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Columbus’s Letter to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, 1494

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

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Christopher Columbus made landfall on an island in what is now the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, after setting sail from Spain about two months earlier. He continued to explore the Caribbean, conquering the lands in the name of God, Spain, and his benefactors, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Through his journeys, the Italian explorer encountered new cultures, flora and fauna, and enormous economic potential in the “New World.” Noting that inhabitants of the island wore gold jewelry, Columbus and his men set out to find gold deposits on the island. By the early sixteenth century, the Spanish had exhausted most of the gold deposits accessible through mining methods of that time, and the native Taino people were decimated by disease, forced labor, and murder.

The following primary source is a letter written by Christopher Columbus to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, in which he advised that the Spanish Crown capitalize on the newfound lands by creating colonies and setting up structures for governance, focusing on the island of Hispaniola (Espanola), which is today Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who was the author of this letter?
  2. When was this letter written? How might that have influenced the author’s perspective on the subject?
  3. Who was the audience of this letter? How might that have affected the author’s tone or style?
  4. What was the purpose of this letter?

Vocabulary Text

Most High and Mighty Sovereigns,

In obedience to your Highnesses’ commands, and with submission to superior judgment, I will say whatever occurs to me in reference to the colonization and commerce of the Island of Espanola, and of the other islands, both those already discovered and those that may be discovered hereafter.

thither (adv): there

In the first place, as regards the Island of Espanola: Inasmuch as the number of colonists who desire to go thither amounts to two thousand, owing to the land being safer and better for farming and trading, and because it will serve as a place to which they can return and from which they can carry on trade with the neighboring islands:

[1]That in the said island there shall be founded three or four towns, situated in the most convenient places, and that the settlers who are there be assigned to the aforesaid places and towns.

[2] That for the better and more speedy colonization of the said island, no one shall have liberty to collect gold in it except those who have taken out colonists’ papers, and have built houses for their abode, in the town in which they are, that they may live united and in greater safety.

notary public (n): a person authorized to perform certain legal formalities, such as draw up or witness contracts or official documents.

Castile (n): the capital of Spain at the time

[3] That each town shall have its alcalde [Mayor] … and its notary public, as is the use and custom in Castile.

[4] That there shall be a church, and parish priests or friars to administer the sacraments, to perform divine worship, and for the conversion of the Indians.

[5] That none of the colonists shall go to seek gold without a license from the governor or alcalde of the town where he lives; and that he must first take oath to return to the place whence he sets out, for the purpose of registering faithfully all the gold he may have found, and to return once a month, or once a week, as the time may have been set for him, to render account and show the quantity of said gold; and that this shall be written down by the notary before the aIcalde [alcalde], or, if it seems better, that a friar or priest, deputed for the purpose, shall be also present.

smelt (v): to extract a metal from its ore by using a process of heating and melting

[6] That all the gold thus brought in shall be smelted immediately, and stamped with some mark that shall distinguish each town; and that the portion which belongs to your Highnesses shall be weighed, and given and consigned to each alcalde in his own town, and registered by the above-mentioned priest or friar, so that it shall not pass through the hands of only one person, and there shall he no opportunity to conceal the truth.

[7] That all gold that may be found without the mark of one of the said towns in the possession of any one who has once registered in accordance with the above order shall be taken as forfeited, and that the accuser shall have one portion of it and your Highnesses the other.

per centum (n): percent

[8] That one per centum of all the gold that may be found shall be set aside for building churches and adorning the same, and for the support of the priests or friars belonging to them; and, if it should be thought proper to pay any thing to the alcaldes or notaries for their services, or for ensuring the faithful perforce of their duties, that this amount shall be sent to the governor or treasurer who may be appointed there by your Highnesses.

[9] As regards the division of the gold, and the share that ought to be reserved for your Highnesses, this, in my opinion, must be left to the aforesaid governor and treasurer, because it will have to be greater or less according to the quantity of gold that may be found. Or, should it seem preferable, your Highnesses might, for the space of one year, take one half, and the collector the other, and a better arrangement for the division be made afterward.

[10] That if the said alcaldes or notaries shall commit or be privy to any fraud, punishment shall be provided, and the same for the colonists who shall not have declared all the gold they have.

[11] That in the said island there shall be a treasurer, with a clerk to assist him, who shall receive all the gold belonging to your Highnesses, and the alcaldes and notaries of the towns shall each keep a record of what they deliver to the said treasurer.

[12] As, in the eagerness to get gold, every one will wish, naturally, to engage in its search in preference to any other employment, it seems to me that the privilege of going to look for gold ought to be withheld during some portion of each year, that there may be opportunity to have the other business necessary for the island performed.

liberality (n): in this context, the quality of granting permission more freely

[13] In regard to the discovery of new countries, I think permission should be granted to all that wish to go, and more liberality used . . . making the tax easier, in some fair way, in order that many may be disposed to go on voyages.

. . . I beg your Highnesses to hold me in your protection; and I remain, praying our Lord God for your Highnesses’ lives and the increase of much greater States.

Comprehension Questions

  1. How are towns to be populated in Columbus’s plan for colonies?
  2. What cultural purpose of colonization does Columbus highlight here?
  3. According to Columbus’s description, what is one of the main purposes of governing the colonies?
  4. According to this passage, what are Columbus’s priorities?
  5. How does Columbus propose that a “gold rush” be prevented on the island? Why might a gold rush be bad?
  6. How does Columbus feel about the continuation of voyages to discover new lands?

Historical Reasoning Questions

Directions: Answer the following questions to prepare for a Paideia Seminar discussion on Christopher Columbus. You should be able to support your answers with evidence from the text. All students are responsible for sharing their brief answers to the Round Robin questions.

  1. Round Robin: Which word or phrase from the text best represents European motivation for exploring the “New World”?
  2. Which line from the text best represents the religious motivations for establishing colonies?
  3. Which line from the text best represents the political motivations for establishing colonies?
  4. What economic purposes does the island of Hispaniola serve for colonists?
  5. What role does religion play in establishing colonies?
  6. Describe the political structures that Columbus recommends. What does this say about his, and his audience’s, interests in the island of Hispaniola?
  7. If Columbus landed in the Caribbean, why is he celebrated in the United States?
  8. How does Columbus’s plan for colonization affect existing populations and structures of social organization?
  9. How would Columbus’s voyage and what he encountered in the New World affect other European countries?
  10. How would the connection between Europe and the Americas change the Americas culturally, socially, and/or economically?
  11. How would the connection between Europe and the Americas change Europe culturally, socially, and/or economically?
  12. Should Columbus’s actions be celebrated? If so, to what extent and in what ways?
  13. Closing Round Robin: Should Christopher Columbus have his own national holiday in the United States? Why or why not?

Letter from Christopher Columbus to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, 1494:

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