7. Letter from Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus letter in the Polonsky Exhibition
Christopher Columbus Letter. Photo by Robert Kato.

During his initial voyage to America in 1493, Christopher Columbus extensively recounted his experiences in a series of letters, one of which was addressed to Luis de Santangel, Treasurer of Aragon. Though the original handwritten letter no longer exists, the Polonsky Exhibition features the only known surviving copy of the letter’s first printed edition, which was disseminated across Europe and gave the continent’s people their first view into the world of the Americas. 

The letter features detailed descriptions of the New World’s abundance of resources and Columbus’ interactions with the native populations. In examining the start of the letter, Columbus’ distorted worldview is placed on full display. He writes that as he placed down the royal Spanish flag, “no me fue contradicho,” translating to “without opposition.” Immediately, this line implicates the native populations as having been receptive and understanding of Columbus’s actions and control, a fact we know today as not having been true. In the end, at the same time as Columbus’s letter represents the coming of a prosperous era for the Spanish Empire and European conquest, it also serves as the start for the tragic end of many ancient civilizations in the Americas.