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In Search of Columbus

| 29.12.02
In Search of Columbus: The Sources for the first Voyage, by David P. Henige

In In Search of Columbus: The Sources for the first Voyage, David P. Henige effectively criticizes the diario (Columbus' ship log for the first voyage), showing that as a primary source it is very problematic. Henige argues from the viewpoint that the diario is primarily a work by Bartolomé de las Casas, and as such is a corrupted source at best. ...The text we have is, by the transcribers own admission, largely a paraphrase of another secondary text. (7)

The problem with the diario as a primary source is thus made apparent. The copy of the diario that we have in our possession today is in fact two, or even possibly three times removed from the original source. To trace the history of the diario helps explain this problem. To begin with, there must have been an original diario, the ships log that Columbus kept on his first voyage to The Indies. Then the picture begins to become ambiguous. According to some sources, it is possible that Columbus made a copy of the log for the sovereigns instead of handing over the original copy, which Columbus would have kept to help substantiate his future claims as Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Then it is known that the royal scribes made copies of the diario. One of these copies was used by las Casas, who in turn made the transcription that is known as the diario we have today. (22,23)

Henige believes that there are many reasons to believe that the original text of the diario was altered. The scribes may have doctored the numbers to make the new lands fall into Spains domain under the Treaty of Todesillas with Portugal. (104) There is even more reason to believe that las Casas may have incorporated changes into the work. In comparing las Casas diario with Ferdinand Columbus Historia de las Indias, Henige found that the December 25, 1493 diario entry concerning the beaching of the Santa María exaggerates the role of the Indians, and their willingness to help. (44) Henige goes as far as to state that, the later it [the diario] was transcribed, the more Las Casass increasingly impassioned views on the Spanish treatment of the Indians would effect the character of the work, which is, after all, largely paraphrase. (19)

Henige cites many other examples in which it appears that the diario has been altered as well. Henige doubts the validity of the October 11, 1492 entry in which Columbus reports seeing a light that later proves to be land based on the following observations. First, the story of Columbus seeing the light occurs in the text subsequent to an entry in which land has already been sighted. Secondly, the story of the light has only Columbus word to back it up, since the two witnesses mentioned in the entry are among those who are later left at La Navidad, where they perish. (107) In sum, the passage [of the sighting of the light] bears every mark of being an ex post facto abuse of Columbuss monopoly of the log. (171)

Henige sees the motivations behind the diario we possess today to be threefold. First, it was a propaganda device for Columbus. Second, as a marital account, it was a subterfuge to beguile the Portuguese. Finally, it was an instrument to Las Casas, for his world view, and for his opinions concerning the treatment of the Indians by the Spanish. (122) If we accept these conclusions, the ramification for Columbus study are great. In essence, the diario is discredited as an accurate source of Columbus route to the New World, his treatment of the Indians, and of practically any observation about the lands and peoples Columbus encountered.

Henige uses the inaccuracies in the diario as the centerpiece to an argument highlighting Columbus research in general. Henige believes there is a tendency to pick and choose testimony from the diario solely to satisfy particular modern predispositions and in subservience to grand designs. (285) He states that there is a natural tendency to grant critical immunity to sources that provide unique access to major historical occasions (2) and that as such a source the diario has been given a place in the literature that is more than its due.

The major problem with Heniges study is that it criticizes effectively, yet doesn't provide an answer to the question: What then can we believe about Columbus with any degree of accuracy? Henige manages to impeach most of the major sources used in Columbus studies, yet provides us with no alternative source of information. If it is indeed endemic in this field to see arguments based upon faulty and partial evidence, Henige does not provide a way in which to say anything about Columbus with accuracy. Henige has been accused of hyper criticism and has been labeled a Pyrrhonist critic. (284) Perhaps this is overstating, but Henige leaves us with no answers about Columbus or his motivations. There are only questions.

PUBLISHER: Tucson, University of Arizona Press, 1991.

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