This collection of documents and writings is a generally successful attempt to delineate the character of Columbus and give the flavor of the first Spanish contacts with the New World. It includes pertinent letters by Columbus himself, selections from Hernando Colón, Bartolomé de las Casas, and G. Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, and two especially interesting accounts of men who accompanied Columbus on his second and fourth voyages. All are interwoven so as to present a connected rather than a comparative account.
As the rather unsympathetic editor points out in his introduction, Columbus emerges as a man with little formal training in navigation but a good deal of natural aptitude. His stubbornness in holding to fantastic geographical theories was heightened by an exaggerated sense of supernatural destiny and a belief that he was receiving direct revelation. The editor’s contention that Columbus was completely inept at handling men is less well supported by the documents, which make clear that Columbus fully understood the totally rapacious nature of his followers.
The most important secondary theme is the Spanish treatment of the Indians. From the first contact, deceiving the natives into a sense of false security was the sole motive for Spanish kindness, a kindness that was followed by treachery whenever expedient. When the natives reciprocated, the Spaniards found the Indian attitude incomprehensible.
It is unfortunate that the introduction and notes do not measure up to the documents. The introduction gives only a hint of the historiographical conflict concerning the voyages, with which the probable reader of this volume is not likely to be familiar. The notes are sometimes misleading. For example (p. 129), the editor states that the second expedition included “twelve to fifteen thousand men.” This is so patently ridiculous that it can scarcely be regarded as a mere slip.
In spite of these faults, the book should be useful in undergraduate classes, particularly if used on a comparative basis with the Jamestown experience. The parallels are striking.