The uncertainty that always accompanied the impending death of a monarch in early modern Europe ran particularly high in Castile in late 1504. Queen Isabel’s heir, Juana, was mentally ill, and it was unknown who would occupy the position of regent. Could Isabel’s promises be relied on? How best to capture the attention and favor of the new regent?

One of the most anxious petitioners was the ailing Christopher Columbus, unable to visit the dying Isabel or to solicit Juana personally. Two years earlier, before departing for his fourth and last voyage to the Americas, he had persuaded Isabel to confirm his political and economic powers in the world he had discovered. Originally granted to him in 1492, those promises were of doubtful legality and had been withdrawn in 1500. Despite his 1502 petition, Columbus found, on his return in November 1504, that the royal promises had not been formally confirmed after all. The status of his claims was still ambiguous.

Unable to make his case himself, Columbus relied on his oldest son, Diego, to publicize his claims. From the Libro de los privilegios, the documents, legal opinions, and letters he had assembled before departing two years earlier, Columbus personally selected portions, ranging from complete documents to individual paragraphs, for Diego to use in furthering his claims. Diego had these selections copied into manuscripts in 1505. Though Diego successfully sued the monarchy in 1509, the documents were not used as evidence in any legal proceeding; instead they remained a private family possession and were eventually acquired by the John Carter Brown Library in 1890.

This collection, which the Brown Library calls Spanish Codex I, has been published jointly by the library and Carvajal S. A. This beautiful volume comprises a facsimile reproduction of the codex, a transcription of it, and translations from sixteenth-century Castilian into modern Spanish and English. Helen Nader has provided an excellent introduction in both Spanish and English.

While some scholarly apparatus accompanies the translations, this volume will bear limited interest for scholars. Though this is the first English translation of them, the documents have been published before in Spanish. Their greatest interest lies in the larger context of the legal suits over Columbus’ rights, which continued well into the sixteenth century. This volume will interest a larger public, however; one that can appreciate the art of bookmaking and be sensitive to its historical circumstances. The existence in the Americas of such a public is itself a tribute to the events and personalities this fine volume commemorates.