The Diario is the account of the first Columbian voyage to America, from August 5, 1492, to March 15, 1493, the subject of current quincentenary celebrations. Its significance is that it started a continuous and unique record of the Europeans’ encounter with America. The present translation and transcription of the Diario presents the most faithful rendering of the text now available. An introduction about procedure, notes throughout, and several key aids bring the reader as close to the original as possible.
That the logbook is not an original but the extract of a copy made by Bartolomé de Las Casas years after the event does not diminish its importance. The Dunn and Kelley transcription is based on the Spanish facsimile published by Carlos Sanz in 1962, and it gets the best available translation. The English text follows the Spanish on facing pages and retains the folio numbers, with recto and verso designations. The transcription indicates all abbreviations, insertions, strike-outs, marginalia, omissions, copying errors, and punctuation.
An introduction concerning procedure and a generous index are complemented by a concordance that lists every word, text reference, and number of uses; and a bibliography. Care with the paleography and translation is matched by computer expertise, judiciously employed in problems of text identified on page 2. The task of sorting out the “very words” of the Admiral from those of Las Casas continues to resist the construction of the text. What concerns critics most is the translation of some key terms favoring one or another theory of Columbus’ trajectory across the ocean and in the Caribbean, and his descriptions of the islands and people. Experts will continue to debate these issues in view of the lack of certain proof. The Dunn and Kelley version of the Diario is a tribute to great care and competence. Whoever would do better has a solid base and a formidable challenge.
Columbus was a pioneer in the sense of establishing the permanent presence of Europeans in America. Curiosity about who he was starts with the man himself. The Libro de las profecías is a document of self-definition. If the Diario described what he did and how he did it, this book is his interpretation of who he thought himself to be and his role, in the biblical sense, sub specie aeternitatis.
The Libro de las profecías is a collection of prophetic texts from the Bible, the saints, and the classics, compiled by Columbus and copied by various hands. In 1501–1502, after returning from the third voyage and while seeking support for the fourth, at the lowest point of the trajectory toward his goals, Columbus tried to reinforce the vision of himself and of the Catholic kings that he is now believed to have already expressed upon his return from the first voyage in 1493: to fulfill biblical and classical prophecies (see the Libro copiador, ed. Antonio Ruraeu de Armas, 1989).
Two pieces by Columbus are included: a letter to the Catholic kings and the incipit. The latter presents “statements and prophecies on the subject of the recovery of God s Holy City and Mount Zion, and on the invention and evangelization of the islands of the Indies and of all other peoples and nations.” These two aims are embedded in the classical tradition of chronology and astrology, joined for prediction.
In the letter Columbus calls himself unlearned but skilled in the mariner’s art. He asserts that the Lord opened his mind and his will to sail to the Indies to be the instrument of His prophets. He writes, “It should be noted that in the Holy Scriptures the verbs in the past tense are sometimes used for the future, and so with other tenses.” This manipulation of time enabled him to position his mission in the biblical tradition. As the Apocalypse might be close, Columbus offered to the Spanish crown the credit and opportunity to fulfill ancient prophecies and to become lord of the New Jerusalem.
The current edition of the text comprises a translation of the quotations, on facing pages, by August Kling, and an introductory text of 95 pages by Delno C. West. This commentary covers Columbus’ intellectual and cultural background and his piety and faith. Could anyone who reads about Columbus doubt the “inner fire” he mentions that drove him? Would anyone believe that mentioning gold 153 times and not a single prophet in the Diario, and compiling a Libro de privilegios to confirm his titles and economic rights at the same time as the Profecías, reflects only on his situation and not on himself? Private ambitions fitted into an apocalyptic vision would be in keeping with the traditions of the time, as shown in the introduction.
Careless proofreading is a flaw that could have been avoided: Santo Porto for Porto Santo, Bobadillo(a), Fray John Pérez but Hernando de Talavera, Roselly de Lorgues (index) and Roselly de Longues (text), Azcuto for Zacuto, Popes Innocent III and VII (both should be VIII), and “most unique” should not have passed. Yet these are but surface blemishes on a valuable addition to translated texts, neglected for too long, about the multifaceted personality of Christopher Columbus.
As for what we really know about the first voyage, David Henige attempts a modern interpretation. He subjects the Diario to literary criticism as well as historical analysis. He describes the circumstances of its making, then conducts an extended study of the treatment the Diario received at the hands of editors.
Henige considers problems of transcription and translation in the Diario’s 19 editions. Sanz’s facsimile edition made paleographic examination possible, and made editors responsible for rendering the text with complete faithfulness to the source, allowing neither additions nor omissions. Dunn and Kelley’s transcription is remarkably faithful, the translation readable and honest. Any serious reader would have to consider the large number of corrections, deletions, and marginalia; that is, the evolution or process through which the text was made. When confronted with inconsistencies of times and distances of the log, no preferences of incompatible times and distances should allow alteration of the text. But the question is, are scholars to stop because as written, something makes no sense? This is not suggested, though severe restrictions are imposed and ample notes required for taking the risk of interpretation, which will always remain a hypothesis.
One feature of the Las Casas transcript is his attribution to Columbus of favorable reports on the natives. These characterizations more closely represent Las Casas than Columbus, who expressed various opinions. Henige adds to this examination that of the nature, role, and limits of archaeological contributions to the search for sources of the first voyage. His extraordinarily comprehensive bibliography includes titles on chemistry and the history of music. The book is a stimulating exercise in stripping a historical source of past interpretations, distortions, and associations, by submitting it to the widest possible range of modern expertise. Though we shall never be able to know the whole truth, we are not kept from looking for significance, and from having to write history.