Encounters with a New World

As we saw in the selections from Ibn Munqidh and John of Plano Carpini, what travelers see in foreign lands often says more about their own expectations and customs that it does about the places and people they are describing. Attached are two excerpts from the Journal of Christopher Columbus, relating the very first encounter between Europeans and the inhabitants of Guanahani (San Salvador?) and another several weeks later on the large island now called Cuba*. In an essay of about 750 words, analyze the perspective from which Columbus is viewing the New World and its people. In what ways is it similar to or different from the perspective of Carpini? Is there a way of reading Columbus's description that enables us to shift our perspective toward the subjects of his description, who left no version of their own?

The essay is due by 3:00 PM Monday, 3 November, in your preceptor's box in the History Department Office, 129 Dickinson Hall.

*Source: John Cummings, The Voyage of Christopher Columbus: Columbus' Own Journal of Discovery Newly Restored and Translated (London, 1992)


When we stepped ashore we saw fine green trees, streams every where and different kinds of fruit. I called to the two captains to jump ashore with the rest, who included Rodrigo de Escobedo, secretary of the fleet, and Rodrigo Sanchez de Segovia, asking them to bear solemn witness that in the presence of them all I was taking possession of this island for their Lord and Lady the King and Queen, and I made the necessary declarations which are set down at greater length in the written testimonies.

Soon many of the islanders gathered round us. I could see that they were people who would be more easily converted to our Holy Faith by love than by coercion, and wishing them to look on us with friendship I gave some of them red bonnets and glass beads which they hung round their necks, and many other things of small value, at which they were so delighted and so eager to please us that we could not believe it. Later they swam out to the boats to bring us parrots and balls of cotton thread and darts, and many other things, exchanging them for such objects as glass beads and hawk bells. They took anything, and gave willingly whatever they had.

However, they appeared to me to be a very poor people in all respects. They go about as naked as the day they were born, even the women, though I saw only one, who was quite young.8 All the men I saw were quite young, none older than thirty, all well built, finely bodied and handsome in the face. Their hair is coarse, almost like a horse's tail, and short; they wear it short, cut over the brow,9 except a few strands of hair hanging down uncut at the back.

Some paint themselves with black, some with the colour of the Canary islanders,10 neither black nor white, others with white, others with red, others with whatever they can find. Some have only their face painted, others their whole body, others just their eyes or nose. They carry no weapons, and are ignorant of them; when I showed them some swords they took them by the blade and cut themselves. They have no iron; their darts are just sticks without an iron head, though some of them have a fish tooth or something else at the tip.

They are all the same size, of good stature, dignified and well formed. I saw some with scars on their bodies, and made signs to ask about them, and they indicated to me that people from other islands nearby came to capture them and they defended themselves. I thought, and still think, that people from the mainland come here to take them prisoner. They must be good servants, and intelligent for can see that they quick]y repeat everything said to them. I believe they would readily become Christians; it appeared to me that they have no religion. With God's will, I will take six of them with me for Your Majesties when I leave this place, so that they may learn Spanish.

I saw no animals on the island, only parrots


Saturday, 13 October

In the early morning many of the islanders came to the beach, all young, as I have said, tall and handsome, their hair not curly, but flowing and thick, like horsehair. They are all broader in the forehead and head than any people I have ever seen, with fine, large eyes. None of them is black; they are rather the same colour as the folk on the Canary Islands, which is what one might expect, this island being on the same latitude as Hierro in the Canaries, which lies due E.


Canoe with several rowers

Their legs are very straight, and they are all the same height, not stout in the belly but well shaped. They came out to the ship in almadías made from a tree-trunk, like a long boat, all of a piece, wonderfully shaped in the way of this land, some big enough to carry forty or fifty men, others smaller, with only one man. They row them with paddles like a baker's shovel, very swiftly, and if the boat overturns they all jump into the sea to turn it over again and bale it out with gourds. They brought us balls of cotton thread and parrots and darts and other little things which it would be tedious to list, and exchanged everything for whatever we offered them.

I kept my eyes open and tried to find out if there was any gold, and I saw that some of them had a little piece hanging from a hole iii their nose. I gathered from their signs that if one goes south, or around the south side of the island, there is a king with great jars full of it, enormous amounts. I tried to persuade them to go there, hut I saw that the idea was not to their liking.


I decided to wait until tomorrow and then to set off to southwest, for many of them seemed to be saying that there is land to the S and SW and NW, and that the people from the NW often come to attack them, and continue to the SW in search of gold and precious stones. This island is large and very fiat, with green trees and plenty of water; there is a large lake in the middle, no mountains, and everything is green and a delight to the eye. The people are very gentle; they are so eager for our things that if we refuse to give them something without getting something in exchange they seize what they can and jump into the water with it. But they will give whatever they have for anything one gives them; they even bargained for pieces of broken plate and broken glasses. I saw them take three Portuguese ceotis, the equivalent of one Castilian blanca, for sixteen balls of cotton which must have contained more than an arroba2 of thread. I had3 forbidden anyone to take this, except that I had given orders to take it all for Your Majesties if it was in sufficient quantity. It grows on this island, though in the little time available I could not swear to this, and the gold they wear hanging from their noses is also from the island, but so as not to waste time I wish to set off to see if l can reach the island of Cipango.

It is now after nightfall and they have all gone ashore in their almadías.

Sunday, 14 October

I gave orders at daybreak for the small boat of the Santa Maria and the boats of the two caravels to be got ready, and went along the coast to the northeast to examine the eastward part of the island, and the villages, of which I saw two or three. The people kept coming down to the beach, calling to us and giving thanks to God. Some brought us water, some food; others, seeing that I did not wish to go ashore, swam Out to us, and we understood them to be asking if we had come from Heaven.1 One old man climbed into the boat, and the others, men and women, kept shouting, 'Come and see the men who have come from Heaven; bring them food and drink.'

Many men and women came, each bringing something and giving thanks to God, throwing themselves on the ground and raising their hands in the air. They called to us to go ashore, but I was afraid of a great reef which encircles the whole island, though between it and the shore there is a deep harbour big enough to hold every ship in Christendom, with a very narrow entrance channel. There are certainly shoals within this reef, but the sea inside it is as calm as a millpond.

I bestirred myself to explore all this this morning so as to be able to give Your Majesties a description of it all, and also of a possible site for a fort. I saw a piece of land which is virtually an island; there are six houses on it, and it could he converted into an


island with a couple of days' work, although I do not see the necessity. These people have little knowledge of fighting, as Your Majesties will see from the seven I have had captured to take away with us so as to teach them our language and return them, unless Your Majesties' orders are that they all be taken to Spain or held captive on the island itself, for with fifty men one could keep the whole population in subjection and make them do whatever one wanted.

Near the islet I have described there are groves of the most beautiful trees I ever saw; so green, with their leaves like those in Castile in April and May. There is also plenty of water. I explored the whole harbour, and then returned to the ship and set sail. I saw so many islands that I could not decide which to go to first. The men I had captured told me by signs that there are so many that they cannot be counted; they gave me the names of over a hundred. I therefore looked for the largest, and decided to sail for it, which is what I am doing now. It must be about five leagues from this island of San Salvador. Some of the others are nearer, some further away. They are all very flat and fertile, with no mountains, and they are all populated and make war on one another, though these people are very simple, and very finely made.

Monday, 15 October

Last night I lay to for fear of approaching land to anchor before morning, not knowing if the coast was free from shoals, and intending to increase sail at dawn. The distance was more than five leagues, nearer seven, and the tide set us back, so that it would be around noon when I reached the island. I found that the arm of the island nearest San Salvador runs N-S, and is five leagues long, and the other, along which I sailed, runs E-W for over ten leagues.

From this island I sighted another larger one to the west, so I increased sail to press on all day until nightfall, for otherwise I could not have reached the western cape. I named this island Santa Maria de la Concepción.1 I anchored off the western cape just before sunset to find out if there was any gold there. The prisoners I took on San Salvador kept telling me that the people of this island wore great gold bracelets and legbands, but I thought it was all invention to enable them to escape. However, my intention being not to pass by any island without taking possession of it, although taking possession of one might be taken to serve for them all, I anchored and remained there until today, Tuesday.

At daybreak I armed the boats and went ashore. There were numerous people, naked and similar to those on San Salvador. They let us go about on the island and gave us whatever I asked for. The wind was strengthening from the southeast, so I decided not to linger, but set off to return to the ship. A large almadía was alongside the


described, with no weapons and no religion.2 The land is very rich, and is planted up with niames,3 which are like carrots and taste of chestnuts, and they also have various kinds of beans, quite different from our own, and plenty of cotton, not sown but growing wild. I think it must be there for the picking all the time, for I have seen the open heads arid others just opening and the flowers all on the same bush. There are hundreds of other kinds of fruit, more than I can describe, and it must all be useful.

Monday, 5 November

At daybreak I had the ship careened and ordered the others to do the same, but not all at once, so that for safety's sake there would always be two where we were anchored; not that there is any danger from these people, and all three ships could be careened at the same time without any risk. While the ship was careened the bosun of the Nina came to ask for a reward because he had found some mastic,2 but he did not bring me a sample because he had dropped it. I promised him his reward and sent Rodrigo Sánchez and Master Diego to the trees and they brought me a little of the mastic and also a sample of the tree. We recognized it as mastic, although it has to be gathered in due season, and there is enough here to yield a thousand quintals a year. I have also noticed many of what I think are aloe plants.3

The harbour of Mares is one of the finest in the world, with the best climate and the gentlest people. It has a rocky headland, slightly elevated, on which one could build a fortress, so that if this place turns out to be productive and commercially important merchants from all over the world will be safe here. May Our Lord, in whose hands all victory lies, so dispose all things that they may be of service to Him.

An Indian told me by signs that the mastic is good for stomach ache.

Tuesday, 6 November

The two men I sent inland to explore came back last night and told me they had gone twelve leagues when they reached a village of fifty houses. There were about a thousand inhabitants, for they live many to a house. The houses are like big campaign tents. The men said they were received with great ceremony, according to the customs of the place. Everyone, men and women, came to see them, and they were lodged in the best houses. The people kept touching them and kissing their hands and feet iii amazement, thinking they had come from Heaven, and so they gave them to understand. They were given food, and they told me that when they arrived the foremost men in the village led them by the arm to the most important house and sat them on /curious chairs, carved out of a single piece of wood in the shape of an animal with short arms and legs and its tail raised a little to form a


backrest, though this is as broad as the seat to give comfortable support; there is a head in front with eyes and ears of gold. They call these chairs duhos. /1 All the men sat around them on the ground. The Indian who was with my men told them about our way of life, saying that we were good people. Then all the men went out and the women came in and sat around them in the same way, kissing their hands and feet and touching them to see if they were flesh and blood like themselves. /They gave them some cooked roots to eat which tasted like chestnuts./2 They invited them to stay for at least five days.

My men showed them the cinnamon and pepper and other spices which I had given them, and were told by signs that there were plenty of spices nearby to the SE, but they did not know if there were any in the place itself.

Seeing that there were no great cities, my men came back. If they had allowed everyone to accompany them who wanted to, more than five hundred men and women would have come, thinking they were returning to Heaven. However, one important man of the village came with them, and his son and one of his men. I talked to them and received them with honour, and he told me about many lands and islands in these parts. I thought of bringing them back to Your Majesties, but for some reason, probably through fear and the darkness of the night, he took it into his head to leave the ship. Not wishing to distress him, and because I had the ship high and dry, I let him go. He said he would come back at daybreak, but he did not return.

My two men met many people crossing their path to reach their villages, men and women, carrying in their hand a burning brand and herbs which they use to produce fragrant smoke.3 They came across no village of more than five houses, and they were treated with the same attention by all the people. They saw many kinds of trees, plants and scented flowers, and birds of many varieties, different from those of Spain, except that there were partridges, and nightingales singing, and geese; of these there are plenty. They saw no four-footed beasts except silent dogs. The land is very fertile and well worked, with niames and varieties of beans, very unlike our own; also millet and a great amount of cotton, picked, spun and woven. In one house they saw more than 500 arrobas of it, and they say that in a good year there could be 4,000 quintals. I do not think the people sow it; it produces all the year round, and is very fine with a large head.

They give whatever they have for the most miserable price; a big basket of cotton for a lace end, or whatever else one offers them. They are a most innocent and unwarlike people; men and women go about as naked as they were born . The women do wear a little cotton thing, just big enough to cover their private part and no more. They are


good-looking, not very dark, in fact paler than the women on the Canaries.

I am quite sure, Your Most Serene Majesties, that if devout religious people knew their language well they would all readily be converted to Christianity, so I trust in Our Lord that Your Majesties will decide to make a resolute effort to convert these large populations and bring them into the Church, as you have destroyed those who refused to acknowledge the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost; and that when your own days are done (for we are all mortal flesh) you will leave your realms in peace and cleansed of heresy and evil, and be received before the throne of the eternal Creator, who I pray will grant you a long life and a great increase in your kingdoms and territories, and the will and desire to increase the Holy Religion of Christianity, as you have done until now, Amen.

I refloated the ship today and am making haste to set off on Thursday in the name of God to sail to the southeast in search of gold and spices and to discover new land.4

Monday, 12 November

At the end of the dawn watch we left the harbour of the river Mares to sail to an island which the Indians on board have told me is called Babeque,1 where according to their signs the people gather gold on the beach at night with torches and then beat it into bars with a hammer. To find it we must head E by S. /It is a little cold, and it would be unwise to sail north with winter coming on./2

Eight and a half leagues along the coast I found a river, and four leagues further on a second one, bigger than any of the others. I decided not to stop and sail into either of them for two reasons: the first and most important is that I have fair wind and weather for sailing in search of Babeque; the second is that if there were any large or notable city on the lower reaches we would see it, and to explore upriver would require smaller vessels than ours, and so much time would be lost. Such rivers as these deserve special exploration on their own. This whole area is populated, especially near the river, which I have called the Rio del Sol.3

Yesterday, Sunday, 11 November, 1 thought it a good idea to take some of the people from the river to convey them to Your Majesties, so that they may learn our language and tell us what there is in their country, and learn our customs and matters of the Faith, and interpret for our people when they return, for I can see from my own observations that these people have no religion, nor are they idolaters. They are gentle, and do not know the meaning of evil, nor killing, nor taking prisoners; they have no weapons and are so timid that one of our men can frighten away a hundred of them, just as a joke. They are


ready to believe; they acknowledge that there is a God in Heaven, and are convinced that that is where we have conic from, and they are quick to recite any prayer we tell them to say, and to make the sign of the cross.

Your Majesties should therefore determine to convert them to Christianity, for I believe that once this is begun a host of peoples will soon be converted to our Holy Faith, and great domains and their wealth and all their peoples will be won for Spain, for there is no doubt that these lands hold enormous quantities of gold. Not for nothing do the Indians I have on board tell us that there are places on these islands where they dig up the gold and wear it in their ears and round their necks and arms and legs, thick bands of it, and there are also precious stones and pearls and endless spices.

On the river Mares, which I left last night, there is certainly a great amount of mastic, and it could be increased if more were wanted, for these trees take easily if re-planted and there are plenty of them, very large, with leaves and fruit like the mastic tree, but both tree and fruit are bigger, as Pliny tells us.4 I have seen many of these trees on the island of Chios, in the archipelago, and I had some of them tapped to see if they would give some sap to take away. It rained all the time I was in that river, so I was unable to gather any except a small amount which I am bringing to Your Majesties. It may also be that this is the wrong season for tapping them, which I think is best done when the trees are emerging from winter and preparing to flower; here the fruit is almost ripe.

One could also obtain great quantities of cotton, which I think could very well be sold here (rather than taking it to Spain) in the cities of the Great Khan which will no doubt be discovered, and in many of those of the other princes who will be pleased to serve Your Majesties, where they will be given goods from Spain and the lands of the east (for to us these lands are in the west). There is also an endless supply of aloes, though this is not something to make a fortune out of, whereas the mastic is really worthy of attention, being found only on the island of Chios which I have mentioned. They make a good 50,000 ducats from it there, if I remember rightly.

Moreover, the mouth of the river I have described is the finest harbour I ever saw, broad and deep and clean-bottomed, with a good location and site for building a town and a fortress where ships of all kinds could berth alongside the walls, and the land is high and temperate, with good fresh water.

A canoe came alongside us yesterday with six young men. Five of then) came aboard, and I ordered them to be seized and have brought them away with me I then sent men to a house on the west side of the river, and they brought hack seven females,5 some young and some


adult, with three children. I did this because men behave better in Spain when they have women of their own land with them than when they are deprived of them. Men have often been taken from Guinea to Portugal to learn the language, and given good treatment and gifts, and when they were taken back with a view to employing them in their own country they went ashore and were never seen again. Others behaved differently. If they have their women they will be eager to take on whatever duties one asks of them, and the women themselves will be good for teaching our people6 their language, which is the same throughout all these islands of India. They all understand each other, and go about from island to island in their canoes; quite differently from in Guinea, where there are a thousand different languages, incomprehensible to one another.

Last night the husband of one of these women, the father of the three children, a boy and two girls, came out to the ship in a canoe and asked me to take him with them, which I was very pleased to do. They are all happier now, so it appears that they are all related. The man is about forty-five.

By sunset today, Monday, I have sailed nineteen leagues E by S, and have reached a headland which I have named Cabo de Cuba.

Tuesday, 13 November

I spent all last night tacking to and fro because I had sighted a division between one range of mountains and another. It was sighted just at sunset, when we could see two enormous mountains, and appeared to be the division between the land of Cuba and that of Bohío, which is what the Indians on board told me by signs. When it was clear day I filled away for the land, passing a point which appeared about two leagues off in the night, and entered a great gulf five leagues to the SSW, and it was another five leagues to the cape where there was a gap between two large hills. I could not tell if it was an arm of the sea.

My aim was to sail to the island called Babeque, which lies to the east, and I could see no great settlement which would justify my fighting my way into a wind2 which was now blowing up stronger than anything we had experienced so far, so I decided to gain sea-room and sail E with the northerly wind. We were running at six and a half knots, and from changing course at ten in the morning until sunset we made forty-four and a half miles E, or fifteen leagues, from the Cabo de Cuba.

Of the coast of the other island, Bohío, which we had to leeward, I explored sixty-four miles, or twenty-one leagues, from the cape of the gulf I have mentioned. The whole coast runs from ESE to WNW.


Wednesday, 14 November

I spent all last night jogging off and on; it is senseless to sail among these islands at night without exploring them first, and the Indians on board told me yesterday that it would be three days' sailing from the river Mares to the island of Babeque, that is to say three days in their canoes, which can make seven leagues a day. Also the wind was not what I needed1 and I could only head E by S instead of due E as I wished.

[…]2 At sunrise I decided to seek a harbour, the wind having veered from N to NE, and if l had not found one I should have had to go back to the ones I left in Cuba.

After sailing nineteen miles E by S in the night and [. . .] miles S, I reached land, where I saw many inlets and small islands and harbours, but with the strength of the wind and the heavy sea I did not dare attempt to sail into them. I therefore ran NW by w along the coast in search of a haven, and saw many, but none very accessible. After sailing fifty-one miles in this fashion I found a deep channel, a third of a mile wide, with a good river and harbour, into which I sailed. I put our bows to the SSW and then to the S and eventually to the SE, finding a good breadth and depth of water everywhere.

Here I found innumerable islands, of a good size and very lofty, covered with all kinds of trees and countless palms. I was amazed to see so many islands, all so mountainous. I assure Your Majesties that the mountains I have seen since the day before yesterday along these coasts and on these islands must be higher and lovelier and clearer than any in the world, with no mist or snow, and a great depth of water at their feet. These must, I think, be those islands without number which men depict in the farthest orient on their maps of the world. I believe they hold great riches, precious stones and spices, and that they stretch far to the south and spread out in all directions.

I am calling this the Mar de Nuestra Senora,3 and the harbour near the channel leading to these islands Puerto del Príncipe.4 Do not be surprised, Your Majesties, that I am so lavish in my praise; I assure you that I do not think I am telling you a hundredth part of it all. Some of the islands seem to reach the sky, and their tops are like the points of diamonds; others climb tip to a sort of high, high plateau, and at their feet there is such an immense depth of water that a great carrack could berth hard alongside them; no rocky outcrops, and woods everywhere.