The exploits of Christopher Columbus are well known to Americans today, but did you know that the first biography of Columbus ever published was printed in a bible? A 1516 Psalter published by a Genoese noble named Agostino Giustiniani (1470-1536) had a note appended to Psalm 19:4, which detailed the life of Columbus, a fellow native of Genoa. This Psalter was exhibited in MOBIA’s Rare Bible show, A Light to the Nations: America’s Earliest Bibles (1532-1864). As translated by Liana Lupas, Curator of the Rare Bible Collection @ MOBIA, the biography, written in Latin, begins: “Their words will go to the ends of the world: It happened in our time, when practically another world was discovered and added to Christendom through the amazing daring of Christopher Columbus of Genoa.”
The full biography reads:
“Their words will go to the ends of the world: It happened in our time, when practically another world was discovered and added to Christendom through the amazing daring of Christopher Columbus of Genoa. Since Columbus often declared that God had chosen him to fulfill this prophecy through him, I have not considered it inappropriate to insert here his biography. Christopher, surnamed Columbus, a citizen of Genoa, born to a humble family, through his diligence explored in a few months more land and sea than almost all other men during all past centuries. This fact is extraordinary, but one which has been investigated and verified by the evidence of many ships and also of fleets and armies who have gone and came back.
As a child, Columbus had barely a rudimentary education. He devoted his adolescent years to seafaring and, when his brother left for Portugal and opened a business in Lisbon of drawing maps for sailors, depicting the seas and the ports and the coasts, he learned all that his brother had come to know about the gulfs and the islands from the many men who, by royal command, would go and explore each year the inaccessible lands of the Ethiopians and the remote regions of the ocean southward and westward. After many discussions with these men and comparing the information he got from them with the conclusions he had drawn both from poring over the maps and from reading the cosmographers, he formed the opinion that it would be quite possible for a man leaving the African coast of the Ethiopians and keeping a straight course between west and the African sea, to reach in a few months either an island, or the border of the Indian continent.
He examined very carefully the information he gained from his brother, and after serious consideration he shared his belief with several of the king of Spain’s courtiers that if only the king would support the venture with the necessary means, he would be able to reach new lands and new peoples far more rapidly than the Portuguese, and discover at last regions previously unknown. This was swiftly reported to the king. Prompted partly by his eagerness to rival the king of Portugal, and partly by his passion fornew ventures of this kind and for the glory it could bring him and his descendants, the king held protracted negotiations with Columbus and finally ordered two vessels to be equipped for him.
Setting out with these vessels and sailing towards the Canary Isles, Columbus adopted a course which deviated slightly to the left from a westward line, between the African Sea and West, more distant though from the African Sea and almost due West. When they had followed this course for several days they discovered through calculations they had already travelled four million paces in the same direction, and the crew lost all hope. They insisted that the sails be furled and the course reversed, but Columbus was determined to achieve what he had undertaken, following his theories as closely as possible, so he promised they would reach a continent or some islands by sailing no longer than a day.
His words did not lack confirmation. Next morning, to be sure, the sailors sighted some land; they praised him, and again put all their faith in him. There were some islands, almost innumerable, as it proved later, situated not far from a continent, as their appearance indicated. It was noticed that some of these islands were inhabited by savage men, named cannibals, who did not shrink from eating human flesh and harassed the neighboring peoples with plundering. They hollowed out great trees to use in crossing to the nearby islands and hunted men for food, like wolves. By good fortune, one of these small vessels was captured with its rowers, after a bloody fight, and conveyed safely to Spain.
The first island to be discovered was named Hispana. In this island they found countless human beings, remarkable for their poverty and nudity. At first the Spaniards invited these people to join them in a friendly way by motioning and luring them with presents. When the natives came nearer, they were obviously amazed and stupefied by our whiteness, so unlike theirs, our clothes, our unexpected arrival, and all the other things belonging as it were to beings descended from heaven. To be sure, their color is quite different from ours, not at all black, though, but very like gold. A kind of cloak was hanging around their necks and clung to their breasts covering their private parts like a robe. A little gold is attached to this garment, which is worn both by males and the females who are no longer maidens. For the maidens go naked till some skilled men deprive them of their virginity with a bone instrument similar to a finger.
They do not have any four-footed animals, except for some very small dogs. Their food consists of roots from which they make a kind of bread which tastes like wheat bread, and of acorns, which have a different shape from ours, but taste better.
With his goal now achieved Columbus decided to go back to Spain. He fortified the first place he had occupied and leaving only forty men to guard it he sailed to Spain. Being blessed with a safe trip, as soon as he reached the Canaries he sent messengers with letters for the king. On being informed about everything, the king was immoderately pleased and made Columbus head of maritime affairs and bestowed great honors upon him. As he returned, all the noblemen came to meet him, and the discoverer of a new world was received with great joy.
Without delay they equipped other ships, far more numerous and larger than the first ones, and loaded them with all kinds of things. Spain sent her poisons to an innocent world. Many garments of silk and gold were loaded aboard; and Luxury, not content with her triumph over our own world, sailed to these pure and innocent people. The woods, which were hardly able to satisfy our gluttony, though almost drained by continuous hunting, sent boar and hog to these most distant regions, to distend their unsuspecting bellies. And with them sailed men able to heal through the art of Aesculapius the diseases resulting from a stimulated gluttony that would inevitably overcome these people. Seeds and young trees were brought in. Later, however, it was discovered that when wheat was first sowed it seemed to flourish, but then it would wither, as if nature was condemning the new kind of food and commending them to be content with their roots.
Columbus, then, weighing anchor with a fleet of twelve ships, equipped with arms, men, and an abundance of everything landed in the island Hispana after sailing no longer than twenty days. He found out that the men he had left behind had all been strangled by the barbarians on the pretense that they had been disrespectful and abusive to their women. He accused them of cruelty and ingratitude, but seeing their willingness to repent he offered them pardon if they would remain faithful and obey his commands in the future.
He then sent scouts in all directions and discovered that the island was remarkable for its large size, its moderate temperature, the fecundity of its soil, and its large population. Since it was also reported that gold of the purest quality could be found in certain places in the rocks near the rivers, and that a seed that looked and tasted very much like pepper grew in abundance in the fields, he decided to found a city. So they gathered together materials, and by employing skilled workmen, in a short while they built a city which was named Elizabeth. Columbus took two ships and circled the island. Then, coasting the shore of the continental region which he had named Juana, he sailed along its coast for seventy-one days with his prow directed constantly towards the setting sun. Being quite experienced in appraising the course at sea, he counted the days and the nights and determined he had covered six million paces. He named the promontory where he stopped Evangelist and decided to reverse course and return there later, when he would be better prepared and better informed. For during the voyage he had marked on a map all the gulfs, shores, and promontories.
He reported that this part of the universe had an elevation of 18 degrees northern latitude, while the north shore of the island Hispana had 24 degrees of the same latitude. He learned from what his own men observed, assuming they were able to form a correct opinion, that the eclipse which took place in the year of Our Lord 1494, in the month of September, was visible in Hispana almost four hours earlier than in Hispalis, whose vernacular name is Sevilla. Based on this reckoning, Columbus assumed there were four hours between that island and Cadix, ten hours between Cadix and Evangelist, which was accordingly no more than two hours (that is one twelfth of the equator) distant from the place Ptolemy called Cattigara and considered to be the last point of the inhabited world in the East. If the land was not an obstacle to navigation, it would soon be possible by sailing towards the Far East through the whole southern part of our hemisphere to make connection with those who would travel westward, in the opposite direction.
When he completed these extraordinary voyages, Columbus returned to Spain and ended the course of his life. The King, who had conferred upon him many privileges during his life, after his death granted that his son should succeed him and have the superintendence of the Indies and the Ocean Sea. He is still alive, a man of the highest rank and greatest wealth. The grandest families in Spain have not disdained to be related by marriage to a young man of such distinguished nobility and character.
Columbus did not forget his beloved country on his deathbed. He left the tenth part of all the revenues he had while alive to an institution called Saint George, which is most important to the Genoese and is an object of honor and reverence in the whole republic.
Thus ended the life of a very famous man, who no doubt would have been considered a god, had he lived in the age of the Greek heroes.”
Translated by Liana Lupas