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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Christopher Columbus (1451-1506)

The journal of the first voyage of Columbus (1492–1493) describes the land and peoples of the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) for a pair of monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel, anxious to recoup their investment and establish an overseas empire for their newly united Spain. While articulating this economic and colonial rationale for his journeys, Columbus also works to place his “discoveries” within European traditions of travel writing, cartography, geography, and theology. As a result, the journals mix literal and figurative mappings in an attempt to reconcile the new and “exotic” of the Americas with the traditional and familiar of European culture.

Most of what we know today as the journals of Columbus are redactions made by Fray Bartolemé de Las Casas perhaps as many as forty years after the death of Columbus. This loss of the original journal notes of Columbus further clouds interpretation of these texts. Although Las Casas presents himself as a faithful transcriber, some scholars question his influence on both the style and the substance of the journals. These reservations are most acute when it comes to descriptions of Indians, for whom Las Casas had much greater sympathy than did Columbus. Accurate estimates of Indian populations before Columbus arrived continue to elude historians, but the destruction of up to four-fifths of the original population of Hispaniola in Columbus’s lifetime provides an essential starting point for any reading of his written representations of Indians.

Columbus failed in his quest to discover a western route to the fabled riches of India or Cipangu (Japan) but his first voyage laid the foundation for Spanish control of potentially rich territories. Establishing an enduring link between the politics of empire and the written accounts of explorers, the Spanish monarchs published excerpts from the journals along with a letter from Columbus, composed during his return trip, to publicly authenticate their claims in the Caribbean. Ferdinand and Isabel quickly equipped Columbus for a second voyage (1493–1496), during which he explored Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Jamaica, Cuba, and the Lesser Antilles, and attempted to establish a colony on Hispaniola. No journal of this trip survives, but extant records indicate that Columbus’s poor management of the colony and his controversial decision to enslave Taino Indians for sale in Europe undermined his credibility in Spain.

During his third voyage (1498–1500) Columbus landed on Trinidad, formally took possession of the coast of Venezuela, and then sailed to Hispaniola, where he so alienated the Spanish colonists with his inflexible governance that he was arrested and sent back to Spain as a prisoner. In the journal of this eventful voyage, Columbus puzzles over unexpected compass readings recorded during his travels. Influenced by the cosmography of Pierre de Martyr’s Imago Mundi (a copy of which he had heavily annotated), Columbus concludes that the Orinoco River must lead to the “Terrestial Paradise” or Garden of Eden. Although Columbus had explored a similar idea during the return trip from his first voyage, this later articulation underscores the interpretive challenges he encounters when he situates his new observations of sea, land, and stars within a pre-Columbian European worldview. From giving each landfall and sighting a Catholic name to compiling religious texts in his Book of Prophecies, Columbus frames his explorations not as the opening of a new world but as a providential fulfillment of Judeo-Christian biblical tradition.

Restored to good graces (but stripped of any governing authority) by Ferdinand and Isabel, Columbus embarked on a fourth voyage (1502–1504), during which he explored Central America in search of a passage to the Indian Ocean. After being stranded on Jamaica for more than a year, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea returned to Spain with his already fragile health ruined. He died two years later (1506), a wealthy but bitter man who felt unappreciated by his king and uncertain of his legacy.

James Sullivan
Claremont Graduate University

In the Heath Anthology
from Journal of the First Voyage to America, 1492-1493 (1825)
from Narrative of the Third Voyage, 1498-1500 (1869)

Other Works
Journal of the First Voyage to America by Christopher Columbus (1825)

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1492: An Ongoing Voyage
Page by the Library of Congress providing historical background on Columbus and the events of 1492.

Christopher Columbus & Early European Exploration
This page includes information of historical resources.

Examining the Reputation of Christopher Columbus
Essay by anthropologist Jack Weatherford discussing the reality and myth of Columbus, addressing the treatment of Native Americans by Columbus and his crews.

Medieval Source Book: Christopher Columbus: Extracts from Journal
Site providing primary source material by Columbus.

The Columbus Navigation Homepage
A page that includes historical information and essays, and especially material on Columbus' navigational techniques.

Secondary Sources

Bartolome de Las Casas, History of the Indies (written 1550-1563), 1875

Stephen S. Greenblattt, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, 1991

Margarita Zamora,Reading Columbus, 1993; Miles H. Davidson, Columbus Then and Now, 1997.