Christopher Columbus

The First Voyage


“Prima Colubiin Indian Nauigatio.Anno 1492,” Americae Pars Qvarta, 1590, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, E141.B9 oversize rare.

Columbus left Spain in 1492 with three ships: the Niña, the Piñta, and the Santa María. After a brief stop in the Canary Islands, Columbus and his crew began their journey across the Atlantic on September 6. On October 12, land was sighted. Columbus gave the first island he landed on the name San Salvador, although the native population called it Guanahani. He believed he had reached Asia, although he didn’t recognize exactly where in Asia. Of course, he was really in America. His first impressions of the native people of the island were very positive and he describes them as very timid, not warlike at all.

Columbus continued to explore, and in addition to San Salvador, he spent time in Cuba and in Hispaniola. He firmly believed that he was in Asia. He even proposed that the island of Cuba was a part of China. He wrote in a letter to Luis de Sant’Angel:

“When I reached Juana (Cuba), I followed its coast westwardly, and found it so large that I thought it might be mainland, the province of Cathay (China).”

He made several remarks in this same letter about the people he encountered on the island of Hispaniola, and the ways his crew was to have dealings with them. When he encountered the natives of Hispaniola, these were his first impressions:

“The people of this island (Hispaniola), and of all the others that I have found and seen, or not seen, all go naked, men and women, just as their mothers bring them forth; although some women cover a single place with the leaf of a plant, or a cotton something which they make for that purpose. They have no iron or steel, nor any weapons; nor are they fit thereunto; not because they be not a well-formed people and of fair stature, but that they are most wondrously timorous. They have no other weapons than the stems of reeds in their seeding state, on the end of which they fix little sharpened stakes. Even these, they dare not use; for as many times as it happened that I sent two or three men ashore to some village to parley, and countless numbers of them sallied forth, but as soon as they saw those approach, they fled away in such wise that even a father would not wait for his son. And this was not because any hurt had ever been done to any of them: - on the contrary, at every headland where I have gone and been able to hold speech with them, I gave them everything which I had, as well cloth as many other things, without accepting aught therefore; - but such they are, incurably timid.”

Knowing that sailors sometimes tricked people who were unfamiliar with the value of European goods, he tried to closely regulate trade between the natives of Hispaniola and the crew:

“I forbade that anything so worthless as fragments of broken platters, and pieces of broken glass, and strap buckles, should be given them; although when they were able to get such things, they seemed to think they had the best jewel in the world, for it was the hap of a sailor to get, in exchange for a strap, gold the weight of two and a half castellanos, and others much more for things of far less value; while for new blancas they gave everything they had, even though it were the worth of two or three gold castellanos, or one or two arrobas of spun cotton.”

Columbus had high hopes for the natives. He believed that they could easily be converted to Christianity:

“…furthermore may become Christians; for they are inclined to the love and service of their Highnesses and all of the Castilian nation, and they strive to combine in giving us things which they have in abundance, and of which we are in need.”

When they reacted with such astonishment to the Spanish, Columbus understood that the Spanish must appear as unusual to the natives as the natives appeared to them:

“And this comes not because they are ignorant: on the contrary, they are men of very subtle wit, who navigate all those seas, and who give a marvelously good account of everything, but because they never saw men wearing clothes nor the like of our ships.”

He was also interested in the manner in which the people traveled:

“They have in all the islands very many canoas, after the manner of rowing-galleys, some larger, some smaller; and a good many are larger than a galley of eighteen benches. They are not so wide, because they are made of a single log of timber, but a galley could not keep up with them in rowing, for their motion is a thing beyond belief.”

Columbus also wrote carefully of the people. Rather than creating fantastical creatures, he wrote only about what he saw. There was a surprising lack of “unusual” people:

“Down to the present, I have not found in those islands any monstrous men, as many expected, but on the contrary all the people are very comely; nor are they black like those in Guinea, but have flowing hair; and they are not begotten where there is an excessive violence of the rays of the sun.”

His attitude towards the native people changed over the years. On this first voyage, Columbus believed he had landed in “the Indies,” a part of Asia that had useful goods, even though they were not the goods he had originally planned on finding. He wrote to the King and Queen of Spain to tell them exactly how he felt the island of Hispaniola should be used:

Letter from Columbus to Ferdinand and Isabella Concerning the Colonization and Commerce of Espanola.

Most High and powerful Lords: In obedience to what your Highnesses command me, I shall state what occurs to me for the peopling and management of the Spanish Island and of all others, whether already discovered or hereafter to be discovered, submitting myself, however, to any better opinion.

In the first place, in regard to the Spanish Island: that there should go there settlers up to the number of two thousand who may want to go so as to render the possession of the country safer and cause it to be more profitable and helpful in the intercourse and traffic with the neighboring islands.

Likewise, that in the said island three or four towns be founded at convenient places, and the settlers be properly distributed among said places and towns.

Likewise, in order to secure the better and prompter settlement of the said island, that the privilege of getting gold be granted exclusively to those who actually settle and build dwelling0houses in the settlement where they may be, in order that all may live close to each other and more safely.

Likewise, that in each place and settlement there be a mayor or mayors and a clerk according to the use and custom of Castile.

Likewise, that a church be built, and that priests or friars be sent there for the administration of the sacraments, and for divine worship and the conversion of the Indians.

Likewise, that no settler be allowed to go and gather gold unless with a permit from the governor or mayor of the town in which he lives, to be given only upon his promising under oath to return to the place of his residence and faithfully report all the gold which he may have gathered, this to be done once a month, or once a week, as the time may be assigned to him, the said report to be entered on the proper registry by the clerk of the town in the presence of the mayor, and if so deemed advisable, in the presence of the friar or priest selected for that purpose.

Likewise, that all the gold so gathered may be melted forthwith, and stamped with such a stamp as the town may have devised and selected, and that it be weighed and that the share of that gold which belongs to your Highness be given and delivered to the mayor of the town, the proper record thereof being made by the clerk and by the priest or friar, so that it may not pass through only one hand and may so render the concealing of the truth impossible.

Likewise, that all gold which may be found without the mark or seal aforesaid in the possession of any one who formerly had reported once as aforesaid, be forfeited and divided by halves, one for the informer and the other for your Highness.

Likewise, that one per cent of all the gold gathered be set apart and appropriated for building churches, and providing for their proper furnishing and ornamentation, and to the support of the priests or friars having them in their charge, and, if so deemed advisable, for the payment of some compensation to the mayors and clerks of the respective towns, so as to cause them to fulfill their duties faithfully, and that the balance be delivered to the governor and treasurer sent there by your Highnesses.

Likewise, in regard to the division of the gold and of the share which belongs to your Highnesses, I am of the opinion that it should be entrusted to the said governor and treasurer, because the amount of the gold found may sometimes be large and sometimes small, and, if so deemed advisable, that the share of your Highnesses be established for one year to be one-half, the other half going to the gatherers, reserving for a future time to make some other and better provision, if necessary.

Likewise, that if the mayors and clerks commit any fraud or consent to it, the proper punishment be inflicted upon them, and that a penalty be likewise imposed upon those settlers who do not report in full the whole amount of the gold which is in their possession.

Likewise, that there be a treasurer in the said island, who shall receive all the gold belonging to your Highnesses, and shall have a clerk to make and keep the proper record of the receipts, and that the mayors and clerks of the respective towns be given the proper vouchers for everything which they may deliver to the said treasurer.

Likewise, that whereas the extreme anxiety of the colonists to gather gold may induce them to neglect all other business and occupations, it seems to me that prohibition should be made them to engage in the search of gold during some season of the year, so as to give all other business, profitable to the island, an opportunity to be established and carried on.

Likewise, that as far as the business of discovering other lands is concerned, it is my opinion that permission to do so should be made to them to engage in the search of gold during some season of the year, so as to give all other business, profitable to the island, an opportunity to be established and carried on.

Likewise, that as far as the business of discovering other lands is concerned, it is my opinion that permission to do so should be given to everyone who designs to embark in it, and that some liberality should be shown in reducing the fifth to be given away, so as to encourage as many as possible for entering into such undertakings.

And now I shall set forth my opinion as to the manner of sending vessels to the said Spanish Island, and the regulation of this subject which must be made, which is as follows: That no vessels should be allowed to unload their cargoes except at one or two ports designated for that purpose, and that a record should be made of all that they carry and unload; and that no vessels should be allowed either to leave the island except from the same ports, after a record has been made also of all that they have taken on board, so that nothing can be concealed.

Likewise, in regard to the gold to be brought from the island to Castile, that the whole of it, whether belonging to your Highnesses or to some private individual, must be kept in a chest, with two keys, one to be kept by the master of the vessel and the other by some person chosen by the governor and the treasurer, and that an official record must be made of everything put in the said chest, in order that each one may have what is his, and that any other gold, much or little, found outside of the said chest in any manner be forfeited to the benefit of your Highnesses, so as to cause the transaction to be made faithfully.

Likewise, that all vessels coming from the said island must come to unload to the port of Cadiz, and that no person shall be allowed to leave the vessels or get in them until such person or persons of the said city as may be appointed for this purpose by your Highnesses go on board the same vessels, to whom the masters must declare all that they have brought, and show the statement of everything they have in the cargoes, so that it may be seen and proved whether the said ships have brought anything hidden and not declared in the manifests at the time of shipment.

Likewise, that in the presence of the Justice of the said city of Cadiz and of whosoever may be deputed for the purpose by your Highnesses, the said chest shall be opened in which the gold is brought and that to each one is given what belongs to him.

May your Highnesses keep me in their minds, while I, on my part, shall ever pray to God our Lord to preserve the lives of your Highnesses and enlarge their dominions.

In January of 1493, Columbus sailed back to Europe. Enduring rough seas, he was forced to land in Portugal. Relations between Spain and Portugal were not good at the time, and Columbus was not allowed to continue on to Spain. This did not look good to Ferdinand and Isabella; they suspected that Columbus was taking valuable information or maybe goods to Portugal, the country he had lived in for several years. Those who stood against Columbus would later use this as an argument against him. Eventually, though, Columbus was allowed to return to Spain. He brought with him tobacco, turkey, and some new spices. He also brought with him several natives of the islands, of whom Queen Isabella grew very fond.