Christopher Columbus: Extracts from Journal

This document is the from the journal of Columbus in his voyage of 1492. The meaning of this voyage is highly contested. On the one hand, it is witness to the tremendous vitality and verve of late medieval and early modern Europe - which was on the verge of acquiring a world hegemony. On the other hand, the direct result of this and later voyages was the virtual extermination, by ill-treatment and disease, of the vast majority of the Native inhabitants, and the enormous growth of the transatlantic slave trade. It might not be fair to lay the blame at Columbus' feet, but since all sides treat him as a symbol, such questions cannot be avoided.


Whereas, Most Christian, High, Excellent, and Powerful Princes, King and Queen of Spain and of the Islands of the Sea, our Sovereigns, this present year 1492, after your Highnesses had terminated the war with the Moors reigning in Europe, the same having been brought to an end in the great city of Granada, where on the second day of January, this present year, I saw the royal banners of your Highnesses planted by force of arms upon the towers of the Alhambra, which is the fortress of that city, and saw the Moorish king come out at the gate of the city and kiss the hands of your Highnesses, and of the Prince my Sovereign; and in the present month, in consequence of the information which I had given your Highnesses respecting the countries of India and of a Prince, called Great Can, which in our language signifies King of Kings, how, at many times he, and his predecessors had sent to Rome soliciting instructors who might teach him our holy faith, and the holy Father had never granted his request, whereby great numbers of people were lost, believing in idolatry and doctrines of perdition. Your Highnesses, as Catholic Christians, and princes who love and promote the holy Christian faith, and are enemies of the doctrine of Mahomet, and of all idolatry and heresy, determined to send me, Christopher Columbus, to the above-mentioned countries of India, to see the said princes, people, and territories, and to learn their disposition and the proper method of converting them to our holy faith; and furthermore directed that I should not proceed by land to the East, as is customary, but by a Westerly route, in which direction we have hitherto no certain evidence that any one has gone. So after having expelled the Jews from your dominions, your Highnesses, in the same month of January, ordered me to proceed with a sufficient armament to the said regions of India, and for that purpose granted me great favors, and ennobled me that thenceforth I might call myself Don, and be High Admiral of the Sea, and perpetual Viceroy and Governor in all the islands and continents which I might discover and acquire, or which may hereafter he discovered and acquired in the ocean; and that this dignity should be inherited by my eldest son, and thus descend from degree to degree forever. Hereupon I left the city of Granada, on Saturday, the twelfth day of May, 1492, and proceeded to Palos, a seaport, where I armed three vessels, very fit for such an enterprise, and having provided myself with abundance of stores and seamen, I set sail from the port, on Friday, the third of August, half an hour before sunrise, and steered for the Canary Islands of your Highnesses which are in the said ocean, thence to take my departure and proceed till I arrived at the Indies, and perform the embassy of your Highnesses to the Princes there, and discharge the orders given me. For this purpose I determined to keep an account of the voyage, and to write down punctually every thing we performed or saw from day to day, as will hereafter appear. Moreover, Sovereign Princes, besides describing every night the occurrences of the day, and every day those of the preceding night, I intend to draw up a nautical chart, which shall contain the several parts of the ocean and land in their proper situations; and also to compose a book to represent the whole by picture with latitudes and longitudes, on all which accounts it behooves me to abstain from my sleep, and make many trials in navigation, which things will demand much labor.

Friday, 3 August 1492. Set sail from the bar of Saltes at 8 o'clock, and proceeded with a strong breeze till sunset, sixty miles or fifteen leagues south, afterwards southwest and south by west, which is the direction of the Canaries.

* * * * *

Sunday, 21 October. At 10 o'clock, we arrived at a cape of the island, and anchored, the other vessels in company. After having dispatched a meal, I went ashore, and found no habitation save a single house, and that without an occupant; we had no doubt that the people had fled in terror at our approach, as the house was completely furnished. I suffered nothing to be touched, and went with my captains and some of the crew to view the country. This island even exceeds the others in beauty and fertility. Groves of lofty and flourishing trees are abundant, as also large lakes, surrounded and overhung by the foliage, in a most enchanting manner. Everything looked as green as in April in Andalusia. The melody of the birds was so exquisite that one was never willing to part from the spot, and the flocks of parrots obscured the heavens. The diversity in the appearance of the feathered tribe from those of our country is extremely curious. A thousand different sorts of trees, with their fruit were to be met with, and of a wonderfully delicious odor. It was a great affliction to me to be ignorant of their natures, for I am very certain they are all valuable; specimens of them and of the plants I have preserved. Going round one of these lakes, I saw a snake, which we killed, and I have kept the skin for your Highnesses; upon being discovered he took to the water, whither we followed him, as it was not deep, and dispatched him with our lances; he was seven spans in length; I think there are many more such about here. I discovered also the aloe tree, and am determined to take on board the ship tomorrow, ten quintals of it, as I am told it is valuable. While we were in search of some good water, we came upon a village of the natives about half a league from the place where the ships lay; the inhabitants on discovering us abandoned their houses, and took to flight, carrying of their goods to the mountain. I ordered that nothing which they had left should be taken, not even the value of a pin. Presently we saw several of the natives advancing towards our party, and one of them came up to us, to whom we gave some hawk's bells and glass beads, with which he was delighted. We asked him in return, for water, and after I had gone on board the ship, the natives came down to the shore with their calabashes full, and showed great pleasure in presenting us with it. I ordered more glass beads to be given them, and they promised to return the next day. It is my wish to fill all the water casks of the ships at this place, which being executed, I shall depart immediately, if the weather serve, and sail round the island, till I succeed in meeting with the king, in order to see if I can acquire any of the gold, which I hear he possesses. Afterwards I shall set sail for another very large island which I believe to be Cipango, according to the indications I receive from the Indians on board. They call the Island Colba, and say there are many large ships, and sailors there. This other island they name Bosio, and inform me that it is very large; the others which lie in our course, I shall examine on the passage, and according as I find gold or spices in abundance, I shall determine what to do; at all events I am determined to proceed on to the continent, and visit the city of Guisay, where I shall deliver the letters of your Highnesses to the Great Can, and demand an answer, with which I shall return.

Monday, October 22nd / All this night and today I have been here, waiting to see if the king of this place or other personages would bring gold or anything else of importance. There did come many of these people, who were like the others in the other islands, just as naked and just as painted, some white, some red, some black, and so in various ways. They brought spears and some skeins of cotton to exchange, and they bartered these with some sailors for bits of glass from broken cups and for bits of earthenware. Some of them wore some pieces of gold, hanging from the nose, and they gladly gave these for a hawks’ bell, of the kind made for the foot of a sparrow hawk, and for glass beads, but the amount is so small that it is nothing. It is true that whatever little thing might be given to them, they still regarded our coming as a great wonder, and they believed that we had come from heaven.

Tuesday, October 23rd/ I wished today to set out for the island of Cuba, which I believe must be Cipangu, according to the indications which these people give me concerning its size and riches. I did not delay longer here. . . . I say that it is not right to delay, but to go on our way and to discover much land, until a very profitable land is reached. My impression, however, is that this is very rich in spices, but I have no knowledge of these matters, which causes me the greatest sorrow in the world, for I see a thousand kind of trees, each one of which bears fruit after its kind and is as green now as in Spain in the months of May and June, and a thousand kind of herbs, also in bloom.

Sunday, October 28 / He went from there in search of the nearest point in the island of Cuba to the south-southwest, and he entered a very lovely river, very free from danger of shoals or of other obstacles, and the water all along the coast, where he went, was very deep and clear up to the shore. . . . He says that the island is the most lovely that eyes have ever seen; it is full of good harbors and deep rivers, and it seems that the sea can never be stormy, for the vegetation on the shore runs down almost to the water, which it does not generally do where the sea is rough. Up to that time, he had not experienced a high sea among all those islands. He says that the island is full of very beautiful mountains, although there are no very long ranges, but they are lofty, and all the rest of the land is high like Sicily. It is full of many waters, as he was able to gather from the Indians whom he carried with him and whom he had taken in the island of Guanahani; they told him by signs that there are ten large rivers, and that they cannot go round it in their canoes in twenty days. When he went near the shore with the ships, two boats or canoes came out, and as they saw that the sailors entered the boat and rowed about in order to see the depth of the river, to know where they should anchor, the canoes fled. The Indians said that in that island there are gold mines and pearls; the admiral saw that the place was suited for them, and that there were mussels, which are an indication of them. And the admiral understood that the ships of the Grand Khan come there, and that they are large; and that from there to the mainland it is ten days’ journey.

Tuesday, October 30th/ He went from the Rio de Mares to the northwest and saw a cape full of palms, and he named it “Cape de Palmas” [Punta Urero]. After having gone fifteen leagues, the Indians who were in the caravel Pinta said that behind that cape there was a river, and that from the river to Cuba it was four days’ journey. The captain of the Pinta said he understood that this Cuba was a city, and that land was a very extensive mainland which stretched far to the north, and that the king of that land was at war with the Grand Khan, whom they called “cami,” and his land or city they called “Saba” and by many other names. The admiral resolved to go to that river and send a present to the king of the land, and send him the letter of the sovereigns. For this purpose he had a sailor who had gone to Guinea [West Africa] in the same way, and certain Indians from Guanahani who were ready to go with him, on condition that afterwards they might return to their own land. He says that he must attempt to go to the Grand Khan, for he thought that he was in that neighborhood, or to the city of Cathay, which belongs to the Grand Khan, which, as he says, is very large, as he was told before he set out from Spain. He says that all this land is low-lying and lovely, and the sea deep.

Thursday, November 1st/ At sunrise, the admiral sent the boats to land, to the houses which were there, and they found that all the people had fled, and after some time a man appeared, and the admiral ordered that he should be allowed to become reassured, and the boats returned to the ships. After eating, he proceeded to send ashore one of the Indians whom he carried with him and who, from a distance, called out to them, saying that they should not be afraid, because these were good people and did harm to no one, and were not from the Grand Khan, but in many islands to which they had been, had given of what they possessed. And the Indian threw himself into the water and swam ashore, and two of those who were there took him by the arms and brought him to a house, where they questioned him. And when they were certain that no harm would be done to them, they were reassured, and presently there came to the ships more than sixteen boats or canoes, with spun cotton and their other trifles, of which the admiral commanded that nothing should be taken, in order that they might know that the admiral sought nothing except gold, which they call “nucay.” So all day they were going and coming from the land to the ships, and they went to and fro from the Christians to the shore with great confidence. The admiral did not see any gold among them. But the admiral says that he saw on one of them a piece of worked silver, hanging from the nose, which he took to be an indication that there was silver in that land. They said by signs that within three days many merchants would come from the interior to buy the things which the Christians brought there, and that they would give news of the king of that land, who, as far as he could understand from the signs which they made, was four days’ journey from there, because they had sent many men through the whole land to tell of the admiral.

Friday, November 2nd/ The admiral decided to send two men, Spaniards: one was called Rodrigo de Jerez, who lived in Ayamonte, and the other was a certain Luis de Torres, who had lived with the adelantado [civil and military governor] of Murcia and who had been a Jew, and who, as he says, understood Hebrew and Chaldee and even some Arabic. With these, he sent two Indians: one from among those whom he brought with him from Guanahani, and the other from those houses which were situated on the river. He gave them strings of beads with which to buy food, if they were in need of it, and appointed six days as the time within which they must re- turn. He gave them specimens of spices to see if they found any, and instructed them how they were to ask for the king of that land, and what they were to say on behalf of the sovereigns of Castile, how they had sent the admiral to present letters on their behalf and a gift. They were also to learn of his estate, establish friendship with him, and favor him in whatever he might need from them, etc.; and they should gain knowledge of certain provinces and harbors and rivers, of which the admiral had information, and learn how far they were from this place, etc. He still affirms that this is the mainland. Saturday, November 3rd/ In the morning, the admiral entered the boat, and as the river at its mouth forms a great lake, which makes a very remarkable harbor, very deep and free from rocks, with an excellent beach on which to careen ships and with much wood, he went up the river until he came to fresh water, which was a distance of some two leagues. And he ascended an eminence, in order to see something of the land, and he could see nothing, owing to the large groves, luxuriant and odorous, on which ac- count he did not doubt that there were aromatic plants. He says that everything he saw was so lovely that his eyes could not weary of beholding such beauty nor could he weary of the songs of birds, large and small. That day there came many boats or canoes to the ships, to barter articles of spun cot- ton and the nets in which they sleep, which are hammocks.