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| 30.12.02
The Diario of Christopher Columbus’s first Voyage to America: 1492-1493, Oliver Dunn and James E. Kelley, Jr., trans. Abstracted by Fray Bartolomé de las Casas.

Dunn and Kelley’s translation of the diario is very useful to both the Spanish and non-Spanish speaker, in that it provides a modern English translation side-by-side with a faithful rendering of the Spanish original. While some typographical problems presented themselves in rendering a manuscript filled with ambiguous characters, deletions, and postils written on large folios into a comprehensible book, Dunn and Kelley have managed to do this without “cleaning up” the text of the manuscript or purging valuable information. By stating exactly what changes were made for the sake of continuity and clarity in the preface, the reader is not left wondering where alterations in the original text begin and the actual manuscript ends.

The diario, however, is highly problematic in and of itself as an historical document. What we term Christopher Columbus’ diario is in fact a rendering of the original by Bartolomé de las Casas, a Franciscan friar who lived in roughly the same period as Columbus. While parts of the diario are rendered in what appears to be a word for word transcription of the original, other parts are clearly paraphrased by las Casas. In some instances it is difficult to tell where “The Admiral” leaves off and las Casas begins. This makes the diario’s use as a primary source doubtful.

The audience for the which the diario was written also casts doubts on the verity of the statements therein. Columbus was keeping the record for the express (expressed in the prologue) purpose of detailing his voyage to king Ferdinand and queen Isabella. His descriptions of New World inhabitants as “good intelligent servants,” (67) “very naive about weapons” that “can be made to do whatever one might wish” (76) can be seen as primarily statements made to justify his voyage and its expense. Likewise, Columbus’ constant mentioning of the native’s lack of any sort of religion seems to emphasize the need for converting the Indians, again justifying more voyages. While Columbus did not bring back much of anything of value on the first voyage to the New World, the diario is constantly speaking of “mastic,” “aloe,” and “a thousand other good things.” Columbus exaggerates to the point where “a loaf of wax” become the signifier of hidden riches beyond imagine. (189)

There appears to be a dichotomy in the diario between the manner in which Columbus wanted to treat the Indians, and the manner in which they were actually treated. Columbus wanted the Indians to be remunerated for everything which his men traded for. “But the Admiral, seeing the openheartedness of the Indians, who for six glass beads would give and do give a piece of gold, for that reason ordered that nothing should be removed from them without giving them something in payment.” (265) In addition, on October 15, 1492, Columbus gives an Indian a ride onboard ship in an attempt foster goodwill between the Indians and the Europeans for future visits. (85) However, after the initial contact with the Indians, fear seems to be the rule rather than the exception. When there was no gold in great quantity to be found in the new lands, Columbus resorted to capturing Indians to return to Spain as slaves. On Wednesday, December 17, 1492 part of the entry reads, “Finally they captured one woman --for they could catch no more-- because, he says, I had ordered them to catch some [people] in order to treat them courteously and make them lose their fear, which would be something profitable since it seems that the land cannot be otherwise than profitable, judging by its beauty.” (219)

It is clear from the diario, however, that Columbus believed that he was sailing towards, and had indeed discovered, a new route to the “Indies.” Repeated references to the “Grand Khan” and “the end of the Orient” where the fabled “terrestrial paradise” is said to be reveals to us that although Columbus never encountered any Asian civilizations, he always believed that he was in the East. (383)

In brief, the diario reveals to us three main motivations for Columbus’ journey: God, gold, and glory. Las Casas and Columbus both refer to Columbus as “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” a title Columbus had fought to attain for both himself and his descendants in perpetuity. Columbus sought gold, not only for himself and for his sovereign, but also so that he could “prepare to go conquer the Holy Sepulcher; for thus I urged Your Highness to spend all profits of this my enterprise on the conquest of Jerusalem.” (291) Thus it would appear that not only did Columbus desire to Christianize the native, he also wanted to start a Crusade to take Jerusalem back from the Muslims.

The main problems with the diario, however, remain the following. How accurate is it as a document which reflects what actually happened on the voyages? Given its audience, the manner by which it comes to us through time, and the motives of its author, it seems that any statements substantiated by the diario must be carefully examined in light of the above considerations.

PUBLISHER: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.

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