I. The Corners of the Round Earth
Christopher Columbus inhabits the modern popular imagination as the man who proved the world is round. But, in fact, what he demonstrated was just how big it truly is—although this was, in a way, the opposite of his intention.
The ancients knew the Earth was a sphere, and in 240 BCE the Hellenistic geographer Eratosthenes knew it was around 250,000 stadia, which is—allowing for some uncertainty about ancient unit sizes—not too far off from the roughly 40,000 kilometers we know it to be today. There was no real doubt about the roundness of the planet, and a general agreement about roughly its scope, if not its exact size. Ancient geographers conceived of the known world as a single inhabited landmass in the Northern Hemisphere they called the Oikoumene, comprising Africa, Asia, and Europe and surrounded by a vast ocean. But then, as now, there is always room for fringe theories.
The scientific advancements of the early Renaissance were already inspiring intellectuals to rethink the authority of many ancient writers, while the re-discovery and translation of “new” texts on natural history and geography also provided exciting material for interpretation. Marinus of Tyre (c.70-130 CE), who survives to modernity in a refutation by Ptolemy, theorized a smaller globe, with a larger Eurasian landmass and a narrower ocean. Other Greco-Roman authors, such as Strabo, Pomponius Mela, and Macrobius, discussed the idea of the Antipodes—a theoretical heretofore undiscovered landmass existing in parallel to the known world. The Antipodes even had their own theoretical inhabitants: the Antipodeans, who are depicted with backwards feet (hence the name itself: from the Greek for “opposite feet”).
Renaissance cosmographers were very intrigued by these ideas, especially in a world which seemed to be getting bigger all the time, metaphorically or not. The Italian mathematician Paolo Toscanelli wrote a letter in 1474 to Ferdinand Martins, advisor to the king of Portugal, promoting the concept of a western route to China and the Indies based on the calculation of a smaller globe (and especially, a smaller ocean) inspired by Marinus of Tyre’s theories. Christopher Columbus was certainly aware of the text of this letter. According to the biography written by his son, he had actually corresponded directly with Toscanelli—although it is unclear whether he had actually engaged with his ideas before his first voyage in 1492, or whether they became a retroactive part of his effort to bolster his claims of having reached Asia via the Atlantic.
The scholar upon whom Columbus seems to have most heavily relied for his own theories was the French cardinal Pierre d’Ailly, whose 1410 Imago Mundi he owned and assiduously annotated. D’Ailly was a compiler of Medieval geography and an advocate of the small globe theory, in particular speculating that the Oikoumene was larger than previously thought—and thus, the ocean between its two edges smaller than imagined. Relying on information provided by d’Ailly, including the work of Bacon and of al-Farghani, a 9th century astronomer at the Abbasid court in Bagdhad known in Europe as Alfraganus, as well as his own observations, Columbus made a series of rather wild calculations without standardizing any measurements. He came up with what his biographer Felipe Fernández-Armesto describes as “an underestimate more grossly distorted than any ever recorded: 25% below the true figure and at least 8% below even the most adventurous estimate otherwise known to have been made in his day.”
Columbus estimated that the distance between Portugal and China was a mere 2,700 miles (actually, it is 12,000). On the one hand, this was a radical rethinking of the size of the Earth based on faulty mathematics. On the other, geographic knowledge was changing all the time—even Ptolemy admitted as much. And there were powerful incentives for belief in the possibility of a Western route to China. Trade for the luxury goods European consumers demanded from India and China was logistically onerous and largely controlled by the Ottoman Empire. Portugal had set her aims on a sea route around Africa under the auspices of Prince Henry the Navigator, as yet unrealized—what if Asia could be reached simply by trying the other direction?
II. An Unlikely Expedition
Christopher Columbus was an unlikely commander for such a speculative expedition. By all accounts, he was not a very good manager of men, and, while clearly charismatic in a way, he does not seem to have inspired confidence in others. Despite the hagiographic biography by his son, which implied illustrious ancestors and an education at the University of Pavia—the Admiral of the Indies was from modest means and largely self-educated. Born the son of a weaver in Genoa, a powerful city-state enriched by Levantine trade, Cristoforo Colombo went to sea at an early age, which he described in 1501 as the occupation which “inclines all who follow it to wish to learn the secrets of the world.” According to his own reports, he had traveled widely—from the Azores to Chios and from the Gulf of Guinea to Iceland.
He also read widely, from geography and cosmography to fantastic adventure narratives, including Marco Polo’s famous travels to China. Over years of reading and re-reading, he recorded his thoughts through fastidious annotations in his personal library (his son Hernando would inherit this bibliophile tendency, and Columbus’s own books survive as a part of his collection). This bookishness has helped bolster his later reputation as an intellectual maverick and preternaturally brilliant navigator, although that is not quite accurate either. In the words of Fernández-Armesto, “his mind suffered the defects that a guideless and random absorption of information can impart, like a ship at large upon a starless ocean.” His outlook was in many ways essentially Medieval, filled with exotic monsters and wonderous riches at the edges of the known world.
Columbus’s motivations have been variously conjectured over the last half millennium. He has been interpreted as a dreamy intellectual in a skeptical world, a genius navigator, and as a “great man” driven by divine destiny. Avarice, cruelty, and pride have all been adduced as driving factors. More recent scholarship has explored his fervent religiosity and millenarianism, which seems to have increased over the course of his life. It culminated in the book of apocalyptic prophecies he wrote shortly before his death, which linked his activities in the Americas with the second coming of Christ. In Fernández-Armesto’s preface reappraising his 1973 work on Columbus, he reflects that:
"I now see him as motivated primarily by none of the traditional range of self-perceptions represented in my early work: not by scientific curiosity or missionary zeal or messianism or material cupidity, but rather by social ambition. This weaver's son, who dreamed of self-transformation into the Admiral of the Ocean Sea and founder of an aristocratic dynasty, might have tried any of the routes of self-aggrandizement common in his day: war or the church or seaborne exploration. He fixed on the last and made a remarkable success of it.”
It was not a success which came easily, or without caveats and limits. He spent over half a decade lobbying the courts of Europe for the opportunity to gamble his life on his geographic theory and make his name. Portugal, a likely contender with proven interests in maritime exploration, was his first port of call—but it was a bust, apparently on grounds that his ideas about the location and existence of Marco Polo’s “Cipangu” (Japan) were too outlandish and his demands for recompense too costly. Next, he plied the nobility of Spain, ingratiating himself at court while selling the idea of an Atlantic route to the Indies.
When his case was first heard by their panel of experts, the so-called "Sages of Salamanaca," they denied it on the grounds of its being fantastical. It is unclear what exactly he was proposing. Bartolomeo de las Casas, writing about it much later, implies it may have explicitly involved a visit to the Antipodes. But in any case, he was not convincing. He returned to Portugal for a period, and seems to have contemplated France, England, and even the Pope as potential backers.
Eventually, however, it was a network built in Spain over years of maneuvering that earned him his commission. And when it came, the explicit goal of the proposed voyage was the discovery of the short route to Asia via the Atlantic—a suitably dramatic and lucrative accomplishment to earn royal patronage. What Columbus asked for in advance was quite modest (although the enormity of what he was promised if he succeeded would quickly become a source of regret for his patrons).
III. The Transatlantic Encounter
Just three ships—the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria—set out from Palos de la Frontera on 3 August 1492. Columbus charted a southwestern course via the Canary Islands, which turned out to be a saving grace, as it provided his fleet with a prevailing wind. This route, with a few alterations, would be one of his major contributions to the development of the Atlantic world. It became the standard one for his successors in the following centuries, allowing a continuous flow of people, goods, and communication between the continents.
Although luck (and the wind) was on Columbus’s side at the outset, it was already running out by September. His crew was close to mutiny, and he began to clash not only with the sailors but with Martín Pinzon, the commander of the Pinta. On 10 September he started to falsify the ship’s log to make sure it was in accordance with his geographical theories. Just in time, however, signs began to suggest land: flocks of birds, flotsam in the water. On 12 October, one of the seamen on the Pinta sighted land for the first time (a claim which Columbus undercut by later declaring he had seen it the night before, ultimately earning him the bounty from Isabella and Ferdinand).
Columbus renamed the first island they reached “San Salvador,” which was called by its Native inhabitants Guanahaní. This has historically been identified as Watling’s Island (as of 1926 officially named San Salvador on these grounds), although the evidence is ultimately unclear. According to the Letter, he sailed through the Caribbean naming islands and asking the people he met to direct him to “Cipangu” or the Great Khan. His ships eventually arrived at Cuba, which he at first thinks may be Cipangu, and then decides is the Chinese mainland. In December, he came to the place which would become the most important during his time in the region—the island he called Hispaniola, where he reports positive interactions with local leaders and notices they have many gold objects in their possession.
The people who greeted Columbus on this first visit were a diverse group now usually called the Taíno (nomenclature coined by later Franco-American naturalist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque), who spoke an Arawakan language and were the principle (but not the only) inhabitants of the “West Indies” in the 15th century. DNA and linguistic evidence suggest that their ancestors first came to the Caribbean around 2500 years ago, migrating from the northeast coast of South America by canoe. Their own creation story states that they emerged from caves on the island of Hispaniola. In the Letter, Columbus calls them Indi—"Indians.”
The Taíno at this time lived across the Caribbean in towns of varying sizes, usually arranged around a public plaza and governed by a leader whom Columbus calls a “cacique.” The plazas were the centers of public life, including a game called batéy played with a rubber ball which amazed the Spaniards. According to Columbus’s (and later visitors’) reports, they did not wear much clothing but did use face paint and various types of jewelry for personal adornment. Columbus was particularly interested in their gold items, some of which may have been locally sourced from alluvial gold deposits—but most of which were probably traded. They were not metalworkers, but skilled woodworkers, potters, stone carvers, and weavers, as well as sophisticated agri- and aqua-cultural engineers. The first printed illustration of a hammock is one of their designs, appearing in Oviedo’s 1535 work on the history of the Indies.
Although Columbus writes in the Letter that the Natives “in a short time understood us, and we them, first by gestures and signs, then by words” (nam brevi nos ipsos et hi nos tum gestu ac signis; tum verbis intellexerunt) it is not clear how exactly he was communicating with these people he had just met and with whom he did not share a common language. Yet, he seems to have understood enough to be able to report that they corrected or disagreed with him on some things (for example, that Cuba was an island). One of Matthew Restall’s Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest is the “myth of (mis)communication,” which highlights this ambiguity—we cannot take at face value what the Spanish say they understand about those they encountered. Columbus also claims in the Letter that the Taíno have no religion (and that they greeted him as a god), but a later companion on his voyages, Father Ramón Pané, would write extensively about their complex religious practices centered around deities called “zemis.”
The Taíno’s society and way of life was almost immediately and disastrously disrupted by the arrival of Columbus and his men, and they did not leave behind their own written record. Archaeological evidence has been able to fill in some gaps, but as scholar Irving Rouse notes, “the Taínos have not received the recognition they deserve for their role in the events relating to the conquest of the Americas.” Columbus’s descriptions of the peoples living in his “New World” vacillate between the complimentary: praising their beauty, strength, and intelligence as traits which will make them prime candidates for conversion to Christianity; and the starkly predatory: pointing out their potential value as enslaved workers.
It was an unavoidable fact (although he would avoid it for some time) that these first encounters on the other side of the Atlantic were not quite what Columbus was expecting, and certainly not what he had promised to find. His account in the Letter of the people and places he meets are highly filtered through the lens of literary tradition, owing much to the Medieval genre of “marvels of the east.” Although he notes that, “truly, I have not seen any monsters, and I have no knowledge of them anywhere" (itaque monstra aliqua non vidi; neque eorum alicubi habui cognitionum), he does describe a group of people who sound remarkably like Amazons (which an examination of the marginalia in his library reveals as a lifelong obsession), as well as cannibals—both classic inhabitants of the fringes of the known world.
There were none of the familiar “Eastern” spices to be found; Columbus identified something he thought was mastic, but it wasn’t. As tokens of his success, he ended up bringing back Canella winterana, a fragrant bark sometimes called today “Mexican Cinnamon” but completely unrelated to the spice of the same name; as well as chili peppers in place of the peppercorns native to the Malabar coast of India. Worst of all, there was not very much gold. Columbus reports in the Letter that Hispaniola “abounds in various kinds of spices and in gold and other metals” (diverso aromatis genere auro metallisque abundat), but this is a hopeful exaggeration.
Before his departure, Columbus established a garrison on Hispaniola named La Navidad, which he staffed with a team of men instructed to hold it until his eventual return (although when he did, they would all be dead). It was built from the wreck of the Santa Maria, which had run aground on the coast, and was meant to be a base of operations for Spain in the region and an act of trust that Ferdinand and Isabella would fund a second voyage.
Columbus writes at the end of the Letter that:
I make this promise, that supported by only small aid from them I will give our invincible sovereigns as much gold as they need, as much spices, cotton, and mastic, which is found only in Chios, as much of the wood of the aloe, as many slaves to serve as sailors as their Majesties wish to demand; furthermore, rhubarb and other kinds of spices which I suppose those whom I left in the before-mentioned fort [La Navidad] have already discovered and will discover.
It wasn’t enough simply to sail west and return, like the mythic Brendan the Navigator, with only fabulous tales. To be a success, Columbus had to bring something back: not just goods but the promise of more goods and the ability to profit from them. And in the absence of serious amounts of gold or any of the legendary spices of India, enslaved workers were all he really had to offer—despite his halfhearted suggestions elsewhere that the Natives could be converted to Christianity or would turn out to be friendly and lucrative trading partners.
The Letter was written on board the Nina, after a harrowing journey back across the Ocean beset by storms which caused the Nina and the Pinta to become separated, with the Pinta presumed lost. In the Latin translation of the Letter, Columbus’s signoff is given as “Lisbon, the day before the Ides of March” (March 14th, but likely an error for March 4th). But in his original Spanish text, he had described himself as being “in a caravel off the Canary Islands." He may have believed this at the time, but in reality he had been blown off course and was actually just south of the Azores—a Portuguese possession. Upon arrival, he and his crew were briefly held by Portuguese authorities, somewhat dampening his triumphant return.
What’s more, the crew of the Pinta, captained by Columbus’s rival Martín Pinzon, would turn out to have survived. They beat Columbus to Spain—arriving exhausted at the port of Bayona ahead of the Genoese Admiral. Much might have been different if Pinzon had been able to tell his own version of their experiences across the ocean, but Columbus was again in luck—Pinzon died shortly after he arrived, before he had time to take control of the official story.
Bartolomeo de las Casas would later write, regarding Columbus’s statements about the Taíno and their suitability for forced labor, that “I have no doubt that if the Admiral had believed that such dreadful results would follow and had known as much about the primary and secondary effects of natural and divine law as he knew about cosmography and other human learning, he would never have introduced or initiated such a practice which was to lead to such terrible harm.” Whether or not that is true, it gives a sense of the shape the narrative would begin to take and the way it would later be received.
IV. Media Circus
The first announcement of Columbus’s findings across the Atlantic appeared in a two-leaf folio news sheet printed in Spanish at Barcelona in March or April of 1493—perhaps before Columbus himself had even arrived there in mid-April, and quite possibly without his permission. It contained the text of the manuscript letter (no longer extant) he had sent to Ferdinand and Isabella from Lisbon, and, to quote American bibliographer Margaret Stillwell—“few events have caused a quicker stir.”
That document exists today in only one copy, held by the New York Public Library. Columbus’s news was fortunate to come just as the age of print was dawning, allowing its quick spread through Europe. A single copy of a Spanish quarto edition also exists, held by the Biblioteca Ambrosiana. But it was the immediately following Latin translation which would reach the largest international audience, and spread the news of Columbus’s voyage across the continent.
There is scholarly debate over the source text of this Latin translation. Some have speculated it is based on a similar but not identical letter to the one contained in the Spanish folio; others suggest that the differences between the two texts stem from the editorializing of the translator, Leander di Cosco, with perhaps a few updated corrections gleaned from other sources. A short preface, only to the Latin version, is unsigned, but may be the work R.L. de Corbaria, Bishop of Monte Peloso, whose congratulatory epigram closes the document and who perhaps also oversaw its publication.
The first printings of this Latin translation comprise a set of editions made at Rome and attributed to Stephen Plannck, a printer associated with the Papal chancery. Both were issued in quick succession sometime between 29 April and 15 June—although Elizabeth Moore Willingham suggests that they were probably circulating in even the early days of May 1493. They are known bibliographically as Plannck I and Plannck II. Plannck I omits the name of Queen Isabella of Castile and exists in two settings; an immediate emendation was required and the corrected edition comprises Plannck II (as the present copy). In addition to acknowledging both Ferdinand and Isabella, this edition has other small corrections. The name of the Spanish royal treasurer, to whom Columbus was said to have sent the manuscript of his letter to be delivered to Ferdinand and Isabella, was corrected from Raphael Sanchis to Gabriel Sanchis, and the translator's first name corrected from Aliander to Leander.
Until the discovery of the Spanish editions in the 19th century, Plannck’s work was thought to be the editio princeps; it is perhaps the first “official” version, if the scholars who suspect that the Spanish printing was unauthorized are correct. Indeed, “a Latin translation and printing, overseen by a Catalan-born bishop perhaps operating under an impressive warrant, responds coherently to Aragonese interests in Italy. Such a project comports with Fernando’s propensity to create a public display implying sole sovereignty, validates Spain’s Roman and papal connections, and works to justify the production values and graceful touches of the Roman quartos” (Willingham). For Richard Henry Majors, scholar and curator of the British Museum’s map collection, the Latin Letter was “by far the most interesting” of the versions produced, capturing the first spark of the excitement that would soon spread of across Europe.
The publication of this document represents one of the earliest “media frenzies.” Hot off the press within weeks of Columbus’s return, copies of Plannck’s work spread to other cities and were reprinted and translated within the year; nine 15th century editions survive today, but there were likely more—and very few printed after 1494. The Letter was an announcement of breaking news, and as Columbus and his successors continued to go back and forth across the Atlantic, it became quickly out of date, being only the first glimmer of what would become a vast archival bureaucracy of Spanish activity in the Americas.
Harisse thought that the Latin translation of the Letter had become “generally inaccessible” early in the 16th century, with scholars and other interested parties largely relying on reports from subsequent voyages, as well as new chronicles of the Spanish action in the West Indies, for information about Columbus. This ephemeral publication preserves an epochal moment in time—the very beginning of sustained communication and exchange across the Atlantic.