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Document Number: AJ-064
Author: Columbus, Christopher
Title: Letter from Columbus to Ferdinand and Isabella Concerning the Colonization and Commerce of Española
Source: Olson, Julius E. and Edward G. Bourne (editors). The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, 985-1503: The Voyages of the Northmen; The Voyages of Columbus and of John Cabot. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906). Pages 273-277.
Pages/Illustrations: 7 / 0
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Author Note

Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) was born in Genoa, Italy, and grew up among merchants who traded throughout the Mediterranean and along the Atlantic coasts of Africa and Europe. Working as a young man for Genoese importers in Lisbon, Columbus traveled as far afield as Iceland in the north, Ghana in the south, and the Azores in the west. Believing that there might be an easier and more profitable route to Japan, China, and the East Indies by sailing west, he and his brother Bartholomew attempted to secure government backing for an expedition from the monarchs of Spain, Portugal, France, and England. In 1492, Columbus received the monetary backing he needed from Spain (see AJ-061).

Columbus Expeditions, 1492-1504

America was not discovered by Columbus. Both North and South America had been inhabited for more than ten thousand years when Columbus arrived. Hundreds of distinct nations with their own languages, customs, religions, and economic systems already occupied the land when he stumbled onto it on his way to Asia. Norwegian settlers preceded his arrival in America by some five hundred years (see AJ-056 to AJ-060) and ample evidence suggests that European fishermen had touched its coasts briefly in the decades before his first voyage. Columbus never laid eyes upon, much less stepped ashore and planted a flag on, the North American continent; and until his dying day he believed he had traveled to islands near China.

But these reflections in no way diminish the magnitude of his achievements. If Columbus did not discover America, he did find the best routes for Europeans to reach it, and nearly all other ships followed in his wake for the next three hundred years. His explorations initiated sustained contact between European and American peoples. Columbus focused the attention and capital of European governments and investors on America, which led them to establish colonies throughout the region over the next century. And he was the first European to explore the Caribbean islands and the mainland from Honduras to Venezuela.

First Voyage, 1492-1493

Columbus’s journal of his first voyage (see AJ-062) shows that he departed Spain on August 3, 1492, and returned in April 1493, landing in the Caribbean on October 12, 1492. Investigation by the National Geographic Society in the 1980s concluded that this landfall occurred on Samana Cay, in the Bahaman Islands, which the Arawak Indian inhabitants called Guanahani and which Columbus immediately christened San Salvador. From there he traveled to Fortune Island, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, which he named Española, all the while thinking he was in the vicinity of Japan. Leaving about forty men behind in on the island of Española, or Hispaniola as it is also known, Columbus headed home on January 16, 1493, encountering vicious storms on the open ocean and imprisonment by the Portuguese on the Azores. He reached Lisbon in March 1493 and immediately sent a letter to his friend and sponsor Luis de Santangel (AJ-063) describing his adventure. By the time he reached the Spanish court in early April, this letter had been printed and was circulating throughout Europe. The Spanish monarchs were delighted, and had such high hopes of finding riches that they instructed Columbus to go right back.

Second Voyage, 1493-1496

In early May 1493, Columbus responded to their request in this letter, which outlines his plans for colonizing the Caribbean. He left on September 25, 1493, in a fleet of seventeen ships with about 1,200 colonists. Among these were the Queen’s physician, Dr. Diego Alvarez Chanca, his younger brother Diego, Juan de la Cosa, who would make the first map that showed America, and Juan Ponce de Leon, who would be the first European to explore Florida (AJ-095). The fleet approached the islands of Dominica and Martinique on November 3, 1493, and explored Antigua, St. Croix, Puerto Rico, and other islands before landing at Hispaniola to find the garrison left by the first voyage all dead. At the end of December 1493, Columbus selected a second site for a settlement on the same island. Life in the little colony is described in the letter written from there by Dr. Chanca (AJ-065). The Spanish colonists virtually enslaved the Taino Indian inhabitants in order to extract gold, leading to a state of perpetual rebellion; brutality, warfare, and European diseases wiped out two-thirds of the indigenous population in five years. When the authorities in Spain learned how bad the situation had become, Columbus was summoned home, reaching Cadiz on June 11, 1496.

Third Voyage, 1498-1500

Columbus spent most of 1496 and 1497 restoring his reputation with the court and building support for a third voyage (see AJ-066). He left Spain on May 30, 1498, with a fleet of three supply ships headed for Hispaniola and three ships whose goal was to discover if there was a landmass to the south. Columbus reached the island of Trinidad on August 1, 1498, and the South American mainland at the Paria Peninsula in Venezuela on August 5, before heading to the colony on Hispaniola. He found that many of the settlers had died, most of the survivors had syphilis, and the local leaders were engaged in a civil war for control of the enterprise. When a newly appointed administrator arrived from Spain in September 1499, he investigated for a few months before placing Columbus and his brother in chains and shipping them home, where they arrived in November of 1500. On board ship Columbus drafted the letter to the nurse of Prince John (AJ-067) that tells his side of the story.

Fourth Voyage, 1502-1504

After clearing his name, Columbus was permitted by Ferdinand and Isabella to make one more voyage (see AJ-068), though they prohibited him from stopping at the colony on Hispaniola. In a fleet of four worn-out vessels, and accompanied by his teen-age son Ferdinand (who would be his father’s first biographer), they left Cadiz on May 9, 1502, and reached Martinique on June 15. With a hurricane brewing, Columbus sailed to the forbidden Hispaniola on June 29 for shelter; the storm wiped out a homebound fleet carrying his political opponents but spared his four ships. After coasting the southern shores of Hispaniola and Cuba, Columbus turned southwest and encountered the Central American mainland at the end of July. For the next ten months he explored the eastern side of the isthmus, coasting south along Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, before heading back toward the Caribbean islands the following May. Before they could reach Hispaniola, their aging ships simply gave out, and Columbus established a crude settlement on Jamaica where they were marooned for more than a year. After being rescued, he reached Spain again on November 7, 1504. Three weeks later his principal supporter, Queen Isabella, died and, old, sick, and out of favor at court, Columbus lived only another eighteen months, passing away on May 20, 1506, in Valladolid, Spain.

Document Note

This letter, most likely written in 1493, although it has also been dated in 1494, sets out Columbus’s proposal for colonial policy for the island he named Española. Not only did he plan to colonize the island with Spanish settlers, but he also wished to set up lucrative gold mining concessions to the benefit of the Spanish government’s treasury. The letter is reprinted from Olson, Julius E. and Edward G. Bourne (editors). The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, 985-1503: The Voyages of the Northmen; The Voyages of Columbus and of John Cabot. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906).

Other Internet and Reference Sources

Historical and bibliographical details on the Columbus documents given here are best read in the introductions to each text. Publications and web sites devoted to Columbus exist in bewildering variety. The best place to start is the Library of Congress exhibit, “1492: An Ongoing Discovery” at which contains texts, illustrations, suggested readings, and further links.

The New York Public Library has published a bibliography and research guide that gives information on the Columbus letters at columbus.html#primary.

An electronic text version of Edward Everett Hale’s biography of Columbus, The Life of Christopher Columbus: from his own letters and journals and other documents of his time (Chicago: G. L. Howe & Co. 1891) has been put online by the University of Virginia Library at

Fordham University has put online another translation of this letter, as part of the Internet Medieval Sourcebook at

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