The Letters of Christopher Columbus: A Mystery

The printing press was invented around 1440 and introduced an era of mass communication throughout many cities in Renaissance Europe.  It was the printing press that enabled the dissemination of the letter that Christopher Columbus wrote on his return journey to Europe after his “discovery” of America.

As is commonly known, Columbus was a Genovese sea captain in the service of the Crown of Castile.  He set out in 1492 to reach the East Indies by sailing west across the Atlantic Ocean.  Instead of reaching Asia, he stumbled upon the Caribbean islands of the Americas.  He set sail back to Spain in 1493.  During the return journey, he wrote a letter in Spanish announcing his discovery of the “islands of the Indies” and describing his findings.  Caught in a storm, he put in at Lisbon where he sent at least two copies of the letter to the Spanish court—one to the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, and the second to an Aragonese official who was a financial supporter of the expedition.

In his letter, he describes Juana (Cuba) as larger than Great Britain and Hispaniola (Santo Domingo) as larger than the Iberian Peninsula.  He appears to present the islands as suitable for future colonization. He describes the natural habitat and the resources (eg, spices, gold, and other metals).  He characterizes the inhabitants as primitive, innocent, without reason, and unthreatening, but also generous; later in the letter he notes that the Indians are “not slow or unskilled, but of excellent and acute understanding.”  He says that the women appear to work more than the men.  And he makes a particular point that the natives lack organized religion and seem to speak the same language, which, he says will facilitate conversion to Christianity.

Copies of Columbus’s letter were somehow picked up by publishers, and printed editions began to appear throughout Europe within weeks of his return to Spain.  A Spanish version was printed in Barcelona, and a Latin translation was printed soon afterwards in Rome.  Within a year more editions were printed in many European cities. Between 1493 and 1500, about 3,000 copies of the letter were published, half of them in Italy, making it a best-seller for the times.

The original version of Columbus’s letter, written by his hand, has never been found.  But his letter forged the initial public perception of the newly discovered lands.  Until the discovery of Columbus’s on-board journal, first published in the 19thcentury, this letter was the only known direct testimony by Columbus of his experiences on the first voyage of 1492.

Fast forward to the 21stcentury:  Printed versions of the letter have been held in many museums throughout Europe. However, the document in the Catalunya library in Barcelona was stolen in 2005 and sold in the United States for $600,000.  It changed hands again in 2013 for a million dollars, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reported that the timbre of the Spanish library had been “bleached.”  This letter, which dates back to 1493, has now been returned to Spain.  But it has also been discovered that the letters contained in the National Library of Rome and in the Biblioteca Riccardina of Florence are false.  The one stolen in Florence was found and returned by the US to Italy in 2016.  Who has stolen the letters and replaced them with fakes remains a  mystery.




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