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European history of the 15th century is famous for the beginning of colonization and opening the New World, even though Columbus did not realize it at the time he found previously unknown lands and initiated a centuries-long quest of the Old World for power, gold, and world domination. Thus, it seems significant to analyze the primary sources from the period of late 15th century with an aim to better understand the motivations and justifications underlying the occurring processes, as well as actions and opinions of the key personalities of the time. The current paper is aimed at providing a brief analysis of the primary source, namely Columbus’ Letter to the King and Queen of Spain, 1494. Close reading of the letter reveals that Spanish colonization, on the whole, and Columbus’ actions, in particular, were driven predominantly by their aspirations to retrieve gold, open and claim new lands, and spread Catholicism in the opened lands.
The letter is a remarkable and significant primary source, both in terms of its importance for understanding Columbus as a famous personality and explorer who opened the New World, as well as for analysis of the key factors driving the Spanish royals who sponsored various quests and trips. From the first glance, it becomes obvious that Columbus was a well-spoken and clever man who was extremely polite, but did not waste time on unnecessary pleasantries. The letter has a standard opening with a highly respectful salutation: “Most High and Mighty Sovereigns” (Columbus). Throughout the letter, Columbus emphasized his loyalty to and respect for the king and the queen, using such phrases as “In obedience to your Highnesses’ commands” and constantly mentioning percentages of gold belonging to “your Highnesses” (Columbus). Ending of the letter is respectful and testifies to Columbus’ politeness and knowledge of the court etiquette. Hence, he wrote: “I beg your Highnesses to hold me in your protection; and I remain, praying our Lord God for your Highnesses’ lives and the increase of much greater States” (Columbus). Although, the exact date of the letter remains unknown and is only hypothesized to be the year of 1494, it is evident from the letter that Columbus had not fallen into disgrace at the court. However, he did not overuse meaningless polite phrases and the overwhelming majority of statements, presented in the letter, concern the detailed suggestions and a well-developed plan of actions related to further colonization of the Island of Espanola and neighboring islands. It is also evident that Columbus did not realize that he had managed to open a previously unknown land, even though he did not explicitly say this in the letter under consideration.
Several key topics and motives in the letter can be discerned. First of all, Columbus supposed that there was a chance and even a need to find several settlements on the Island of Espanola, as a safe harbor and starting point for further exploration. With this purpose, he had found two thousand of “colonists who desire to go thither” (Columbus). Besides, he did not want to take only sailors and traders, but also looked for farmers, which means that the intended settlements were expected to be long-term, if not permanent. In fact, Columbus presented a rather detailed plan of how settlements should have been founded and run. Thus, he mentioned that the optimum number of towns was three or four and his vision of the towns’ governance was quite bureaucratic and in general followed the example of “the use and custom in Castile” (Columbus).
Secondly, Columbus and, respectively, Spain did not plan to limit colonization to only one opened island deemed suitable for living and farming. It is obvious from the fact that trading with neighboring islands and search for new lands that could be claimed a part of the Spanish empire was encouraged to continue. Thirdly, religion played an essential role in the colonization and was actually one of the primary drivers that encouraged the Spanish monarchs to sponsor Columbus’ trips. The significance of Catholicism and the church is seen from Columbus’ plans of new towns, each of which had to have a church and “parish priests or friars to administer the sacraments, to perform divine worship, and for the conversion of the Indians” (Columbus). Besides, 1% of all found gold had to be donated for building churches and maintenance of priests, which was likely a significant amount at that time.
Nonetheless, the overarching motive of the letter under analysis was gold. Columbus examined and presented his views on various scenarios, involving gold search, possession, taxation, transportation, and the like (Columbus). His approach to the issue was highly bureaucratic and benefitted, first and foremost, the monarchs and governors, one of whom he was made by the king. Therefore, the letter makes it obvious that further colonization was spurred by a belief that the new lands abounded in gold that could be appropriated. However, the history showed that there was not so much gold, as believed, despite Spaniards’ attempts to find among native tribes and take it away through any means. Moreover, Columbus planned to share profits from the found gold with the king and the queen generously, in order to remain in their favor.
Withal, analysis of the primary source under consideration allows making several conclusions about Columbus as a personality and Spanish colonization of the new lands. Hence, Columbus was a well-spoken, polite, cunning, and thorough man who was also loyal to the crown and had a vision of how the opened lands could be settled and exploited to derive the most benefits from them. In terms of Spanish colonization, its primary drivers seemed to be the quest for gold as a source of power and dominance and spread of Catholicism among native tribes with a view to making it a world dominant religion.