When Christopher Columbus arrived on the Bahamian Island of Guanahani (San Salvador) in 1492, he encountered the Taíno people, whom he described in letters as "naked as the day they were born." The Taíno had complex hierarchical religious, political, and social systems. Skilled farmers and navigators, they wrote music and poetry and created powerfully expressive objects. At the time of Columbus’s exploration, the Taíno were the most numerous indigenous people of the Caribbean and inhabited what are now Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. By 1550, the Taíno were close to extinction, many having succumbed to diseases brought by the Spaniards. Taíno influences survived, however, and today appear in the beliefs, religions, language, and music of Caribbean cultures.
Columbus’s Account of 1492 Voyage
After his first transatlantic voyage, Christopher Columbus sent an account of his encounters in the Americas to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Several copies of his manuscript were made for court officials, and a transcription was published in April 1493. This Latin translation was published the same year. In reporting on his trip to his sovereigns, Columbus wrote:
There I found very many islands, filled with innumerable people, and I have taken possession of them all for their Highnesses, done by proclamation and with the royal standard unfurled, and no opposition was offered to me.
Columbus’s Voyage and the New World
This edition of the Columbus letter, printed in Basel in 1494, is illustrated. The five woodcuts, which supposedly illustrate Columbus’s voyage and the New World, are in fact mostly imaginary, and were probably adapted drawings of Mediterranean places. This widely published report made Columbus famous throughout Europe. It earned him the title of Admiral, secured him continued royal patronage, and enabled him to make three more trips to the Caribbean, which he firmly believed to the end was a part of Asia. Seventeen editions of the letter were published between 1493 and 1497. Only eight copies of all the editions are extant.
Columbus’s Book of Privileges
On January 5, 1502, prior to his fourth and final voyage to America, Columbus gathered several judges and notaries at his home in Seville to authenticate copies of original documents in which Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand had granted titles, revenues, powers, and privileges to him and his descendants. These thirty-six documents are popularly called Columbus’s "Book of Privileges." Four copies of his "Book" existed in 1502, including one now in Paris from which the elaborate facsimile shown here was made. This publication was one of a number of major documentary projects commemorating the 400th anniversary of the first Columbus voyage in 1892.
Columbus Biography Written by His Son
Fernando Colón was born in Córdoba, Spain, in 1488 and spent his early years there with his mother. As a youth, he traveled to the New World with his father on Columbus’s fourth voyage. As an adult, Fernando became a scholar and built a large personal library using the income from his father’s legacy. Fernando wrote this biography in defense of his father in about 1538.
Fernando Colón (1488–1539). Historie del sig. don Fernando Colombo, nelle quali s'hà particolare, & vera relatione della vita, & de' fatti dell'ammiraglio don Christoforo Colombo suo padre (History by Don Fernando Columbus . . . Don Christopher Columbus, his father). Milan: Girolamo Bordoni, . Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (051.00.00, 051.00.02, 051.00.03)
The grants of privileges and property bestowed on Christopher Columbus by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella became the subject of ongoing litigation between his descendants and the Spanish crown that lasted for centuries. The dispute was finally settled in 1796 in favor of Columbus’s descendants. This collection of printed documents, which includes extracts of Columbus’s will, relates to a dispute over the line of inheritance of one of the explorer's estates in the Americas.
Christoper Columbus. Por parte del conde de Gelues, de doña Francisca Colon, de don Christoual Colon, y de don Baltasar Colon, se suplica a V.m. que cerca de la executoria que la parte de la marquesa de Guadaleste pide, de la que llama sente[n]cia, dada en su fauor por el consejo Real de las Indias. [Spain: s.n., ca. 1586]. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (052.00.00, 052.00.01, 052.00.02, 052.00.03)
Ceremonial Wooden Stool
Preserved Pre-Columbian duhos (ceremonial wooden stools) from the Caribbean region are exceedingly rare because they are usually found only in dry highland caves. There are two basic types: low horizontal forms with concave seats, such as this one, and stools with long curved backrests. Scholars differ as to the function of the stools. Some believe they represented seats of authority. Others think they served as altars for votive offerings. Still others argue that the Taíno peoples used them as ceremonial trays for making cohoba, a hallucinogenic snuff prepared for shamanistic rituals.
The Taíno, a subgroup of the Arawakan Indians from northeastern South America, inhabited the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico). The Taíno created a complicated religious system that included a hierarchy of deities, which included Yucahu, the supreme Creator and the lord of cassava and the sea and Atabey, the goddess of fresh water and human fertility, as well as Yucahu's mother. The Taíno believed that zemis, gods of both sexes, represented by both human and animal forms, provided protection.
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Shell Amulet. Haiti or Dominican Republic. Taíno, AD 700–1500. Carved shell. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (055.00.01)
A crouching figure amulet. Puerto Rico (?). Taíno, AD 1000–1500. Marble. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (055.00.02)
In the form of a crouching figure with head turned to the side and grasping a stylized figure amulet. Puerto Rico (?). Taíno, AD 1000–1500. Stone. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (055.00.03)
Two anthropomorphic amulet figures (zemis) in a ritual squatting position possibly the wind god and the a smaller frog avatar. Haiti. Taíno, AD 700–1500. Carved shell. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (055.00.04)
Conch shell ornament representing a humanoid face. Puerto Rico. Taíno, AD 1000–1500. Carved shell. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (055.00.05)
Spatula Used for Purging
This long, gracefully curved spatula was used for purging before taking the sacred trance-inducing cohoba, a powerful snuff of nicotine-rich tobacco. The earlobes and eye sockets once held inlays, perhaps of gold leaf or shell.
This intact pottery container is a heart-shaped bottle covered with complex iconography, including female and male attributes. The two lobes represent female breasts and the neck, a phallus. Scholars believe these vessels were water containers used in rituals and ceremonies.
Early Description of the New World
Antonio Nebrija, best known for attempting to standardize the Castilan dialect of Spanish as a written language, had many geographical interests. Advisor to Columbus's son Ferdinand Colón, Antonio Nebrija attempted to update the geography of Ptolemy, Strabo, Pliny, and other classical sources "to the reality of our times" and to include information from the discoveries of contemporary European explorers. This book contains one of the earliest descriptions of the New World.
Chronicling the New World
Gonzolo Oviedo sailed in 1514 on the first of his many journeys to America, where he compiled detailed descriptions and woodcut illustrations of products and goods found in the New World. The Spaniard introduced Europe to an enormous variety of previously unheard of "exotica," including the pineapple, the canoe, smoking tobacco, the manatee, and hammocks. Along with Perro Mártir de Angleria and Bartolomé de las Casas, Oviedo was one of the first European chroniclers of New World goods.
In 1541, Girolamo Benzoni left his native Milan for a fifteen-year trip through South and Central America. He published this account of his travels in 1565. Shocked by experiences of Spanish cruelty toward the Indians, Benzoni denounced the mistreatment. He also criticized importation of African slaves. Although Benzoni has been criticized for exaggeration, his work provides a compact history of the Americas from the arrival of Columbus to the conquest of Peru, from firsthand perspective not colored by Spanish bias. His crude woodcut illustrations give a glimpse of indigenous life before it was altered by European civilization.
Girolamo Benzoni (b. 1519). La historia del mondo nuovo di M. Girolamo Benzoni Milanese [The history of the New World of Mr. Girolamo Benzoni of Milan]. [Venice: F. Rampazetto, 1565.] Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (068.00.00, 068.00.01, 068.00.02, 068.00.03)