Skip to main content Skip to main content

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Exploring Borderlands Christopher Columbus (1451-1506)

[7508] Vve. Turgis, Depart de Christophe Colomb (c. 1850-1900), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-2029].

In his 1828 biography of Christopher Columbus, American author Washington Irving styled Columbus as the archetypal American hero. Walt Whitman similarly lauded Columbus as an early mystic and religious seeker in his poem “Prayer of Columbus.” Other authors and thinkers have not always agreed with these nineteenth-century hagiographies. In fact, Columbus has inspired controversy since he developed his bold plan to establish a new trade route to the eastern lands of India and Japan by sailing west from Europe. Although he failed in his attempt to reach Asia, he did land in the Bahamas and the Caribbean, where he laid the foundation for European colonization of that region. Since the fifteenth century, cultural commentators have argued over the nature of Columbus’s accomplishment; his management of the Spanish colonies established in the Caribbean, his treatment of the native Indians who lived there, and especially his claim to the status of “discoverer” of America have provoked a variety of reactions ranging from adulation to censure. Columbus’s reputation has long been troubled by the fact that his successes in navigation and exploration cannot be separated from the legacy of exploitation and violence that mark European involvement in the New World. Any account of his writings and his deeds must begin with the acknowledgment that Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas led to the destruction of as much as four-fifths of the native population of the region.

Columbus was born in Genoa, but left Italy as a young man to train as a sailor and navigator. Although many of his contemporaries dismissed his plan to sail westward as impracticable and misguided, Columbus eventually convinced King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to finance an exploratory voyage in 1492 (the same year as the publication of the first Spanish Grammar, a text which is often credited as essential to the colonization of the New World). Five months after setting sail from Granada, Columbus and his crew landed in the Bahamas and immediately claimed possession of the land for Spain by reading a proclamation that was certainly incomprehensible to the natives already living there. Columbus recorded his impressions of the voyage, the islands, and the natives in a logbook and in letters that he sent to his backers in Spain. Impressed with Columbus’s inflated claims about the rich natural resources and wealth of the islands, Ferdinand and Isabella published his letters in Europe to assert their possession of this territory. Anxious to secure their control before other European powers could move into the region, the Spanish monarchs quickly sent Columbus on a second voyage of exploration and conquest in 1493.

Columbus returned to the island he had named Hispaniola to discover that all of the Spanish settlers he had left behind were dead, presumably because they had antagonized the native Taino Indians. The Tainos, who inhabited present-day Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, are descendants of the Arawaks and the early peoples of Mesoamerica. Although they had no calendar or writing system, the Tainos had a rich oral culture and were known for their ceremonial ball courts and their complex religious cosmology. Columbus attempted to enslave them and establish a new Spanish colony in Hispaniola, but the settlement soon devolved into rancor and violence after Columbus left to explore other islands in the region. He was forced to return to Spain in 1496 to settle the many political disagreements in which he had become embroiled. Upon his return to Europe, Columbus found his reputation tarnished by reports of his poor management of the colony and by his decision to enslave the Tainos. Nevertheless, he convinced the Spanish monarchs to fund a third voyage, begun in 1498. On this journey he reached the South American mainland, which he came to believe was the earthly paradise of Eden described in the Bible. This belief must have been severely tested when he returned to Hispaniola to find relations between the Indians and the Europeans in crisis and the settlers in open revolt against Columbus’s inflexible management style. Refusing to recognize him as their leader, the colonists placed him under arrest and sent him back to Spain.

Although the Spanish court stripped him of all political authority, Columbus managed to obtain funding for a fourth and final voyage to the New World (1502-04), during which he explored Central America, was shipwrecked on Jamaica, and came to believe that God had spoken to him directly. Eventually rescued, he returned to Spain with his health ruined and his reputation damaged. He died in 1506, bitter about his colony’s failure to provide him with the wealth and recognition he expected.

Unfortunately, the most important record of Columbus’s explorations, his journal, has been lost. Contemporary scholars have access to only a transcribed version composed by Bartolomé de las Casas approximately forty years after Columbus’s death. Columbus’s letters, however, were translated and widely reprinted in his lifetime and thus provide more authoritative accounts of his experiences, as well as evidence of the way written travel accounts came to underwrite imperial pretensions to empire and conquest. Tellingly, many of Columbus’s letters borrow from earlier travel narratives that described Asian and East Indian culture, thus interpolating the peoples and places he encountered into preexisting mythic categories. In many ways, Columbus’s letters tell us more about the worldview and expectations of Renaissance Spaniards than about Native American peoples as they “actually were” in the fifteenth century.

Teaching Tips

  • Ask your students to imagine that they have been sent to cover Columbus’s landing in Guanahani from the perspective of a present-day journalist. How would a journalist striving for objectivity recount Columbus’s initial encounter with the Indians? What kind of evidence could this journalist gather about how the Europeans might have appeared to the Indians? You might point out the linefrom Columbus’s “Letter to Luis de Santangel” in which he declares, “I have taken possession [of the island] for their highnesses, by proclamation made and with the royal standard unfurled, and no opposition was offered to me.” Ask students to think about how the Arawaks might have perceived this act. Would they have understood Columbus’s proclamation (read in Spanish)? Or the significance of the banner he “unfurled”? Why might they have decided against offering any opposition?
  • Ask your students to compare Columbus’s descriptions of the islands’ plants, natural features, and native inhabitants in the first and second letters featured in The Norton Anthology of American Literature. While the first letter is filled with the language of wonder and insists on the fertility and diversity of natural productions, the second letter is considerably less sanguine. Rather, Columbus seems preoccupied by the political strife created by the fractious colonists and by his resentment that his explorations have not generated great personal wealth. Ask students to consider what political project each letter was intended to serve. Why might Columbus insist that “Española is a marvel” in the first letter, and then portray it as an “exhausted,” unhealthy place populated by “cruel savages” in his later account?
  • One of the cartographic innovations during the Renaissance was a more “objective” mapping style that used latitudinal and longitudinal lines. Some historians have argued that this mode of visually representing landscapes and landmass corresponds to more “scientific” narrative descriptions of the natural resources and characteristics of the New World. Have your students examine some of the early European maps featured in the archive and compare their visual styles to Columbus’s narrative descriptions. What does his style of description have in common with the maps? Do your students agree with the idea that Columbus was attempting to create a kind of “verbal map” for the recipients of his letters?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: In his “Letter to Luis de Santangel,” Columbus declares that he has “taken possession” of the islands for “their highnesses” Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. What procedures does Columbus follow in order to take possession? What kind of attitude toward the native inhabitants’ rights underlies the ritual of possession that Columbus employed?
  2. Comprehension: Why does Columbus open his “Letter to Ferdinand and Isabella Regarding the Fourth Voyage” with the statement that he cannot think of the Caribbean colonies without weeping? What has led to his disillusionment?
  3. Context: Although Bartolomé de las Casas presented himself as a faithful and careful transcriber of Columbus’s journals, scholars have been skeptical about the accuracy of his transcription of these documents. Given the attitudes about colonization that inflect Casas’s Very Brief Relation of the Devastation of the Indies, what kind of bias might he have brought to the project of transcribing Columbus’s experiences? How might his attitudes toward the Indians have differed from Columbus’s?
  4. Context: How do Columbus’s descriptions of the natural resources he finds on the islands compare to John Smith’s accounts of the plants and animals he found in New England? How do these explorers and colonizers deploy similar rhetoric in their accounts of the abundance and fertility of the New World? Do they value the same natural commodities? How do their visions of the eco-nomic possibilities of these two different regions compare?
  5. Context: Columbus is clearly aware that the lands he “discovered” already have native Indian names. In his “Letter to Luis de Santangel,” for example, he explains that the Arawak Indians call their island “Guanahani.” Yet Columbus seems to have no reluctance about renaming the islands he visits, sometimes for religious reasons (San Salvador) and sometimes after Spanish royalty (Fernandina). Why does he feel justified in renaming the islands? What might he have hoped to accomplish in bestowing these Spanish names? How might his act of discovering and nam-ing relate to the biblical account of Adam naming objects in Eden in the Book of Genesis?
  6. Exploration: Columbus Day (the second Monday in October) has been celebrated as a national holiday since the early twentieth century. What are Americans supposed to be celebrating on that day? Should Americans continue to observe Columbus Day? Does the fact that the holiday was first instituted by Italian immigrant groups seeking to solidify their position in American society affect your assessment of its significance?.
  7. Exploration: How does the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century obsession with the figure of “Columbia” (discussed in Unit 4) relate to the actual experiences of the historical Columbus? Why might he have been an attractive figure to Americans immedi-ately after the Revolutionary War? Why do you think they con-sistently allegorized and feminized their representations of Columbus?

Selected Archive Items

[1368] Konrad Kolble, Replica of a Map of the Americas with Portraits of Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, Ferdinand Magellan and Francisco Pizarro around Border(1970), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-89908]. 
Konrad Kolble’s facsimile of a map published in 1600 by Theodor de Bry.

[2830] Simon Grynaeus and Johann Huttich, Detail from map in Novus Orbis Regionum ac Insularum Veteribus Incognitarum [Basle: Johann Hervagius, 1532] (1532), 
courtesy of the Jay I. Kislak Foundation, Inc. 
Map with detail of Native Americans practicing cannibalism. Scholars continue to debate whether indigenous peoples in the Americas practiced cannibalism, as the first explorers and colonizers claimed they did.

[2877] Mercator, Orbis Terrae Compendios Descripto (1587), 
courtesy of the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library/University of Georgia Libraries. 
Gerard Mercator was the most famous mapmaker after Ptolemy. His “Mercator Projection,” while no longer considered good for global viewing, is still useful for navigation.

[6555] Thomas Nast, A Belle Savage [Columbia Receiving Congratulations from All Parts of the World] (1876), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-105127]. 
This engraving, dating from the nation’s first centennial, shows Columbia holding congratulatory papers from such foreign leaders as William Von Bismarck and Alexander II.

[7399] Cortes(?), La Gran Ciudad de Temixtlan (1524), 
courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago. 
This map of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán is often attributed to Cortes. It is European in style, but the map-view contains information suggesting a native source.

[7508] Vve. Turgis, Depart de Christophe Colomb (c. 1850-1900),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-2029]. 
This lithograph shows Columbus and his crew leaving the port of Palos, Spain, bound for the New World, with a large crowd gathered to see the spectacle.

[7511] Anonymous, Landing of Columbus (c. 1860-80), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4188].
This lithograph shows Columbus and members of his crew displaying objects to Native American men and women on shore.

[7512] George Schlegel, Columbus Reception by the King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain after His First Return from America (c. 1870), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-96536]. 
This lithograph shows Columbus kneeling in front of the king and queen, who are surrounded by courtiers. Armed men and Indians look on.

[8344] Enrico Causici and Antonio Capellano, Christopher Columbus (1824), 
courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol. 
One of the sculptural reliefs in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. The figure of Columbus looms large in U.S. cultural history, despite his exploitation of the native peoples he encountered on his voyages.

[8345] Randolph Rogers, Columbus before the Council of Salamanca, 1487 (1860),
courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol. 
Columbus at the Council of King Ferdinand presenting a chart from an unsuccessful voyage in order to gain support for his theory regarding a new route to India. On the sides are statuettes of Columbus’s friend Juan Perez de Marchena and King Henry VII of England, a patron of navigation, both of whom agreed with Columbus’s theory.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6