By André Bastos Gurgel, OAB
One of the greatest unknown Latin gems of the post-medieval period is a letter written by Christopher Columbus to his employers. This important historical document written in the language of Cicero contains Columbus’ first impression of the New World on his journey to find a new route to the Indies.
Was the Letter Originally Written in Latin?
It isn’t clear if Columbus originally wrote the letter in Latin. Unfortunately for us, the original document was lost. However, Latin was often used in historical, political and administrative documents in the 16th century. It was the language of the elites and Columbus’ employers, the Catholic king Ferdinand and his wife Isabel, who were particularly fond of Latin texts. Latin remained the lingua franca of diplomats until the 19th century, when it was replaced by French.
The first printed edition of the Latin translation of Columbus’ letter was probably printed in Rome by Stephen Plannck, c. May 1493. Most other early Latin editions are reprints of this edition. The title is given as “De Insulis Indiae supra Gangem nuper inventis” (“Of the islands of India beyond the Ganges, recently discovered”).
Serious students of history should go to primary sources whenever possible since secondary sources are often not as trustworthy, and this is a marvelous piece for all Latin and history enthusiasts. The letter’s style is relatively simple. Columbus was eager to spread the news of his discovery, so he wrote in a simple and straightforward style, which is perfect for intermediate Latin students. I hope more teachers will consider sharing this piece of history with this students and assigning it as homework. The translator is R. H. Major.
Tricesimo tercio die postquam Gadibus discessi, in mare Indicum perveni, ubi plurimas insulas innumeris habitatas hominibus reperi. Quarum omnium pro fœlicissimo Rege nostro, præconio celebrato et vexillis extensis, contradicente nemine possessionem accepi. Primeque earum divi Salvatoris nomen imposui, cuius fretus auxilio tam ad hanc quam ad ceteras alias pervenimus. Eam vero Indi Guanahanyn vocant. Aliarum etiam unamquamque novo nomine nuncupavi, quippe aliam insulam Sancte Marie Conceptionis, aliam Fernandinam, aliam Hysabellam, aliam [f. 30v] Iohannam et sic de reliquis appellari iussi.
“Knowing that it will afford you pleasure to learn that I have brought my undertaking to a
successful termination, I have decided upon writing you this letter to acquaint you with all the events which have occurred in my voyage, and the discoveries which have resulted from it. Thirty-three days after my departure from Cadiz I reached the Indian sea, where I discovered many islands, thickly peopled, of which I took possession without resistance in the name of our most illustrious Monarch, by public proclamation and with unfurled banners. To the first of these islands, which is called by the Indians Guanahani, I gave the name of the blessed Saviour (San Salvador), relying upon whose protection I had reached
this as well as the other islands to each of these I also gave a name, ordering that one should be called Santa Maria de la Concepcion, another Fernandina, the third Isabella, the fourth Juana, and so with all the rest respectively.”
Columbus’ letter is an important historical document that Latin teachers will find to be an excellent combination of Latin exercise and history lesson.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
André Bastos Gurgel, OAB (Order of Attorneys of Brazil), Academic Advisor for the Carmenta Online Latin School, is a life-long student of both modern and ancient languages. Mr. Gurgel is fluent in English, Portuguese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Latin (the last of which he learned with Carmenta) and has a working knowledge of Danish, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. Mr. Gurgel is currently studying Old English through Carmenta as well.
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