The explorer is widely thought of as an exploiter today, and didn’t know east from west. But a version of his boastful missive is expected to fetch up to £1.2m at auction.
Donna Ferguson The Guardian – In 1493, Christopher Columbus wrote a letter that would change the landscape of the modern world. “I sailed to the Indies with the fleet that the illustrious King and Queen, our sovereigns, gave me, where I discovered a great many islands, inhabited by numberless people,” he wrote after his return to Europe to royal treasurer Luis de Santángel. “Of all, I have taken possession for their Highnesses.”
The events relayed in the letter were “the first report of a voyage that really did change the world”, says Columbus biographer Professor Felipe Fernández-Armesto.
Now a rare 1493 Latin translation of this letter, printed on an early printing press to swiftly convey news of Columbus’s “discoveries” to elite Europeans, is expected to fetch up to £1.2m ($1.5m) at a Christie’s auction this month.
Columbus had no idea that, at the time, he was the first European since the Vikings to encounter North America – he thought he had travelled to islands near Japan. But his voyage created, for the first time, “a viable, commercially exploitable route” across the Atlantic and opened up communications between long-sundered cultures on either side of the ocean, Fernández-Armesto says.
The letter praises the rich natural assets of the islands Columbus encountered, and he portrays the “extraordinarily timid” native people he met there as “so unsuspicious and so generous” they are “like fools”. It is now seen by historians as a piece of propaganda that heralds the start of the European colonisation of the New World.
By exploiting the resources of this apparently “new” hemisphere, European countries would finally start to catch up with China, Islamic nations and India in power and wealth – while also enslaving and exploiting people all over the globe. “Like him or not, you can’t deny Columbus’s importance,” Fernández-Armesto says.
The document has been in a private Swiss collection for nearly a century and is described by Christie’s as “the earliest obtainable edition of Columbus’s letter”, whose international publication triggered one of the first “media frenzies” for the printed word.
“The significance of the letter is its wide diffusion, thanks to the printing press,” says Professor Geoffrey Symcox from the University of California, Los Angeles. Using what was then cutting-edge technology, the Spanish crown sent copies to the courts of Europe to stake Spain’s claim,says Symcox. “The news circulated rapidly, not just through diplomatic channels but mercantile channels as well.”
The impact of the text demonstrates just how good Columbus was at public relations, according to the Cuban-American medieval historian Professor Teo Ruiz: “He made sure everybody knew what he had done: that he had reached the islands of the Indies [a collective term for India and the Far East] by sailing westwards. Which, of course, was not true.”
Earlier explorers had been unwilling to sail west because they didn’t dare risk being unable to return home. But Columbus, who was the son of a weaver and self-taught as an explorer, had made a series of wild calculations without standardising measurements, and concluded the world was 25% smaller than it is. He then convinced the Spanish monarchs, King Ferdinand II and Isabella I, to provide him with a fleet of ships so he could sail west and find a new sea route to Asia, which would prevent Portugal from having a monopoly on the spice trade.
In a classic case of confirmation bias, as soon as he reached land, he claimed to be in the far east. In fact, he had arrived in the West Indies. Then he visited Cuba, Haiti and San Domingo. “He just bumped into these islands. He did not know and could not even imagine they were there,” says Ruiz
An intrepid sailor, Columbus had managed to capitalise on the Earth’s prevailing winds by charting a south-western course to the American continent via the Canary Islands. In doing so, he unwittingly demonstrated how following winds offered new opportunities for long-range navigation and trade, initiating what became known as “the Columbian Exchange”: the irreversible transfer of people, flora, fauna, diseases, ideas and commodities across the Atlantic.
“What he did achieve, he didn’t recognise he’d done,” says Professor William Phillips, a Columbus expert at the University of Minnesota. As for Columbus’s letter, “it was self-promotion and propaganda” – a 15th-century example of fake news.
It also marks one of the earliest appearances of the “noble savage” archetype. Columbus’s letter, Symcox says, portrays the naked Indigenous people he meets as “guileless innocents living a simple life in the forest – and thus ripe for the civilising mission that Europeans took upon themselves in their dealings with peoples in the Americas and Africa”.
Later, as a brutal colonial governor and viceroy, Columbus would systematically exploit the Taíno people of the Caribbean, forcing them to mine gold and deliver quotas on pain of harsh punishment. Hundreds were enslaved by Columbus and shipped to Spain to be sold, and others were massacred or subjected to extreme violence and cruelty.
Some also caught deadly diseases such as smallpox and measles, brought by the Spaniards. It is estimated that, within a few decades of Columbus’ arrival, most of the Taíno had died from enslavement, massacre or disease.
Now the darker side of the European intrusion into the Americas is better known, Phillips says, Columbus has come to be seen by historians as “the first of the exploiters rather than the first of the explorers”.
In the US, Columbus statues and monuments have been torn down and vandalised, and many states no longer recognise Columbus Day, a federal holiday, choosing instead to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day.