Yesterday, I presented Leo Weiner’s “translation” of Columbus’ journal of the third voyage of 1498 in which Weiner claimed that black people had come from the south with gold alloys. He viewed this as evidence of transoceanic contact with Africa, and so far as I could find, his version of the material is the only extant English translation. Weiner paraphrased Columbus as stating that King Juan of Portugal had told him that merchants from Guinea had sailed to islands in the west, and he then quotes Columbus as saying he wanted
to verify on his way the opinion of King Don Juan, and he wanted to find out what the Indians of Hispaniola had told him, that there had come to it from the south and southeast Negro people, who brought those spear points made of a metal which they call guanin, of which he had sent to the king and queen for assaying, and which was found to have in thirty-two parts eighteen of gold, six of silver, and eight of copper.
As I noted yesterday, I wasn’t able to trace this back to an original source. One of the posters on my blog yesterday helpfully pointed to a source for the Italian edition of Columbus’s journal of the third voyage, but a review of the text does not turn up the passage in question. (I later found an English translation, but again no luck.)
Weiner cited the 26-volume Italian-language 1892 omnibus of all the collected materials about Columbus, and I believe that in that edition material from other sources was included to represent passages redacted from the extant journal. The primary source for this additional material was Bartolomé de Las Casas’s History of the Indies, which included sections based directly on Columbus’s journals.
That the text in question was not the Italian text of the published third journal (a Spanish text was published as well, but not cited by Weiner) was confirmed by Jack D. Forbes, the Native American advocate whose Africans and Native Americans (1993) tried to make the case for trans-ocean contact. In his book, he presents quotations he implies were from Columbus, and they are in Spanish. Searching out the origin of this text led me back to Bartolomé de Las Casas, the actual author of the quoted words, who writes:
y que quiere ver cuál era la opinion del rey D. Juan de Portogal, que decia que al Austro habia tierra firme …y que despues navegarian, placiendo á Nuestro Señor, al Poniente, y de ahi pasaria á esta Española, en el cual camino veria la opinion del rey D.Juan, susodicha. Y que pensaba experimentar lo que decian los indios de esta Española, que habia venido á ella, de la parte del Austro y del Sueste, gente negra, y que trae los hierros de las acagayas de un metal que llaman guanine… (1.132)
According to De Las Casas, the King’s opinion derived from a story he had been told a bit earlier about lands that extended beyond the Cape Verde islands:
…y que el rey D. Juan tenia gran inclinacion de enviar á descubrir al Sudoeste, y que se habian hallado canoas, que salian de la costa de Guinea, que navegaban al Oeste con mercadurias. (1.130)
This, then, is the source for Weiner, who is translating more or less correctly, though with two glaring errors, the first being the direction of travel (which we’ll discuss below) and the second being the transformation of the gente negra into the scientific term (of that age) for African people, Negros. The phrase means literally “black people,” and while it is today used to mean Africans, in Columbus’ day, as evidence by his own letters, it referred only to the relative darkness of skin regardless of what we would today classify as race. In
This story is not exactly hidden history, appearing as it does in Washington Irving’s influential biography of Columbus, from Las Casas. However, Weiner appears to be the first to have read the two chapters (130 and 132) as closely connected, misconstruing two separate tests of whether there was a mainland south of the various Atlantic islands as part of one question connected to Guinean voyages to Cape Verde. Columbus merely meant that he could, in one trip, knock off the two questions by sailing a more southerly route looking for land south of Hispaniola:
Thence I went to the Canaries, from which islands I sailed with but one ship and two caravels, having dispatched the other ships to Española by the direct road to the Indies; while I myself moved southward, with the view of reaching the equinoctial line, and of then proceeding westward, so as to leave the island of Española to the north. (trans. R. H. Major—yes, the Henry Sinclair conspiracy-monger)
Forbes similarly reads Las Casas’s (untranslated) material as proof that the Portuguese had discovered Guinean canoes in America, which is impossible since the Portuguese had not yet explored America. The context makes plain that Juan was speaking of canoes found in Portuguese territory in Western Africa and the islands off the African coast. Obviously, if the Portuguese found the boats, the voyages from Guinea never returned home. It sounds like these were old shipwrecks or abandoned boats that washed up on shore at some indeterminate time.
I have no idea how Weiner came to believe that Las Casas’s chapters were somehow Columbus’s journal. (Las Casas produced a redacted version of Columbus’s journals, which is all we have of them.) It’s possible that the 1892 edition of the journal, which I have not seen, included more material than the 1841 version or the English translation of R. H. Major; it is also possible that he misread passages from Las Casas included as supplements or notes as part of the original. He cites pages 5 and 6 of the 1892 edition, which I believe are 17 and 18 of the 1841 text. In that section, Columbus does mention the kings (plural) of Portugal and their attempts to colonize Guinea, but it does not include the specific language Weiner uses. The 1841 text, though does have editor’s notes directing the reader to Las Casas, probably repeated in 1892, which may be how Weiner ended up there.
For many years, though, Las Casas’s text was inaccessible because it existed in manuscript form only. Even today, it has only limited distribution in English translation; the only translation I know was done in 1971, and it does not translate these sections. As a result, for a long time the only source of information was Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas’s Historia general de los hechos de los Castellanos en las islas y tierra firme del Mar Oceano (1601), which based the relevant chapters on a close paraphrase of Las Casas:
Y determinando tambien de navegar al Sur, por entender si se enganaba el Rei D. Juan de Portugal, que afirmaba, que al Sur havia Tierra-firme, Miercoles à quatro de Julio, mandò governar la via de el Sudueste, no haviendo visto, despues que llegò à las Islas de Cabo Verde, el Sol, ni las Estrellas, sino los Cielos cubiertos de espesissima nieblina. Dixo tambien, que por aquel camino pensaba experimentar lo que decian los Indios de la Espanola, que havian ido à ella, de la parte del Sur, i de Sudueste, Gente negra, que traía los hierros de las Acagayas, de vn Metal, que llamaban Guanin…etc. etc.
It’s interesting that both Herrera and Las Casas use the word for “southwest” (sudoeste or sueste) to describe the direction of the “black people” relative to Hispaniola, but Weiner renders this as “southeast,” which would be sudeste in Spanish. That little vowel makes a big difference, but what is astounding is that Jack D. Forbes, who quotes the original Spanish of Las Casas, also and apparently independently (though I believe he was actually working backward from Wiener) asserts that the word means “southeast.” Obviously, all other Afrocentrist writers are copying from one or the other, usually Weiner.
This is a fun problem. The trouble stems from Las Casas’s word sueste, which in modern Spanish is a contraction of sudeste (southeast) as su(d)este; however, in consulting older Spanish dictionaries, from the 1700s and earlier, we find that sueste used to be an abbreviation for sudueste (southwest) as s(ud)ueste, with the o of oeste weakening to a u. (Las Casas also uses the obsolete direction austro instead of sur for south, so obviously we need to be looking at older versions of Spanish directions.) This is certainly how Herrara read Las Casas, and how other Spanish writers of the time understood the word.
This more or less random change in Spanish abbreviations let Weiner and Forbes make the “black people” come from the “southeast” and therefore Africa, while Las Casas and Herrera talk of the “southwest”, meaning Venezuela and Mesoamerica.
I hope this finally solves this painfully dense “mystery.”
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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