was the first voyage and the men I had were afraid that the sea would be rough and were dubious about the voyage, and there were so many obstacles, and everyone was bold enough to criticise this route and put thousands of dangers in my way without giving me any reason, my wishes were disregarded and I had to do what those who were to sail with me wanted - anything to get the voyage over and done with and find the land.

But Our Lord, who is the light and strength of all those who achieve their ends, and who gives victory over things which appear impossible, willed that I should find gold, and gold mines, and spices, and countless people ready to become Christians and others so that the Christians might ... them and He gave me a place with evident wonderment where I might build a fort, which must by now be completely finished.

And it was His wish that I should leave there, in possession of the town of Navidad, the men I had with me on the flagship and some from the caravels, equipped with provisions for more than a year and a lot of artillery, free of any danger from anyone, and, indeed, with the firm friendship of the king of the area, who took great pride in calling me his brother and treating me as such; he showed every sign of finding it the greatest joy in the world, as I said, and not just the king but all the others, so that the men I left there are enough to subjugate the whole island without danger.

As I have said, this island is in a place pointed out by the hand of Our Lord, from which I hope that His Majesty will give Your Highnesses as much gold as you need, spices from one pepper, as many ships as Your Highnesses might order to be filled and as much mastic22 as you might order to be shipped; to this day mastic has only been found on the island of Chios in Greece where the authorities sell it for as much as they like, and I believe that they produce more than forty-five thousand ducats' worth of it every year;23 and as much aloe24 as you might order to be shipped, and as much cotton as you order to be shipped, and so many slaves25 that they are without number, and will be from among the idolaters, and I believe I have found rhubarb26 and cinnamon.27 All of this I have found after a first brief inspection, but I hope in God's name that when I return the men I have left there will have found thousands more things of great value, because that is what I ordered them to do; and I left them a boat and tackle, and tools to make boats and galleys, and men experienced in all the arts of the sea; and above all I hold all the above-mentioned islands to be possessions of Your Highnesses to do with as you wish and as you can and do most properly with the kingdoms of Castile, and this is especially so of this island of Española.

To conclude: divine grace permitting, the grace of Him who is the beginning of all good and virtuous things and who gives favour and victory to all those who follow His path, in seven years from now I will be able to pay to Your Highnesses the costs of five thousand cavalry and fifty thousand infantry in the war and conquest of Jerusalem, which was the reason for undertaking this enterprise;28 and five years thereafter, another five thousand cavalry and fifty thousand infantry, making ten thousand cavalry and one hundred thousand infantry; and this will be for a very small initial cost to Your Highnesses to secure all these Indies and all that they contain, as I shall tell Your Highnesses later, in person; and in this I am right, and what I say is not in dispute, and we should not sleep on it as has happened in the execution of this enterprise, and may God forgive those who were the cause of it.

Most mighty princes: all of Christendom should hold great celebrations, and especially those of God's church, at the finding of so many multitudes of people grouped together ready with very little effort to be converted to our Holy Faith, and of so many lands full of so many good things which we need, and from which all Christians will derive comfort and benefit; all of this was unknown and only spoken about in the form of fables; Your Highnesses should order great joy and festivities in the churches and especially very many praises to the Holy Trinity throughout your kingdoms and possessions, for the great love He has shown you, more than to any other prince.

Now, most serene princes: may Your Highnesses remember that I left wife and children29 and my homeland to serve you, I spent all I had, I wasted seven years30 and received nothing but opprobrium and discredit and suffered great need; I refused to deal with other princes who asked me to,31 although Your Highnesses had invested in this voyage, which was due more to my importunity than to anything else; and not only have I received [no]32 thanks, but promises made to me have not been fulfilled.33 I do not ask Your Highnesses for reward in order to make money, because my intention is only to serve God and Your Highnesses and bring this enterprise of the Indies to fruition, as time will testify; and so I ask that I be honoured in accordance with my service.

The Church of God must also attend to this: to providing prelates and devout and wise religious; and because the matter is so important and of such moment, it is right that the Holy Father should provide prelates who are absolutely free of greed for earthly goods and entirely suitable for the service of God and Your Highnesses; and so I humbly request that in the letter which you will write about this victory, you ask him for a cardinalate for my son,34 and that he be given one even though he is not yet of the right age, because there is little difference between him and the son of the Medicis of Florence who was given the hat without his having done, nor intending to do, much honour to Christendom;35 please write a letter for me about this so that I can send him to secure it.

Furthermore, most serene princes, because the sin of ingratitude was the first to be punished, I realise that because I do not have it I am always making requests of Your Highnesses about this business, without doubt it would not have happened without Villacorta, who whenever necessary petitioned and worked because I had become despondent and everybody who heard about it was tired of it. For this reason I beseech Your Highnesses to do me the favour of making him Senior Treasurer of the Indies, for I guarantee that he will do it well.36

So Your Highnesses should know that the first island of the Indies, nearest to Spain, is entirely populated by women, without a single man, and they do not behave like women; instead, they carry weapons and adopt other male habits; they carry bows and arrows and adorn themselves with copper plates, of which they have a great deal; this island they call Matinino.37

The second they call Caribo, [lacuna] leagues away; here live the people of whom all the rest of the Indies are fearful;38 they eat human flesh, are great archers, have many canoes, almost as big as galleys,39 with which they sail around all the islands of the Indies and they are so feared that they have no equal; they are as naked as the others, except that they wear their hair long as women do. I believe that the great cowardice of the people of the other islands, that is beyond remedy, makes them say that these Caribs are bold; but I hold them in the same esteem as the others, and when Your Highnesses order me to send you slaves, I expect to bring or send the majority of them from these people; these are the people who have dealings with the women of Matinino, and if they40 bear a girl they keep her with them, and if it is a boy, they bring him up until he can fend for himself, and then they send him to Caribo.

Between these islands of Caribo and Española there is another island they call Boriquen,41 and none of this is very far from the other part of the island of Juana, which they call Cuba; in the western part, in one of the two provinces I have not visited, which is called Faba,42 everyone is born with a tail.43

Beyond this island of Juana, and within sight, there is another than which these Indians assure me there is one greater which they call Jamaica, where all the people are without hair. On this island there is gold beyond measure, and I now have with me Indians who have been to both islands and know the language and customs.

No more, except may the Holy Trinity protect and promote Your Highnesses' royal estate, in its holy service. Dated on the Spanish sea, 4 March 1493. At sea.

layout text
1. layout text The fleet left the Canaries on 8 September and made landfall in the early morning of 12 October, making a journey of 35 days inclusive.
2. layout text The act of possession had many precedents in Roman and Germanic law and had often been used during the Reconquest and the colonisation of the Canaries (F. Morales Padrón, 'Descubrimiento y toma de posesión', Anuario de Estudios Americanos vii (1955), 321-80). It took a physical, symbolic form (cutting the branch of a tree, drinking water or eating fruit), and, to be valid in law, had to be witnessed, preferably by Crown representatives. In addition, those who were being dispossessed had themselves to give possession; hence the significance of Columbus's insistence that there had been no opposition. See Ife, Journal, p. xxiv and, for a sustained discussion of the implications of this act of possession, Greenblatt, Marvellous Possessions, pp. 52 ff.
3. layout text Of the nine or so candidates for the landfall island in the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos group, Watlings and Samana Cay have attracted the strongest support. The arguments have been summarised by John Parker in De Vorsey and Parker, In the Wake of Columbus, pp. 1-34 and in Fuson, Log, pp. 199-221. Columbus visited four main islands before reaching Cuba on 28 October. He called these islands San Salvador, Santa María de la Concepción, Fernandina, and Isabella. If the first island is assumed to be Watlings, the others are Rum Cay, Long Island and Crooked Island; if the first island is Samana Cay, the others are Crooked Island, Long Island and Fortune Island. All landfall theories involve stretching the evidence, and for an illustration of how far some are prepared to go, see Henige, In Search of Columbus, pt II, 'The historiographical debate'.
4. layout text Cuba, sighted on 28 October.
5. layout text Principally the Travels of Marco Polo, of which a Latin edition owned and annotated by Columbus survives in the Colombina Library in Seville.
6. layout text 31 October. For the implications of this decision see Hulme, Colonial Encounters, pp. 26 ff.
7. layout text See p. 49, n. 9.
8. layout text Río de Mares, now known as Puerto or Bahía de Gibara.
9. layout text The island of Hispaniola, now Haiti and the Dominican Republic, sighted on 5 December.
10. layout text In fact, the Santa María had been sunk on Christmas Day. For the circumstances surrounding the founding of Navidad see Introduction, pp. 16-18, and p. 33 below.
11. layout text Martín Alonso Pinzón deserted with the Pinta on 21 November, apparently in disgust at the slow progress and lack of significant reward on the voyage. He rejoined the Admiral on 6 January; it was therefore not strictly true that when Columbus began the return journey he had only one ship.
12. layout text Columbus several times records in the Diario that he could not sail for wind and bad weather.
13. layout text The text reads literally 'this king', although Columbus has not so far referred to any king. Columbus knew the native word cacique, but does not use it in the letter, preferring the more European 'rey', 'king'. The cacique was in fact the chief of a province.
14. layout text Compare the letter to Santángel, p. 59.
15. layout text On the linguistic condition of the islands see p. 55, n. 23.
16. layout text Note that 'cielo' also means 'sky'.
17. layout text Literally, 'they have had with them'. The first plural 'ayan' is more likely to have been the one written in error. The Santángel text reads 'que ayan hauido conmigo', 'they have had with me' at this point (p. 54).
18. layout text A castellano was worth 490 maravedis or 1.3 gold ducats, or, at modern gold prices, a little over £30 sterling.
19. layout text This point is expanded in the letter to Santángel, p. 53.
20. layout text Pico de Teide in Tenerife, at 12,198 ft., was three times higher than any mountain Columbus could have seen on the first voyage.
21. layout text Though Cuba is in fact longer than the British Isles, stretching some 11o E-W, it has just under half the surface area. Since Columbus's calculation is based on the length of the north coast his observation is more accurate than he is usually given credit for.
22. layout text The mastic with which Columbus was familiar was from the small evergreen tree Pistacia lentiscus. What they found on Cuba was probably the gumbo-limbo (Bursera simaruba). See Fuson, Log, p. 103.
23. layout text A little over £1,100,000 sterling at modern gold prices.
24. layout text A shrubby succulent plant of the familiy Liliaceae, native to Africa, whose juice is used as a purgative. It is not a native of the Caribbean. Columbus almost certainly confused this with the agave (family Agavaceae).
25. layout text Columbus first mentions the possibility of using the Indians as slaves in the Diario entries for 16 and 21 December, commenting on the readiness with which they carry out orders: 'son buenos para les mandar y les hazer trabajar sembrar y hazer todo lo otro que fuere menester', 'they are suitable to take orders and be made to work, sow and do anything else that may be needed' (Ife, Journal, pp. 132-135).
26. layout text Rhubarb was imported into the west from China during the middle ages and used as a medicinal purgative. It is not a native of the Caribbean.
27. layout text Cinnamon is not a native of the Caribbean, but Las Casas (I.45) thought that the wild pepper of the area ('ají') could have been confused with the oriental variety they were seeking.
28. layout text Columbus first reminds the Monarchs of his intention to put the profits of his enterprise towards funding another crusade in the Diario entry for 26 December (Ife, Journal, pp. 166, 167). This passage appears to be an expansion of that thought. On the millenarian background to this ambition see Phillips and Phillips, The Worlds of Christopher Columbus, especially pp. 38-41; West and Kling, eds., Libro de las profecías, p. 41 ff; Sale, Conquest of Paradise, pp. 188-191; Milhou, Colón y su mentalidad mesiánica; and Pauline Moffitt Watts, 'Prophesy and discovery: On the spiritual origins of Christopher Columbus's "Enterprise of the Indies"', American Historical Review, 90 (1985), 73-102.
29. layout text Columbus's marriage to Felipa Perestrello e Moniz in 1478 or 1479 had been an important step in his career. She came from a comfortable Portuguese family of Italian descent, and Columbus inherited the maps and papers her father had accumulated while he had been Captain of Porto Santo (see Phillips and Phillips, The Worlds of Christopher Columbus, pp. 97-99). Diego Columbus was born in 1480, and Felipa died in 1485. Columbus's second son Hernando was born in 1488 from his liaison with Beatriz Enríquez de Arana (pp. 126-127). As Rumeu de Armas points out (Libro copiador, I, p. 97) there is some imprecision about Columbus's accounts of his family. The phrase 'wife and children' here seems to telescope several phases of his life into one.
30. layout text The reference to seven years of obstacles and opprobrium is a common feature of Columbus's complaints about the way he was treated in the years leading up to the first voyage. C.f. the Diario entry for 14 January (Ife, Journal, pp. 196, 197) in which he documents to the day - 20 January 1485 - his first appearance in the Spanish court to propose his plan.
31. layout text It is not clear what substance there is to this claim. Negotiations with Portugal for funding and support appear to have been at Columbus's own instigation.
32. layout text The negative is missing in the MS but is required by the context.
33. layout text It is not clear to what Columbus is referring, bearing in mind that, at the time he was writing, the Monarchs had no knowledge of the outcome of the voyage.
34. layout text Presumably Diego, now twelve years old.
35. layout text Giovanni (1475-1521), second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, was given a cardinal's hat in 1489, soon after his fourteenth birthday. He became Pope Leo X in 1513.
36. layout text Pedro de Villacorta, sometimes known as Pedro de Villa, was one of the crew of the Santa María and was much praised by Columbus on at least two occasions. He is mentioned in the Diario entry for 14 February as having won one of the lotteries held on board the Niña during the great storm (Ife, Journal, pp. 216, 217). Villacorta also accompanied Columbus on the second voyage and was recommended for promotion in the memorandum which Columbus gave to Antonio de Torres for transmission to Their Majesties on 30 January 1494 (Varela, Textos, p. 161). Only as a result of this second recommendation was Villacorta appointed to the post of Treasurer, later that year. Columbus praised Villacorta again in a letter to Diego Columbus, dated 29 April, 1498 (Varela, Textos, p. 200).
37. layout text Martinique. The legend is associated with the classical female warriors, the Amazons, and with the passage in Marco Polo about the two islands of Masculina and Feminea: the men visit the women for three months of the year for procreation, and for the rest of the year the sexes live separately (Latham, ed. and trans., The Travels of Marco Polo, p. 252). Mandeville locates the land of Amazonia, or Feminea, beside the land of Chaldea, in the Middle East (Seymour, ed., Mandeville's Travels, pp. 119-121).
38. layout text Caribs. The distinction between the supposedly timid Arawaks and the supposedly warlike Caribs is fundamental to Columbus's understanding of the cultural geography of the Indies. For an account of the differences between the two ethnic groups see Sauer, Early Spanish Main, pp. 5-6.
39. layout text C.f. the letter to Santángel, p. 55 and n. 22.
40. layout text I.e. the women. The Spanish text here, as elsewhere, is grammatically incorrect, and should read 'las quales'.
41. layout text Puerto Rico.
42. layout text Columbus mentions Faba in the Diario entry for 30 October, where it is described as the land, or city, of the Great Khan (Ife, Journal, pp. 62, 63).
43. layout text Marco Polo (Travels, p. 217) mentions men with tails in the kingdom of Lambri, a territory said to be subject to the Great Khan.




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