Christopher Columbus’ Letter

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Christopher Columbus’ letter describing his first voyage to the New World had become a welcome addition to the European literary tradition. He depicted the New World as a ”promised land” of idyllic beauty, opportunity, and great hope.

He described the islands in New World as “And they said Juana and the other islands there appear very fertile. This island is surrounded by many very safe and wide harbors, not excelled by any others that I have ever seen. Many great and salubrious rivers flow through it. There are also many very high mountains there. All these islands are very beautiful, and distinguished by various qualities.”

In this same letter, he praised the Native Americans he encountered, the Taíno or Arawak. He wrote with such amazement regarding the friendly innocence and beauty of these peace-loving Indians that he coined the enduring myth of the Noble Savage. “These people have no religious beliefs, nor are they idolaters. They are very gentle and do not know what evil is; nor do they kill others, nor steal; and they are without weapons.”. There was no blood shed on the first voyage. He aimed to convert the said Indians to Christianity not by force but through love.

The announcement Christopher Columbus’ in 1493 made regarding the success of his voyage westward across the Atlantic Ocean rapidly became one of the earliest ‘best sellers’ of European publishing. The clamor for his accounts contained in the letters was so popular that they published eleven editions in 1493 alone! The copies of his letters were distributed all over Western Europe, in Spain, Italy, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. Six more editions came about in the period 1494-97. But these copies unfortunately did not survive through the ages. As a matter of fact, it is rare to find them today. Some editions survive with just one copy with no more than a total of 80 existing copies for all the editions.

Christopher Columbus’ letter had undergone extremely fast distribution through its first 17 published editions. Since it is impossible to date all the editions accurately, one can only trace the basic pattern of the dispersal of this latest discovery to the major urban centers of Western Europe.

The first printed letter that came out from the publisher was the one Columbus had originally written at sea on February 15th, 1493. The postscript, as disclosed by the printer, was dated Lisbon March 14th, 1493, and was addressed to the “escriuano deraciõ” (modern Spanish: ‘escribano de Racion’), the secretary of the royal treasury, who was Luis de Santángel. The postscript also indicates that this letter was accompanied by another letter which Columbus addressed to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

The popularity of Columbus’s Letter can be clearly gauged in the fact that it was translated to Italian verse. It was probably the first Plannck edition to be ever translated. Leonardo Dati made the translation, upon the request of Giovanni Filippo dal Legname (Delignamine). The latter was the private secretary to Ferdinand of Spain. The translated Italian verse came out in Rome in June, 1493.

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