Little Bits of History

February 15

Posted in History by patriciahysell on February 15, 2017

1493: Christopher Columbus writes an open letter discussing his discovery. The Genoese sailor had left Spain under the Crown of Castile in August 1492 to discover a faster way to China. His inaccurate mathematics led him to believe the circumference of the world was much smaller and there was a good chance he could sail westward to reach the Far East. Luckily for him, there is a large landmass in the way. He did not, as he had intended and thoroughly believed he did, land in the East Indies. Instead, he landed on several Caribbean islands in what would eventually come to be known as the Americas. After a few months of travelling in the Gulf of Mexico, he boarded the Nina on January 15, 1493, and sailed back to Spain to tell of his adventures. On February 14, they ran into a storm which damaged this ship.

Surviving the storm but unsure of reaching port, Columbus wrote an account of what they had found, calling them the “islands of the Indies”. He wrote two versions of the missive. The first in Spanish to be delivered to Luis de Santangel (a major financier of the trip) and a second in Latin was sent to Barcelona and the King and Queen. Many copies were made and translations were also made for those not able to work with the Latin or Spanish versions. The printing press had only recently been brought online and so it was possible to print out thousands of copies, making this a veritable best seller of its day.

Columbus called the region he discovered “India beyond the Ganges” which was what we might call Indonesia. They were the islands outside of the subcontinent proper, called “India within the Ganges”. The letter does not describe the voyage itself but skips right to the wonders found at the end of the journey. He stated how he renamed six of the islands he landed on and gave rather florid and not-quite-accurate descriptions of the land and people already there. He talked much about Cuba and Hispaniola making them sound perfect for future colonization. He claimed there was much gold to be found, as well.

He claimed the natives were docile and without government or religions of any kind, although they were said to have believed the Europeans were delivered from the heavens. He didn’t want to discount them completely and vouched for their ability to work, both men and women. He noted that he was told of cannibals in the region but disregarded it as a myth and assured his readers he did not see any. He finished his letter and added a postscript in Lisbon on March 4 when they put to port there to repair the ship before sailing back to Barcelona. He sent his letters ahead of him.

Riches don’t make a man rich, they only make him busier.

I saw a boy of the crew purchasing javelins of them with bits of platters and broken glass.

The Indians on board said that thence to Cuba was a voyage in their canoes of a day and a half; these being small dug-outs without a sail. Such are their canoes. I departed thence for Cuba, for by the signs the Indians made of its greatness, and of its gold and pearls, I thought that it must be Cipango.

For the execution of the voyage to the Indies, I did not make use of intelligence, mathematics or maps. – all from Christopher Columbus


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