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A Letter from Columbus

Christopher Columbus provided the first description of his voyage to the "new world" in a letter he wrote on the Nina.


Colombus papersOctober 14, 2013--Before he returned to the European shore in 1493, Christopher Columbus drafted a letter capturing his "discoveries," which was sent upon landing to Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella and to Ferdinand's treasurer. The latter quickly made its way into print and news of Columbus's voyage spread throughout Europe. Harvard's Houghton Library holds a 1493 printing of the letter, providing an example of one way word of a momentous event was shared 500 years ago.

To satisfy large demand, the printer produced three different editions, printing quickly and inexpensively. Translation of the text from Spanish to Latin meant that a significantly larger audience could read it. A single sheet of paper was folded to make four leaves and the type was small and densely set. The illustrations are from woodcuts already in the printer's stock, rather than custom-made. Despite the relatively large numbers of copies that circulated, few survive today due to its small, fragile size. (Thanks to John Overholt of Houghton Library for contributing to this post.)



When Christopher Columbus returned to Europe in 1492 following his journey to the "new world," he dispatched a letter, "Epistola de insulis noviter repertis," to the treasurer of Aragon--the first known document describing his first voyage. The letter was quickly printed and the news spread throughout Europe. Harvard's Houghton Library holds a copy, pictured above, printed in Paris in 1493.

Christopher Columbus's first letter reporting on his first voyage to the "new world" was written on the final leg of his journey, aboard the Nina. Sent to Luis de Santangel, Ferdinand II's treasurer, the letter describes the habitat, people and natural resources and some of his activities, including sailing along the coast of what is now Cuba and building a fort on what is now Haiti. The same letter was also sent to Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. 

Harvard's 1493 printing of Columbus's letter.

The 1493 printing of Christopher Columbus's first letter describing his voyage to the "new world" held by Harvard's Houghton Library was a gift presented to Harvard by the Bodleian Library at Oxford University on the occasion of Harvard's tercentenary in 1936.