The Man from Genoa
The first big thing I learned about Columbus that I was never taught in school is that he is not Spanish. He is technically Genoese, which is now part of Italy. While that isn’t particularly important to the overall story, I thought it was interesting.
During the Age of Exploration, when everyone and their mother was looking for a new way to the far east, Columbus had an idea he wanted to test out.
He believed, based on Marco Polo’s work as well as other documents, that he could sail west and reach Asia that way. He and his brothers approached several governments to secure funding for their voyage, but they were rejected by all of them. Portugal, Genoa, Venice, and Spain all said no.
But, the Spanish king and queen (Ferdinand and Isabella) were intrigued. They still rejected the voyage, but they paid Columbus a massive amount of money to standby and not take his plans to any other countries.
When Spain finished its centuries long crusade, the Reconquista, they gave Columbus his funding. He was given three ships (yes, the famous Niña, Pinta, and Santa María) all the money he needed, the right to 10% of the wealth he found, and governorship over any settlements established for Spain. His goals were to sail west and land in Cathay, spread Christianity, establish Spanish settlements if he found unclaimed land, and send as much wealth back to Spain as he could.
The First Voyage (1492-1493)
As basically everyone in the US knows thanks to the rhyme, Columbus set sail in 1492, heading west across the Atlantic. What I think gets overlooked in a lot teaching is that this was just his first voyage west. The first of four.
Something cool about this first voyage is that there are actual letters and journals written by Columbus about this trip that we are able to read today. I’ll be quoting them throughout, but I highly recommend reading them for yourself at some point, it is worth the time if you find this interesting.
Anyway, in 1492 Columbus set sail with his three ships and after a few brief stops along the way, they set out into the Atlantic. I’ll let him tell you about the arrival.
“On the thirty-third day after leaving Cadiz I came into the Indian Sea, where I discovered many islands inhabited by numerous people. I took possession of all of them for our most fortunate King by making public proclamation and unfurling his standard, no one making any resistance. To the first of them I have given the name of our blessed Saviour, whose aid I have reached this and all the rest; but the Indians call it Guanahani.”
–Christopher Columbus in his 1493 letter
So 33 days after setting sail, they had made their way to “the Indian Sea,” which it is worth noting is actually the Caribbean. They found numerous people, giving them the title of Indians, and claiming their island of Guanahani for themselves and renaming it El Salvador (The Savior).
For a lot of this first voyage, Columbus was just sailing around, meeting more “Indians” and looking for gold and other valuables to return home with. He claimed and named a lot of islands, all while looking for a way through to Cathay, India.
In 1493, he sailed back to Spain to report on his findings. He left behind a few dozen men to establish a fort called La Navidad (The Nativity) and took seven Indians back with him for the purpose of teaching them spanish.
All in all, his first voyage to the New World was short compared to the later voyages, but it is important for what it set in motion and also for the primary sources we have available through his journals and letter.
This next section will be a lot of excerpts from his journals and analysis of what it all means. No better source than the man himself, right?
The journals begin on August 3rd, 1492 with them leaving “from the bar of Saltes, at 8 o’clock” and there are small entries nearly everyday. Most just simple notes about ship repairs, course adjustments, etc.
Things become more interesting on October 11th and 12th, 1492. This was the day they saw signs of land, and also the first encounter with the indigenous people.
You can see the relief described as they began to see signs of land, after so long at sea.
“The crew of the Pinta saw a cane and a log; they also picked up a stick which appeared to have been carved with an iron tool, a piece of cane, a plant which grows on land, and a board. The crew of the Nina saw other signs of land, and a stalk loaded with rose berries. These signs encouraged them, and they all grew cheerful. Sailed this day till sunset, twenty-seven leagues.”Christopher Columbus’ Journal – October 11th, 1492
On the 12th there is the first mention of the indigenous people by Columbus and the first use of the term Indian to describe them.
“they arrived at a small island of the Lucayos, called, in the language of the Indians, Guanahani. Presently, they saw naked people.”Christopher Columbus’ Journal – October 12th, 1492
Columbus then details sending ashore his Admiral and a group of other men, carrying the spanish banners and standards. Which is another thing I wasn’t told in school is that Columbus wasn’t among the original group to go ashore and meet the natives.
A few paragraphs after this we get Columbus quoting the report written by the Admiral who had gone ashore.
“Here follow the precise words of the Admiral: ‘As I saw that they were very friendly to us, and perceived that they could be much more easily converted to our holy faith by gentle means than by force, I presented them with some red caps, and strings of beads to wear upon the neck, and many other trifles of small value, wherewith they were much delighted, and became wonderfully attached to us. Afterwards they came swimming to the boats, bringing parrots, balls of cotton thread, javelins, and many other things which they exchanged for articles we gave them, such as glass beads, and hawk’s bells; which trade was carried on with the utmost good will. But they seemed on the whole to me, to be a very poor people. They all go completely naked, even the women, though I saw but one girl. All whom I saw were young, not above thirty years of age, well made, with fine shapes and faces; their hair short, and coarse like that of a horse’s tail, combed toward the forehead, except a small portion which they suffer to hang down behind, and never cut. Some paint themselves with black, which makes them appear like those of the Canaries, neither black nor white; others with white, others with red, and others with such colors as they can find. Some paint the face, and some the whole body; others only the eyes, and others the nose. Weapons they have none, nor are acquainted with them, for I showed them swords which they grasped by the blades, and cut themselves through ignorance. They have no iron, their javelins being without it, and nothing more than sticks, though some have fish-bones or other things at the ends. They are all of a good size and stature, and handsomely formed. I saw some with scars of wounds upon their bodies, and demanded by signs the of them; they answered me in the same way, that there came people from the other islands in the neighborhood who endeavored to make prisoners of them, and they defended themselves. I thought then, and still believe, that these were from the continent. It appears to me, that the people are ingenious, and would be good servants and I am of opinion that they would very readily become Christians, as they appear to have no religion. They very quickly learn such words as are spoken to them. If it please our Lord, I intend at my return to carry home six of them to your Highnesses, that they may learn our language. I saw no beasts in the island, nor any sort of animals except parrots.‘ These are the words of the Admiral.”Christopher Columbus’ Journal – October 12th, 1492
This quote, coming from Columbus’ Admiral is the first sign we really see of the things coming in the future. Worth noting though, that I often see this quote attributed to Columbus himself, when it does seem to have been his Admiral. That being said, there is no evidence in the journal or elsewhere to suggest that Columbus didn’t agree with his Admiral’s assessment here.
This is where we see that the Spanish colonists are already beginning to view the indigenous people as potentially easy converts and even potentially as slave labor. It is also where we see the first bit of kidnapping with the mention of carrying six home to learn spanish.
The next day, October 13th, is a long entry from Columbus detailing more interactions with the indigenous people. They spent the whole day with people rowing out to their ships to trade. For length sake I won’t put the whole except, but just a snippet or two to see how Columbus was feeling about the natives.
“They came loaded with balls of cotton, parrots, javelins, and other things too numerous to mention; these they exchanged for whatever we chose to give them. I was very attentive to them, and strove to learn if they had any gold. Seeing some of them with little bits of this metal hanging at their noses, I gathered from them by signs that by going southward or steering round the island in that direction, there would be found a king who possessed large vessels of gold, and in great quantities. I endeavored to procure them to lead the way thither, but found they were unacquainted with the route.”
“The natives are an inoffensive people, and so desirous to possess any thing they saw with us, that they kept swimming off to the ships with whatever they could find, and readily bartered for any article we saw fit to give them in return, even such as broken platters and fragments of glass. I saw in this manner sixteen balls of cotton thread which weighed above twenty-five pounds, given for three Portuguese ceutis. This traffic I forbade, and suffered no one to take their cotton from them, unless I should order it to be procured for your Highnesses, if proper quantities could be met with.”Christopher Columbus’ Journal – October 13th, 1492
To give a fair image of Columbus we have to acknowledge that he did seem to be trying to prevent his men from taking advantage of the natives in the beginning, but we also have to bear in mind that this is him writing about himself, so he may be painting himself in a kinder light. Given the upcoming shift in treatment of natives, it is hard to take this initial interaction without a grain of salt. Either way, he was now aware of gold and believed a “king” held it, so they would soon set off to other islands in search of the gold.
In his entry on October 14th there is a bit that gives me pause and I believe shows a shift in Columbus’ view of the indigenous people.
“Presently we discovered two or three villages, and the people all came down to the shore, calling out to us, and giving thanks to God. Some brought us water, and others victuals: others seeing that I was not disposed to land, plunged into the sea and swam out to us, and we perceived that they interrogated us if we had come from heaven. An old man came on board my boat; the others, both men and women cried with loud voices–‘Come and see the men who have come from heavens. Bring them victuals and drink.’”Christopher Columbus’ Journal – October 14th, 1492
Why this gives me pause is that we know from the journals, and from logic, that the natives and the spanish explorers were not speaking the same language. Columbus even mentions that they are communicating through signs. So the assertion that a man proclaimed them as being from the heavens seems a bit odd. I believe it shows a subtle shift toward Columbus viewing the natives as more and more of a group to be conquered, but admittedly that is just how I am reading it.
Either way, I think it is a good reminder that we have to read these types of documents with a critical eye. Columbus can claim the natives loved them and thought they were from heaven, but did they really? Maybe. But maybe not.
That same day, the 14th, we get an even more troubling update on the relations with natives.
“I do not, however, see the necessity of fortifying the place, as the people here are simple in war-like matters, as your Highnesses will see by those seven which I have ordered to be taken and carried to Spain in order to learn our language and return, unless your Highnesses should choose to have them all transported to Castile, or held captive in the island. I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men, and govern them as I pleased.”Christopher Columbus’ Journal – October 14th, 1492
Not only do we have the confirmation that Columbus has taken seven natives captive for taking to Spain, we also have the idea that he is thinking about how easily conquerable the natives would be, if needed.
Admittedly, you could potentially read part of that as Columbus taking voluntary natives who wished to learn, but that notion is put to bed rather quickly as on the 15th his entry talks about them wishing to escape.
“About sunset we anchored near the cape which terminates the island towards the west to enquire for gold, for the natives we had taken from San Salvador told me that the people here wore golden bracelets upon their arms and legs. I believed pretty confidently that they had invented this story in order to find means to escape from us, still I determined to pass none of these islands without taking possession, because being once taken, it would answer for all times.”Christopher Columbus’ Journal – October 15th, 1492
I will stop quoting now because this post is going to get too long and I have probably already lost most people.
Why this matters
Columbus matters a lot because he was the catalyst for a lot of European exploration of the New World. While he may not have ever truly understood what he found in his voyages, it still opened up the Americas for further exploration and colonization.
So that makes him a complicated figure to talk about. Without him, the American continents would likely not look like what we live in today, and so in that way he was and is an important figure in our shared history. Does that excuse him from critical analysis though? I don’t think so.
I think it is vital to acknowledge the ways Columbus’ voyages shaped and changed world history, good and bad.
I also think it matters because if we step outside of ourselves for a moment, we can see that Columbus (and future explorers too) dramatically changed the lives and worlds of the natives he came across. They were abused, taken advantage of, and eventually enslaved. Not to mention the damage European diseases did to their populations.
While he was undoubtedly the hero of the story as told by Europeans, he was the villain of the same story told by the indigenous people. Which I think lends helpful context to the more modern debates surrounding Columbus Day and whether or not Columbus deserves to be celebrated the way he sometimes is.
Sources & Additional Reading:
Excerpts from Columbus’ Journals