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In Retrospect

No Cities, No Government, No King!

Azizul Jalil

“When Columbus set out he did not know where he was going; when he arrived he did not know where he was; when he returned he did not know where he had been, but all the same he discovered America.”

Lawrence A. Lowell, President of Harvard (1909-1933)

Christopher Columbus (original name-Cristobel Colon), at the age of forty-one, had set sail from the port of Palos on the southern coast of Spain on August 3, 1492, with three small ships- the Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Nina. He was a self-educated man, who, in accordance with the prevalent notions, believed that one could reach the East by sailing West. He was the admiral of that fleet and had the blessings and patronage of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. The purpose of the voyage was to discover and colonise new territories and spread Christianity. Columbus had the Far East and India in his vision, an ambition that eluded him. But what he landed upon was of great consequence and changed the course of history forever.

Columbus died without knowing that he had discovered a new world. He himself never stood on mainland North or South America. He did set foot on a few islands like San Salvador in the Bahamas, which he reached first on October 12, 1492. He named it Saviour. Then he reached Cuba, which he chose to name Juana. After a month of his return on March 15, 1493 to Spain, Columbus addressed a letter to Ferdinand's treasurer, Gabriel Sanchez for the King's information, in which he reported on his findings during the first voyage about the islands he discovered in “the Indian Sea, beyond the Ganges.” The letter was first published in Spanish at Barcelona, in April 1493. The following is the substance of what he conveyed:

Because the “undertakings have attained success, I know that it would be pleasing to you: these I have determined to relate, so that you may be made acquainted with every thing done and discovered in our voyage.” The native people in the island of Juana (Cuba) were timid and fearful of outsiders. They ran away and would not face the sailors, who were sent a few miles inland to scout the area. Columbus was hoping that the area would have a king and a government he could deal with. But none could be found. There were, “no towns or cities situated in the south coast, but only some villages and rude farms, with whose inhabitants I was unable to converse, because as soon as they saw us they took flight.” The local people, as in other islands, were mostly naked, except some women who had some kind of leaf or cotton cloth to cover themselves. The island was beautiful. It had safe and wide harbours and there were high mountains. There were a great variety of trees, including palm, pine trees and herbs and fruits. The trees were green and flourishing even in the month of November when Columbus was exploring the island. This led him to believe that the trees were evergreen and did not shed leaves. Nightingales and other birds were singing.

In another island, which he called Hispana, Columbus found fertile plains, very suitable for cultivation and for building houses. This island had different kinds of spices, gold and other metals, but no iron. Local people had no weapons, which were unknown to them. They carried some kind of wooden weapon, which were reeds baked in the sun, on the lower ends of which they fasten shafts of dried wood. Even these weapons they were too afraid to use: “A compact troop of the Indians would march out, and as soon as they saw our men approaching, they would quickly take flight.” Once they were reassured that no harm would come to them, they were found to be of simple manners and trustworthy. They would offer food and other essentials, even though they themselves did not have these in plenty. In exchange, they did not expect any thing and when offered, would be satisfied with even the most insignificant goods and trinkets.

Columbus Landing at Guanahani, 1492

Columbus reported that in all the islands, people's appearances were similar and they all understood each other. He noticed that women worked more than the men. He was not sure whether people had individual property, as he saw that one man had the responsibility of distributing refreshments and food to the others. Sensing that it was the King's desire to convert the local people to Christianity, Columbus reported, “as far as I can perceive, they are ready and favourably inclined.”

Columbus ended the letter with some pride. He wrote that “if anyone has written or said anything about these islands, it was all with obscurities and conjectures; no one claims that he had seen them.” He proposed that religious processions be solemnised and festivals begun and churches covered by festive garlands to “give thanks to Lord Jesus Christ, who has bestowed upon us so great a victory and gift.”

On the way back, Santa Maria was wrecked in the present-day Haiti. With two ships, the Nina and the Pinta, Columbus resumed his journey. But the homeward voyage was very rough and the Nina, in which Columbus was travelling, nearly sank. Columbus feared not death but losing credit for the great discovery. So he wrote on a piece of parchment : “how I had discovered the lands, how many days it took and the route by which they were reached, the value of the countries and the nature of the inhabitants.” The parchment was sealed, put in a cake of wax, and placed in a large barrel and thrown into the sea. This was never retrieved.

Columbus returned from his first voyage of discovery on March 15, 1493. He was received by Ferdinand and Isabella at Barcelona. They gave him a grand reception, confirmed his title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and awarded a new title of Viceroy of the Indies. He was ordered to go on voyages for further exploration. Columbus made three other voyages to America, the last one in 1503, still seeking the western route to the islands of Asia. He died in the year 1506.

Source: World's Great Letters, Edited by M. Lincoln Schuster, Columbus-The Great Adventure by Paolo Emilio Taviani and the World Book Encyclopedia.

Azizul Jalil writes from Washington

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