I first heard that snippet of doggerel back in the old pre-political correctness days when I was in grammar school. To the best of my ability to determine it dates from at least 1892 when it was published in the Miami Herald. It might be older or it might have been written for the four hundredth anniversary. But that’s not the subject of my post today.
What did Columbus do and how do we know? We have two primary sources for Columbus’s first voyage: the letter he wrote to Luis de Santángel on his arrival back in Spain and his journal.
Apparently, the first thing that Columbus did when he returned to Spain was to send a letter describing his voyage to Luis de Santángel. Contrary to popular belief it was not Isabella who had financed Columbus’s voyage but Santángel whose family had converted from Judaism to Catholicism a couple of generations before, in all likelihood one step ahead of the Inquisition. The original of the letter has been lost but it was published on February 15, 1493 in a folio edition. Only a single copy of that work survives; all translations, facsimiles, etc. appear to be derived from it. It is in the possession of the New York Public Library and I’ve reproduced a copy of one page of the letter on the left. You can read an English translation of the letter here. It isn’t very long and much of the letter is devoted to likely trade goods or booty: gold, spices, birds, slaves.
Much of what we think we know is derived from Columbus’s journal but thereby hangs a tale. There were originally two copies of the journal: one in Columbus’s possession and a copy he made for Ferdinand and Isabella. Neither of these manuscript versions is extant. What we know of the journal we owe to a Dominican priest named Bartolomé de las Casas.
When las Casas was eight or nine years old, he witnessed Columbus’s return to Seville after his first voyage. Several of las Casas’s relatives including his father went on Columbus’s second voyage with him and las Casas and his family were early emigrants to Hispaniola in 1502. When he grew up las Casas became a Dominican priest and was instrumental in the movement opposing slavery of the native peoples in the New World.
las Casas’s main contribution to history is the epitome he made of Columbus’s journal. This was taken for many years as a copy of the journal but further analysis is increasingly demonstrating that the las Casas work is actually an adaptation of the journal. I have never read las Casas’s book, Historia de las Indias. It would be interesting to compare it with the journal to see if we could discern how he adapted the work. Another of his works, Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies is available through Project Gutenberg. Here’s the sub-title:
a faithful NARRATIVE OF THE Horrid and Unexampled Massacres, Butcheries, and all manner of Cruelties, that Hell and Malice could invent, committed by the Popish Spanish Party on the inhabitants of West-India, TOGETHER With the Devastations of several Kingdoms in America by Fire and Sword, for the space of Forty and Two Years, from the time of its first Discovery by them.
which may give you the general idea.
Therefore, I think the answer to my original question is that we don’t really know a great deal about what Columbus actually did and that the source we’ve relied on for what we do know is probably colored to suit the objectives of someone who is strongly suspected of exaggerating to support his advocacy.
Today Columbus is probably best thought of as the European who first established continuing contact with the New World, the first of a wave of Europeans who would inevitably visit or, in some cases, settle in the Americas. As an American who is descended from Europeans who arrived some 300 or so years later, I’m grateful for that.