The foundation of America is commonly known as one of the major developments in the history of our planet and is accredited to a man named Christopher Columbus, who therefor became a symbol of achievement. Columbus is associated with exploration, science, and progress and stands for everything people admire. The fact that his way to glory caused the suffering and death of millions of people is often forgotten preventing his image from losing its function as a role model. Analyzing primary, literary sources, however, we are able to get a decent look on the person of Christopher Columbus and his motives. Starting with (2.1) essential background knowledge on the circumstances of his time and continuing with (2.2) information about Columbus and his journey, this paper will address (2.3) Columbus’s motives and show that despite his utmost efforts of presenting himself and his actions in a favorable way, Columbus’s Letter to Lord Raphael Sanchez, Treasurer of Ferdinand and Isabella, King and Queen of Spain on His first Voyage (1493) reveals subtextual flaws of the heroic Columbus foreshadowing the negative impact of his actions.
2 The Story of Christopher Columbus
In current times events on one continent have a direct influence on the other continents whether it is for good or bad. Starting in the 15 th century, these connections developed quite recently and in some sense can be retraced to Christopher Columbus and his voyages (cf. Phillips et al. 1992: 1). Back in the early days of Christopher Columbus, Europe, Africa, and Asia were each part of the Old Wolrd of the eastern hemisphere, however, they were separated culturally, religiously, and politically. Being connected by sea and land routes the people of the Old World were aware of one another’s existence. The western hemisphere, on the other hand, was completely seperated from the Old World. Columbus unplanned discovery of America – actually he was looking for a way to Asia sailing west – shattered the isolation of the Old – and the New World. Different authors such as Phillips and Phillips state that Columbus’s voyages are “arguably the most fateful encounter between disparate human groups that history has ever known” (Phillips et al. 2
1992: 1). Especially, the fact that advanced civilization had already existed for thousands of years make this discovery so important because due to this all great civilizations of our planet became aware of one another for the first time in human history (cf. Phillips et al. 1992: 3). Although Columbus’s achievements were unintended he is commonly praised as a hero for his discovery but even though it was significant for the development of our planet we have to keep in mind that many people suffered under the impact of Columbus’s actions.
2.2 Columbus and His Journey
Christopher Columbus was born and raised in Genoa, Italy. His early seafaring experience was obtained in the service of the Portuguese (cf. Brinkley 1999: 13). His obsession with the idea of finding Asia by sailing west (cf. Penguin Classics, ed. Giles Gunn, 1994: 25) did not get any supporters there, so he turned to Spain where he found support from King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile. With their approval Columbus commanded a crew of ninety men sailing with three ships – “the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria” (Brinkley 1999: 13). He left Spain in August 1492 sailing west into the Atlantic. When he found land after ten weeks, he assumed he had been successful, which can be sen in the very first line of his letter to Raphael Sanchez, “Sir, since I know that you will take pleasure at the great victory [….]” (Columbus 1493: 26). On October 12, 1492 Columbus made his first contact with Americans (cf. Phillips 1992: 155) and since he “was so certain he had reached the Indies […] he named the natives Indians” (Penguin Classics: 26). Phillips and Phillips state that “they could see naked people on the beach, watching them arrive” (155). Even though Columbus knew that the island was inhabited, he carried the royal banner and spoke the standard proclamation for taking possession of land for the crown naming the island San Salvador (cf. Phillips et al. 1992: 155). What the natives thought of all this seemed to be irrelevant for Columbus. “The Indians call it Guanahani” is what Columbus is telling Sanchez in his letter (Columbus 1493: 26) knowing that they did not speak the same language. As he continues, he states that “nobody objected” (26) using the different languages as an advantage. Even though failing his plan to get to Asia Columbus always claimed that it was God who led his way. “God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth”, he wrote near the end of his life, “and he showed me the spot where to find it” (cf. Brinkley 1999: 15). Studying his letter to 3
Lord Raphael Sanchez we can find evidence for how Columbus’s motives changed throughout his voyages giving insight into some unfavorable aspects of his personality and indicating what this has led to.
2.3 Columbus’s Motives
„Religious piety, dreams of wealth, the desire for glory, scientific curiosity, an extraordinary egotism, and much more” are the motives attributed to Columbus in the preface to his letter to Raphael Sanchez (cf. Penguin Classics, ed. Giles Gunn, 1994: 25). Analyzing Columbus’s letter there are many passages that verify these motives while foreshadowing what sacrifices had to be made on his way to glory. Starting with the excessive use of the word “I” and accrediting himself with every achievement without mentioning his crew in any profitable way is a straight forward example for Columbus’s egotism and vanity. “ […] in twenty days I reached the Indies with the fleet which the most illustrious King and Queen, our lords, gave to me. And there I found very many islands filled with people without number, and of them all I have taken possession for their Highnesses, by proclamation and with the royal standard displayed, and nobody objected” (26).
Throughout the whole letter this self-referetiality contradicts with his detailed description of the environment he is situated in, which otherwise was a praisable aspect referring to the scientific curiosity mentioned earlier. As the letter continues, this scientific curiosity is quickly shifting towards an interest in listing everything that could be of use in future times. In this process Columbus states that the natives “all go naked” and he continues, “they have no iron or steel weapons, nor are they capable of using them” (27). On a subtextual level he hereby explains that they are not a threat and could easily be captured and enslaved. Phillips and Phillips even claim that “Columbus unashamedly waged war against the native inhabitants of the Caribbean and enslaved hundreds of them, hoping to profit from a transatlantic slave trade” (Phillips et al. 1992: 6). Since this happened without royal order it makes Columbus the first slave trader of the New World. Even if this was not his main goal at the time he wrote the letter, his attempts of presenting himself nicely are overlaid by a sense of exploitation. Additionally the motive of religious piety i.e. the desire to spread Christianity embodies a missionary zeal which expresses a perfect justification
covering a lust for gold and glory. Each of those three aspects (presenting himself nicely, the sense of exploitation, and the missionary zeal) are to be found in the following passage:
“I gave them a thousand good, pleasing things which I had brought in order that they might be fond of us, and furthermore might be made Christians and be inclined to the love and service of their Highnesses and of the whole Catilian nation, and try to help us and to give us of the things which they have in abundance and which are necessary to us. […] And as soon as I arrived in the Indies, in the first island which I found, I took by force some of them in order that they might learn [Castilian] and give me information [….] (28). Coming to the end of his letter, Columbus’s register if achievements is reaching its peak with him mentioning that everything discovered is useful and easily taken possesion of: “In conclusion to speak only of that which has been accomplished in this voyage, which was so hurried, their Highnesses can see that I shall give them as much gold as they want if their Highnesses will render me a little help; besides spice and cotton, as much as their Highnesses shall command; and gum mastic, as much as their Highnesses shall order shipped, and which, up to now, has been found only in Greece, in the island of Chios, and the Seignory sells it for what it pleases; and aloe wood, as much as they shall order shipped, and slaves, as many as they shall order, who will be idolaters. And I believe that I have found rhubarb and cinnamon, and I shall find a thousand other things of value [….]” (31).
Foreshadowing the impact Columbus’s voyage would have, his letter to Raphael Sanchez is giving us an image of Christopher Columbus as it is not commonly seen. After his voyages there has never been a time when the major civilizations of the world have lost contact to each other, never a time when major events could have only local consequences. As important as this development was for our planet, we must not forget what price had to be paid in order to get there. Overall, analyzing Columbus’s letter effectively showed us that primary sources hold the truth to history.
Brinkley, Alan. Amerocan History – A survey, Volume 1: to 1877. 10th Edition. McGraw-Hill College, 1999.
Columbus, Cristopher. (1451?-1506): “from a Letter to Lord Raphael Sanchez, Treasurer to Ferdinand and Isabella, King and Queen of Spain, on His First Voyage (1493)”. Early American Writing. Ed. Giles Gunn. Penguin Classics, 1994. 25-31. Phillips, William D. Jr. And Phillips, Carla Rahn. The Worlds of Christopher Columbus. Cambridge, 1992.