The Columbus Letters

Durante il viaggio di ritorno in Spagna, navigando tra gennaio e febbraio di 526 anni fa, Cristoforo Colombo compose tre lettere che descrivevano la sua prima esplorazione verso l’ovest, le popolazioni che incontrò e la bellezza travolgente di quelle terre fino ad allora inesplorate. Le lettere furono presumibilmente inviate alla regina spagnola Isabella e al re Ferdinando; a Luis De Sant Angel (Santangel), che contribuì a finanziare il viaggio ed a Gabriel Sanchez, tesoriere dei manarchi. Colombo aveva uno stile di scrittura insolito, che utilizzava principalmente lo spagnolo intercalandolo con termini in portoghese. Attualmente esistono 17 edizioni delle lettere tradotte dallo spagnolo al latino e in altre lingue, copiate a mano e stampate, sebbene nessuno degli originali scritti da Colombo in persona sia ancora stato rinvenuto.

On his return to Spain, sailing in January and February 526 years ago, Christopher Columbus composed three letters describing his first voyage west and his experiences on the islands he explored. The letters were purportedly sent to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand; Luis De Sant Angel (Santangel), who helped finance the voyage; and Gabriel Sanchez, treasurer of the Monarchs.

Columbus had an unusual writing style, using mostly Spanish but blending in Portuguese. Currently, 17 editions of the original letters have been documented: translated – from Spanish to Latin and other languages – copied by hand and printed. Sources state that no original letters written by Columbus have yet to be found.

In the letters, Columbus provides a summary of his journey through the islands, the people he met and the overwhelming beauty of this new land. GPS wasn’t available in 1492 and, although others had bumped into this new continent before Columbus arrived, the sea and islands were uncharted territory.

The letters to Luis De Sant Angel and Gabriel Sanchez are similar in length and content; the letter to the Monarchs – discovered in 1985 in a book containing copies of letters written by Columbus to the Monarchs from 1493 to 1495 – is longer. It includes varied compliments to the Monarchs, numerous references to God and Christianity and many allusions to the prospect of prosperity on the islands.

While the translated versions of the letters are similar in content, the actual wording of the various versions differs, leading to interpretations based on which version is read. Add the numerous translations of the letters – at least two or three adaptations – and it’s difficult to determine exactly what Columbus wrote.

Consequently, the letters are still under examination, including who they were sent to, and the letter to the Monarchs is undergoing even more scrutiny. Scholars question the content in its extra passages, especially focusing on the mention of a crusade to Jerusalem.

Still, according to the documentation available, much in the letters appears to provide a fairly accurate rendition of Columbus’s historic voyage. What is available, though, has also been the basis for critiques on his character, work and legacy.

Probably the most tarnishing to his character is “I took by force some Indians” (from the Sanchez letter; the Sant Angel letter has “natives” in place of “Indians”). Those against Columbus use this phrase as a foundation of their protests, blaming Columbus for the mistreatment of the natives and all subsequent horrific exploitation.

The full phrase from the Sanchez letter: “As soon as I had come into this sea, I took by force some Indians from the first island, in order that they might learn from us, and at the same time tell us what they knew about affairs in these regions. This succeeded admirably; for in a short time we understood them and they us both by gesture and signs and words; and they were of great service to us.”

From the Sant Angel letter: “I took by force some of the natives, that from them we might gain some information of what there was in these parts; and so it was that we immediately understood each other, either by words or signs.”

From the Monarchs letter: “By this time I already understood something of the language and signs made by some Indians I had taken on the island of San Salvador, and I understood that this was still an island.” In the same paragraph, after mentioning another island, “I left and took some Indians from that harbour so that I could find out from them something about those lands.” In further describing his experiences, “… because I very much wanted good information about everything; and the solution I came up with were the Indians I had with me, who were learning our language and we theirs, and we shall see later, on the next voyage …”

In both the Sanchez and Sant Angel letters, mention is made of bringing some of the natives back to Spain to testify to what is in the letter. However, the letters do make references to slaves, who were – in the late 15th century – not only part of the culture of Europe, but also the rest of the world.

More to come in upcoming issues.
For lesson plans about the Columbus Letters, go to