1493 – The Santángel Letter – First News of the New World

Posted on January 15, 2011

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Santangel letter page

—–The Santángel Letter written by Christopher Columbus in 1493, is the first news (aside from the Norse sagas) that Europeans had of the Americas.  It represents the first appearance in European discourse of the image of what would come to be referred to as ‘the noble savage,’ and also introduces us — in company with Amazons and people born with tails — to the Caribs, characterized by Columbus as cannibals.  He hadn’t, in fact, encountered any Caribs on this voyage. Or humans with puppy-dog tails either, for that matter.

encounter

Sir:

Since I know that you will be pleased by the great victory which Our Lord has given me on my voyage, I am writing you this letter, from which you will learn how in twenty days[1] I crossed to the Indies with the fleet which the King and Queen, our most illustrious sovereigns, gave me.

I found there very many islands inhabited by people without number, and I have taken possession of them all on behalf of Their Highnesses by proclamation and by unfurling the royal standard, and I was not contradicted.

To the first island I found I gave the name San Salvador in memory of His High Majesty who miraculously has given all this; the Indians call it Guanahaní.

To the second I gave the name the island of Santa María de Concepción; to the third, Fernandina; to the fourth, Isabela; to the fifth, the island of Juana, and so on, to each a new name.

When I reached Juana[2] I followed the coast to the west and I found it to be so large that I thought it must be the mainland, the province of Cathay; and since I found no towns or villages on the coast except small settlements with whose inhabitants I could not speak because they all immediately fled, I continued on that course thinking that I could not fail to find great cities or towns.

After many leagues, having seen that there was nothing new and that the coast was carrying me northwards, which was not the course I wished to take because winter was now drawing on and I proposed to make to the south, and as moreover the wind was carrying me forward, I decided to wait no longer and I turned round and made for a fine harbour.

From there I sent two men inland to find out if there was a king or any great cities.  They travelled for three days and found an infinite number of small villages and countless people, but no sign of authority; for which reason they returned.

I understood well enough from some other Indians I had already taken that the whole of this coast was an island; and so I followed the coast one hundred and seven leagues to the east to where it ended.

From that cape I sighted another island to the east, eighteen leagues distant, to which I then gave the name Española,[3] and I went there and followed the north coast due east as I had done in Juana for a good hundred and eighty-eight leagues, in a straight line to the east as I had in Juana.

That coast like all the others is very rocky, and this one is particularly so.  There are many harbours on the sea coast beyond comparison with any I know in Christendom, and so many good, wide rivers that it is a marvel.  The land is high and there are many sierras and high mountains beyond comparison with the island of Tenerife, all most beautiful and of a thousand different shapes and all accessible and covered in trees of a thousand kinds and so high that they seem to reach the sky; and I am told that they never lose their leaves as far as I can understand, for I saw that they were as green and as beautiful as they are in Spain in May, and some were in flower and some in fruit, and some at another stage according to their nature, and there where I travelled the nightingale and other birds of a thousand kinds were singing in November.  There are six or eight kinds of palms which are a wonder to behold for their beautiful variety, as too with the other trees and fruits and plants.  There are marvellous pine groves and broad meadows, and there is honey and there are many different kinds of birds and many varieties of fruit.   In the interior there are many mines of metal and incalculable numbers of people.

Española is a marvel; the sierras and the mountains and the plains and the fields and the land are so beautiful and rich for planting and sowing, for raising all kinds of cattle, for building towns and villages.  The harbours are beyond the belief of anyone who has not seen them, and the many great rivers give good waters of which the majority bear gold. There are great differences between the trees and fruit and plants and those of Juana.  On this island there are many spices and great mines of gold and other metals.[4]

All the people on this island and all the others I have found or have learned of go naked, men and women alike, just as their mothers bear them, although some women cover themselves in one place with a leaf from a plant or a cotton garment which they make for the purpose.

They have no iron or steel or weapons, nor are they that way inclined, not because they are not well built and of fine bearing, but because they are amazingly timid.  They have no other weapons than those made from canes cut when they are in seed, to the ends of which they fix a sharp stick; and they dare not use them, for many times I have happened to send two or three men ashore to some town to speak to them and a great number of them have come out, and as soon as they see the men coming they run off, parents not even waiting for children, and not because any harm has been done to any of them; on the contrary, everywhere I have been and have been able to speak to them I have given them some of everything I had, cloth and many other things, without receiving anything in exchange; but they are simply incurably timid.

The truth is that, once they gain confidence and lose this fear, they are so lacking in guile and so generous with what they have that no-one would believe it unless they saw it.  They never refuse to give whatever they have, whenever they are asked; rather, they offer it willingly and with such love that they would give their hearts, and whether it is something of value or of little worth, they are happy with whatever they are given in return, however it is given.

I forbade the men to give them such worthless things as pieces of broken crockery and pieces of broken glass and the ends of laces, even though when they could get hold of them they seemed to think they had the most precious jewel in the world.  There was a sailor who had a piece of gold weighing two and a half castellanos in exchange for a lace, and others got things worth much more for much less; for new blancas they would give everything they had, even if it was gold worth two or three castellanos or an arroba or two of spun cotton.  They would even take broken hoops from the wine barrels and give what they had, like animals.  All this seemed wrong to me and I put a stop to it and I gave them thousands of pretty things I carried with me so that they would be well disposed and, moreover, would become Christians, inclined to the love of Their Highnesses and the whole Castilian nation, and help us by giving us the things they have in abundance and of which we have need.

They knew no sect and were not idolaters, except that they all believe that power and good come from heaven, and they believed very firmly that I and these ships and crew came from heaven and in this belief they received me everywhere, once they had overcome their fear.  And this is not because they are ignorant; rather, they are of subtle intelligence and can find their way around those seas, and give a marvellously good account of everything; it is only because they have never seen men clothed or ships of that kind.

When I arrived in the Indies, at the first island I found I took some of them by force so that they could learn and give me information about what there was in those parts, and in that way they soon understood us and we them, whether by word or by sign; and they have been very useful to us.  I still have them with me, and they still insist that I come from heaven, in spite of all the exchanges they have had with me, and they were the first to announce this wherever I went, and the others would run from house to house and to the nearby towns shouting: “Come, come and see the people from heaven.”

In this way they all flocked in, men and women alike, great and small, once they were confident about us; none were left behind, and they all brought something to eat and drink, which they gave with marvellous affection.

On all the islands they have very many canoes like galleys with oars, some large, some small; and some, indeed many, are larger than a galley with eighteen benches.  They are not as broad because they are made from a single tree-trunk, but a galley could not compete with them by rowing, because they travel incredibly fast.   And with these they sail around all those islands, which are countless, and trade in their merchandise.  I have seen some of these canoes with seventy and eighty men in them, each one with an oar.

Throughout the islands I did not find much variety in the appearance of the people, nor in their customs or language; rather, they can all understand each other, which is very unusual and for which reason I hope that Their Highnesses will decide to undertake their conversion to our holy faith, to which they are well disposed.

I have already mentioned that I had sailed one hundred and seven leagues along the sea coast in a straight line from west to east along the island of Juana, from which course I can say that this island is larger than England and Scotland together, because, apart from these hundred and seven leagues, to the west of me were two provinces which I have not visited, one of which they call Avan,[5] where the people are born with tails.

These provinces cannot be less than fifty or sixty leagues in length, as far as I can understand from the Indians I have with me who know all the islands.

This other island of Española is larger in circumference than Spain from Collioure in Catalunya round the coast to Fuenterrabía in Vizcaya, since I sailed along one side of it for a good hundred and eighty-eight leagues in a straight line from west to east.

This island is much to be desired and, once seen, never to be left.

Since I have taken possession of them all in Their Highnesses’ name and since they are better endowed than I can possibly say and I hold them all as Their Highnesses’ possessions for them to dispose of entirely as they would the kingdoms of Castile, on this island of Española, in the most suitable place, most conveniently situated for the gold mines and for all trade from the mainland here as well as from the land of the Great Khan which will bring very great trade and profit, I have taken possession of a large town to which I gave the name the town of Navidad[6] and I have made a fortress, the building of which should by now be finished and I have left there sufficient men for the purpose,[7] together with arms and artillery and supplies for more than a year, and a boat and a shipwright to build  others, and with  the  firm friendship of the king of that land, so much so that he took great pride in calling me his brother and treating me as such.

And even if he were to change his attitude to one of hostility towards these men, neither he nor his people know what weapons are and they go naked as I have already said.  They are the most timid people in the world; in fact, the men left there would be enough to destroy the whole of that land, and it is an island which offers no danger to them if they know how to govern it.

On all these islands it seems that all the men are content with one woman and that to their leader or king they give as many as twenty.  The women seem to me to work harder than the men.  I have not been able to determine if they have private property, for it appeared from what I could see that what one person had was shared among everybody, especially in the case of food.

On these islands until now I have not found any monstrous men, as many expected; rather, they are all people of very beautiful appearance and are not black as in Guinea but have long flowing hair, and where they live the sun’s rays are not too intense; it is true that the sun is very fierce there, although it is twenty-six degrees north of the equator.

On these islands where there are large mountains the cold was very harsh there this winter; but they are used to it, and withstand it with the help of their food which they eat heavily seasoned with hot spices.

So I have found no monsters, nor heard of any except on an island here which is the second one as you approach the Indies and which is inhabited by people who are held in all the islands to be very ferocious and who eat human flesh.[8]

These people have many canoes in which they sail around all the islands of India robbing and stealing whatever they want; they are no more malformed than the others except that they wear their hair long like women and they carry bows and arrows made from the same cane stems with a small stick at the end for want of iron which they do not have.  They are ferocious with these other people who are excessively cowardly, but I take no more account of them than of the rest.

These are the people who have relations with the women of Matinino, which is the first island on the way from Spain to the Indies, and on which there are no men.  These women do not behave like women but carry bows and cane arrows like those I have already described, and they arm and protect themselves with plates of copper, of which they have a great deal.

There is another island which they assure me is larger than Española whose inhabitants have no hair.  On this island there is gold beyond measure and I have Indians with me as witnesses about this and other islands.

In conclusion, to speak only of what has been achieved on this voyage, which was very rapid, Their Highnesses can see that I will give them as much gold as they require if Their Majesties will give me only a very little help; as much spice and cotton as Their Majesties may order to be shipped, as much mastic as they may order to be shipped, which until now has only been found in Greece, on the island of Chios, and the Genoese government sells it for whatever it likes, and as much aloe as they may order to be shipped and as many slaves[9] as they may order to be shipped, and who will be from among the idolaters.

I believe that I have found rhubarb and cinnamon and that I will find a thousand other things of value which the men I have left there will have discovered; for I have not delayed at any point whenever the wind gave me the opportunity to sail, except at the town of Navidad for as long as I might leave it safe and secure.

And in truth I could have done a great deal more if the ships had served me as reason demanded.

That is enough.

Eternal God, our Lord, gives to all those who follow His path victory over things which appear impossible, and this was a very notable example. For, although these lands may have been spoken or written of, that was all conjecture, without eye-witness, and those who heard the stories listened to them and judged them more as fables than as having the least vestige of truth.

Therefore, since Our Redeemer gave to our most illustrious King and Queen and to their famous kingdoms this victory in such great matters, the whole of Christendom should be joyful and hold great celebrations and give solemn thanks to the Holy Trinity with many solemn prayers for the great exultation they will have when so many people return to our holy faith and for the temporal benefits which will bring solace and profit not only to Spain but to all Christians.

This is a brief account of what has been achieved.

Dated on board the caravel, off the islands of the Canaries, 15 February in the year 1493.

Your obedient servant. The Admiral. (Columbus)

Enclosure with the letter.

After writing this and being at sea off Castile, such a great wind blew up from the south-south-west that I was obliged to lighten ship.  But I ran into this port of Lisbon today, which was the greatest marvel in the world, and I decided to write to Their Majesties.

Throughout the Indies, to which I sailed in thirty-three days and returned in twenty-eight, I have always found the weather to be as in May, except for these storms which have detained me for fourteen days beating about on this sea.  All the seamen here say that there has never been such a bad winter nor so many ships lost. Dated 14 March.

This letter was sent by Columbus to the Controller of the Household[10] about the islands discovered in the Indies, enclosed in another to Their Majesties.

———————

[1] The voyage actually took 33 days, as Columbus himself notes later.

[2] Juana is Cuba, sighted by Columbus on October 28th.

[3] Haiti, also known in that era as Hispaniola.

[4] Columbus, in exaggerating what he has found, (which is clearly not the riches of Cathay) is making a bid for honours and further funding.  But his tales of riches and people easily conquered drew many adventurers and seekers of fortune to the New World.

[5] Havana, the Taino name for a district of Cuba.

[6] Columbus, through egregiously bad seamanship (sailing at night along an unknown coast) had sunk the Santa Maria and had to leave crew behind when he returned to Spain.   Making the best of the situation, here he claims it as part of a plan.  The Santa Maria was sunk on Christmas day, hence the name of the town (which means Christmas.)

[7] The 39 men whom Columbus had to abandon when he sank the Santa Maria were never heard from again.

[8] Thus the myth of the Caribs is launched.  It is curious that so few historians have ever questioned the myth given its provenance in a letter filled with tales of Amazon women, Cubans with tails, people without hair and other more mundane lies concerning gold and riches.

[9] Columbus here indicates that he has no real cause to enslave the people of the Indies, so he invents one for the purpose.  Some historians have taken his excuses as fact.

[10] Luis de Santángel.

This version of the Santángel Letter by Christopher Columbus can be found at

http://www.ems.kcl.ac.uk/content/etext/e022-copyright.html

Another version can be found here

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18571/18571-h/18571-h.htm

The notes are my own.