The Diario de a bordo de Cristóbal Colón is a document that can be read in multiple ways. The text is most commonly read as a referential primary source of “truth” about what happened during Columbus’s first voyage to America in 1492-1493, but it can also be read as a rhetorical text that constructs a highly subjective narrative about the Americas (Reading Columbus, Zamora 3). The question of authorship challenges the nature of the log as a first person testimony and suggests that it is, in fact, referentially unreliable.
One way to read the log is as a reliable primary source of Columbus’ s first voyage. The text begins with a prologue followed by first person journal entries dating from Friday August 3, 1492 through March 15, 1493. Columbus sets out on August 3rd and the primary obsession of the mariners quickly (and understandably) becomes land. On September 16th the sailors begin spotting signs such as clumps of grass, branches, tortoises, crabs and certain birds, which they take to be evidence of land. On October 12, 1493 they see land and the focus of the entries turns to describing and possessing the peoples, the resources and the lands: “Con todo, mi volutad era de no pasar por ninguna isla de que no tomase posesión, puesto que, tomado de una, se puede decir de todas…y ellos, que eran muchos, así desnudos y de la misma condición de la otra isla de San Salvador” ( Diario de a bordo, 15 de octubre 1492)
The log can also be read with a critical eye on the authorship of the text. The original Diario is missing and the version that exists is a transcription by Bartólome de las Casas that includes his own personal notes that paraphrase what Columbus writes in the log (Zamora 42). “Las Casas’ edition has been allowed to take its place, as if it were a literal transcription of Columbus’ words” (Zamora 42). Yet, according to Zamora, Las Casas’ commitment to the indigenous cause was likely to shape his editorial decisions. Zamora argues that even his paraphrasing is inherently subjective because it emphasizes what Las Casas as the mediating reader finds relevant about the source. In Diario de a bordo Bartolome de las Casas narrates what Columbus (as a third person) said and did: ”[Él] Navegó aquel día con su noche 27 leguas camino al oeste y algunas más. Y en esta noche al principio de ella [ELLOS] vieron caer del cielo un maravilloso ramo de fuego en la mar, lejos de ellos 4 ó 5 leguas”.
The prologue is also problematic given that, as Margarita Zamora suggests, it was likely intended only as a cover letter that Bartólome de las Casas positions as the prologue. This “prologue” shifts the way that the entire log is read. “Rather than serving an informative function (that is, communicating accurate information about extrinsic events), the prologue has as its primary purpose a hortatory, or performative, function. It seeks to engender an attitude in the recipients of the message, conducing its readers to action of a particular kind.” (Zamora 22).
The emphasis of the prologue is on evangelization whereas Margarita Zamora shows that the tone of the log is mercantalistic and imperialistic. De las Casas was a vocal advocate against the Spanish mistreatment of the Indians and may have edited the original log to emphasize and construct Columbus as an exemplary “discoverer.”
In sum, it is important to consider the nature of Diario de a bordo; is it a testimonial text, a literary invention of Bartolome de las Casas, or a hybrid of both? What does it mean that a text with questionable authorship continues to be afforded the privileges of constructing the “truth” about the past?